How KiwiRail got off track

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 9 May 2023

Commuter rail services in Auckland and Wellington have hit major problems in the last week or so, with the fault laying squarely with KiwiRail. How have things gotten so bad at the state-owned rail operator?

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Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

Rail historian Andre Brett has a romantic vision for train travel in Aotearoa: it could be like Norway, where the carriages wind their way through the mountainous country, with tourists and commuters on board.

Forget about high speed trains, they're not financial viable, Brett tells The Detail from his home in Perth, where he lectures in history at Curtin University. 

"But on our track, straightforward affordable upgrades can give us efficient trains that can go at 160km/h," he says.

Queensland in Australia already does it on a railway network much like New Zealand's, in a sprawling state with a sparse population.

Brett - the author of the book Can't Get There from Here: New Zealand's Shrinking Passenger Rail Network, 1920-2020 - realised the importance of rail growing up on the Kāpiti Coast, with the main trunk railway nearby, the Wellington Tramway Museum in Paraparaumu and Steam Incorporated Railway Company in Paekākāriki.

"You see what rail has meant to New Zealand," he says.

But things have changed.

"We've had decades of under-investment in the rail network and policies that since the 1950s have focused very single-mindedly on roads. That's not going to be turned around overnight," he says.

Passengers faced major disruption in Wellington last week, with only half the usual train services running over three days. 

KiwiRail blamed a failure of maintenance scheduling, compounded by its only high-tech track evaluation machine breaking down. The government and KiwiRail are both holding reviews into what happened.

Later in the week, in Auckland, KiwiRail was forced to apologise after dozens of trains were cancelled, disrupting thousands of commuters, when electricity began arcing from overhead electric lines in Newmarket. It blamed high humidity for the problem and said it had to take the safest step and cancel services.

Brett says New Zealand's railways are at a substantial disadvantage, as KiwiRail needs to catch up on a lot of essential maintenance, "nevermind expansion to have a 21st century railway, rather than one that still reflects the transport patterns and engineering techniques of the 19th century".

He explains some of the history before KiwiRail came into being - the privatisation of the railways, the asset stripping and the eventual government buyback in 2008, as well as underfunding that has led to "one blunder after another" in recent years.

Newsroom's political reporter Emma Hatton says the industry has a dysfunctional nature, with poor communications between the different agencies and companies involved.

KiwiRail, a state-owned enterprise, owns and manages the nearly 4000 kilometres of tracks and looks after the freight business, as well as the Interislander ferries, the tourist trains, and some inter-regional services. It is also charged with providing support for the passenger services in Auckland and Wellington.

Regional councils are responsible for providing the passenger rail services and contract out different parts of the system. For example, Greater Wellington Metlink train services are contracted out to overseas firm Transdev.

Overseeing it all is Waka Kotahi as the rail regulator.

"There are a lot of different players all getting into the same spaces and sometimes their aims and their lines of organisation and accountability don't seem to match up and they're on different pages," says Hatton.

Added to the complex ownership and management structure are the ongoing maintenance and upgrade issues.

"The issues in Auckland are huge," says Hatton, with passengers facing disruptions over the next few years while KiwiRail fixes stress on the lines, ahead of the opening of the City Rail Link.

She says the recent Wellington and Auckland problems reflect a much deeper systemic problem.

Brett tells The Detail what he thinks needs to happen to bring our train services up to scratch and how our railway needs the same treatment as roads.

"We shovel billions and billions of dollars every year into road construction and maintenance and we don't ask the state highway network to be returning profits. We recognise that this is important for our transport. We need to do the same with rail." 

Hear more about the recent rail fails in the full podcast episode.

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