Monday, April 7, 2014

Auckland Transport's freight train concerns

In September 2011, KiwiRail made a somewhat surprising announcement in its staff newsletter "Express", that it intended to proceed with construction of a third mainline between Otahuhu and Wiri, and eventually to Papakura.  To quote part of the the report:

Preliminary design work on a third main line to the North Island Main Trunk into Auckland between Otahuhu and Papakura has begun with the expectation that a section between Otahuhu and Wiri will be completed by mid 2013.

 “A third line would have significant benefits for both freight and metro services,” says KiwiRail Network General Manager Rick van Barneveld.

The report continued:

KiwiRail is working on a four-stage project expected to cost between $60 and $70 million dollars. Funding by other parties for some elements are expected to bring the whole project cost to around $100 million.

The announcement was a surprise to many observers at the time, as it was also known publicly that Auckland Transport was not keen to provide any funding for the project, despite the fact that their passenger services would benefit from greater separation of freight trains and suburban passenger trains.  It was this anticipated funding from Auckland Transport that was included in what the KiwiRail report refers to as "other parties".

Perhaps KiwiRail got a bit ahead of themselves by anticipating this funding contribution from Auckland Transport, but during 2012 they commenced work on the third main, constructing the formation between Otahuhu and Mangere, and between Puhinui and Homai.  January 2013 saw track reconfigurations take place at Otahuhu, and track laying commence around Wiri in association with EMU depot track construction.  However, at Wiri only the portions of third main required to provide access to the new depot were constructed.  The bulk of the third main through Wiri itself was not laid.

Third main formation construction through Wiri, January 2013.
As of April 2014, the track has still not been laid.

Third main construction at Puhinui, January 2013.

It became evident in early 2013 that the third main project had stalled because of no agreement being reached between KiwiRail and Auckland Transport around joint funding of the project.  The track was not laid through Wiri station, while the track laid at Puhinui became nothing more than a temporary backshunt for the new EMU depot.  Between Otahuhu and Mangere, the third track was not connected at the south end and has remained out of use ever since, bar a short section at the Otahuhu end, used as another temporary backshunt.

Track to nowhere: The third main at Mangere, with no
funding to complete it.

Jump forward to March 2014, and the division between Auckland Transport and KiwiRail over the third main project has become more evident, through their respective submissions to the Environmental Protection Authority over a plan change request being made by Tainui Group Holdings Ltd and Chedworth Properties Ltd in relation to their proposed industrial park for Ruakura, in Hamilton.

This industrial park is a $3 billion project to be constructed where the East Coast Main Trunk and proposed Hamilton section of the Waikato Expressway intersect, and will include a large rail-served container terminal.  It is expected that initially four freight trains per day will operate between the container terminal and Ports of Auckland, increasing to six each way as capacity at the terminal is reached.

The proposed container terminal at Ruakura.

The developers (Tainui/Chedworth) believe that the existing Auckland network (i.e., without a third main) can accomodate the new services in the short term, particularly if they operate through the Auckland area during the off-peak suburban train hours, but anticipate that the planned third main will enable the proposed future increase in services to be accomodated when they eventuate.

Auckland Transport Submission, 26th March 2014

Auckland Transport has submitted its concerns over the proposal, making several points:
  • The additional freight trains, both short term and long term, may not be able to be accomodated north of Papakura, and that the developers assessment that they can, may be premature.
  • There is no certainty that the additional freight trains will operate outside peak passenger hours.
  • There is no certainty over whether or not the third main will be built, or whether it will provide enough capacity for the Ruakura trains if it is built.
  • Concern that the developer has assumed it will be granted access to the Auckland rail network for its services when there is no such guarantee.

Auckland Transport's submission continues, by pointing out that access to the Auckland rail network is governed by the Auckland Network Access Agreement (ANAA), an 85-year agreement granting access rights to Transdev for services between Huapai and Pukekohe.  Timetables and capacity provision are decided by the Auckland Timetable Committee (ATC) which comprises representatives from Transdev, KiwiRail Freight, KiwiRail Passenger, and Auckland Transport.  The submission points out that decisions by the ATC must be unanimous to take effect.

The insinuation here is that Auckland Transport may not be willing to allow the passage of these additional freight trains.  However, the concerns appear to be based on an assumption by Auckland Transport that the additional freight trains will be operated by a party other than KiwiRail Freight, which is unlikely to be the case.  The proposed services will more than likely be operated by KiwiRail as "hook and pull" services.  Neverthess, it is clear that regardless of who operates the additional freight trains, Auckland Transport may not allow them.

KiwiRail submission, 26th March 2014

The first point made by KiwiRail in its submission is that even without the Ruakura development, there will soon be conflict between freight trains and suburban passenger trains in Auckland.

Of particular note, the submission states:

There is no doubt that the NIMT in the Auckland Network does not have capacity to accommodate the timetabling objectives of the Metro Service provider with its new trains and the freight operator at critical times of the day from 2015.

The submission then outlines a timetable of when third main work must be completed, in order to prevent capacity constraints on the Auckland network, giving a 2015 date for Westfield to Wiri, and approximately ten years later for Wiri to Papakura.  Interestingly, KiwiRail also states that should electrification be extended to Pukekohe, the third main will also need to go to Pukekohe:

In the longer term a third main will need to be built between Wiri and Pukekohe, and that may also require some passing areas, effectively a fourth main in places.

The submission continues:

The immediate solution is the completion of the third main between Westfield and Wiri, plus some reconfiguration in the Westfield and Southdown freight yards. Both ends of the third main are already in place, and the freight yard works will be complete at the end by June 2015. What remains is the 7km in the middle.


Auckland Transport and KiwiRail clearly have shared concerns over capacity constraints within the Auckland suburban network, on the North Island Main Trunk, but it's apparent that two quite different views exist as to what should be done about it.

Auckland Transport appear to favour restricting the passage of freight trains, whilst KiwiRail favour proceeding with construction of the third main, at least between Westfield and Wiri, where conflict will exist from next year even without any additional freight trains.

It is important that the rail network be developed to accomodate growth by all of its users, both freight and passenger.  Auckland Transport will benefit from greater separation of freight and passenger trains once their higher service frequency between Otahuhu and Wiri is implemented during 2015.  Auckland Transport also benefits from increased use of rail for the cartage of freight, as it keeps trucks off Auckland area roads, making them safer for other users and cheaper to maintain, and reducing air pollution for the people of Auckland.

Hopefully the funding issue can be resolved soon.  KiwiRail is already prepared to pay the lion's share.  But Auckland Transport needs to come to the party and provide some of the funding shortfall.  The matter is becoming critical, as there is only about 18 months remaining before capacity constraints cause delays to both passenger and freight trains south of Otahuhu.


  1. It seems like since the "super city council" has been formed, that they now think they hold the key playing cards. They forget they are only really new to the rail game, and they run on KR's tracks. There is the end result for AT, shape up, or we all pay the price in other ways... congestion on the road and rails.

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