Wellington Scoop

Slow as well as late – the Wairarapa trains


by Neil Douglas
Greater Wellington Regional Council has been slowing the trains down since taking charge of the timetable. It now takes five minutes longer to travel into Wellington from Masterton than it did in 2004 when Tranz Rail (as part of Toll Holdings) ran the service and did the timetable. And it takes six minutes longer to travel home again.

Back in 2004, the fastest of the ten weekday services was 90 minutes and the slowest was 101 minutes. Nowadays, the fastest is 94 minutes and the slowest 107 minutes.

Although the timings of the five inbound and five outbound weekday services have remained roughly the same with 3 peak, one off-peak and one contra-peak service, for nine of the services, travel times have lengthened by between 2 and 13 minutes. Not one of the ten services has got faster since GWRC took control.


Despite the slower timetable, the Wairarapa line has become notoriously unreliable. Between May 2016 and July 2017, only 64% of trains arrived within 5 minutes of their scheduled arrival time. GWRC blames ageing track for imposing speed restrictions (Dom Post 9/7/17). However back in 2004, Tranz Rail also had to deal with ‘ageing track’ and it didn’t have the third main line entrance into Wellington rail station which was commissioned in 2010 that was supposed to provide a step-improvement in reliability for arriving and departing trains. Tranz Rail was also using the old 56 foot carriages which required the guard to walk the train to make sure the manual doors were closed so even the new refurbished carriages with automatic doors haven’t speeded things up.

The new Matangi trains on the Hutt line hadn’t even been ordered in 2004.

Putting ‘fat in the timetable’ is an easy way to make reliability statistics look better. But if you don’t know what is causing the unreliability, then all that happens is that travel times increase but reliability stays largely unchanged. This is what GWRC has achieved. Trips now take 5 minutes longer on average but only 64% arrive ‘on time’ which compares with 85% arriving ‘on time’ in 2004. So it is both slower and less reliable.

Nevertheless, GWRC wants to impose a 3% fare rise with the single fare from Masterton – Wellington going up to $19 from July next year. Back in 2004 it was $13. In 2004, Tranz Rail discouraged Hutt commuters, especially in the evening, from taking Wairarapa seats by imposing an Upper Hutt minimum fare. In their wisdom, GWRC removed this fare penalty which has contributed to the overcrowding and increased dwell times at Petone and Waterloo stations. Apparently GWRC is currently considering ‘introducing’ higher charges for Hutt passengers to “ease pressure on Wairarapa trains”.


So in summary what has GWRC done for the Wairarapa rail user? On the positive side, carriages and stations have been refurbished but on the negative side travel times have lengthened, reliability worsened, crowding increased and fares have gone up.

I think we can safely argue that that in terms of efficiency, it would be better to go back to the operator doing the timetables and fares and being responsible for patronage and fare. GWRC could be left to look after stations and perhaps manage contract payments. If not then there is a need for an audit or regulatory body to oversee how GWRC is performing; something similar to the Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal (IPART) of NSW. The woeful performance of the Wairarapa line can’t be allowed to continue.

Neil Douglas is a transport economist and also has a nut farm in the Wairarapa


  1. Luke, 11. August 2017, 10:27

    If Wairarapa commuters want to see some money invested in their trains, they should make the local MP sweat a bit for his job this election. Without government money, things aren’t likely to improve in a hurry.

  2. Daryl Cockburn, 11. August 2017, 11:27

    Pride and enthusiasm for being in a train business is essential to grow it and keep it happy. Experienced skilled staff are available to private & public owners. The Wraps line must succeed. It’s madness to drive over the mountain, twice for every return trip. Govt must put sustainable rail first rather than tease us with concern for climate change

  3. Piglet, 11. August 2017, 11:44

    Surely for any business, determining the basics like the timetable must be a given. Taking everything away everything except manning the trains must be demoralising for the train operator. Hitting them with a stick for late running clearly isn’t working. I’ve used the Wairarapa line for 12 years but I’ve given up recently and now drive. It’s got so slow and unreliable it makes my day so frustrating to organise. Yes, I agree it was better when it was privately run and owned by Australians!

  4. Neil Douglas, 11. August 2017, 13:20

    The two photos taken today show the midday Wairarapa train nearly arriving on-time at Wellington rail station. Timetabled to arrive at 11:59, it arrived at 12:05. Only six minutes late.

  5. Daran Ponter, 13. August 2017, 19:26

    @ Luke and Darryl. I quite agree. The Government provided significant $$$ in the 2017 Budget for the replacement of traction poles on the Hutt and Johnsonville lines – which is much needed. But there is also a strong case for funding deferred maintenance (deferred by the likes of Wisconsin Rail and Toll Rail) on the Wairarapa Line. This case was made by GWRC prior to the 2017 Budget, but rejected. The local MP has been nowhere to be seen on this issue.

  6. CPH, 14. August 2017, 7:32

    Or maybe – just maybe – the Regional Council could have spent the $15million the train service re-contracting reputedly cost on actual infrastructure upgrades, rather than on a pointless process that’s resulted in higher fares and worse service.

  7. Ross Hayward, 14. August 2017, 12:21

    Up until the early 2000s Tranz Metro operated under a net funding contract from Gwrc to provide urban rail services in Wellington. This contract payment required Tmw to be responsible for managing and funding the entire business except for new rolling stock. This responsibility included fares, marketing, operations, safety, maintenance, staff, rolling stock, stations and infrastructure which included track. Check the annual amount paid by Gwrc for this all up deal – it may surprise you.

    Apart from the limitations imposed by single track the Wairarapa services were operated at significantly better levels of timekeeping than today. The electric services prior to infrastructure “upgrades” performed at much the same levels as today with similar timetables. Metro services apart from non core activities were provided by an essentially integrated professional rail business where career staff were well aware of the safety and operational efficiency requirements essential to growing the urban passenger business.

    What has changed since then is that all responsibility apart from safety and day staffing of trains has moved to Gwrc. This includes all investment in rolling stock, stations, track, systems, etc. A significant amount of that investment has been spent on infrastructure. Also all the core metro business now operates under contracts controlled by Gwrc. The rail services are now branded as Metlink and staff wear Metlink uniforms. Also check out the number of Gwrc staff and overhead cost now needed to manage urban transport in Wellington.

    So people playing the blame game for infrastructure maintenance on Toll and others need to look closely at the current business model and ask who “controls the gold”. These people should also investigate the performance and cost of providing Wellington’s urban rail services today compared to early 2000s. You may be surprised at what you find. Maybe it is time for a new business model for urban rail in Wellington?

  8. Daran Ponter, 14. August 2017, 18:52

    CPH – Where did you get $15 Million from?

  9. Ross Clark, 15. August 2017, 1:57

    Of the GWRC expenditure on rail, what is the current annual payment for rail services, and how much of that comes from the NZTA?

  10. CPH, 15. August 2017, 10:54

    Daran Ponter – from a conversation over a beer with some of the people working on one of the bids. We added up the number of people from all the bidders and the regional council working on it, multiplied it by their likely hourly rate and multiplied that by the number of working days from the beginning to the end of the process. It’s not exact, but it’s probably pretty close to what everyone spent.

    After a couple more beers we all agreed it was the most extravagant waste of money we’d ever seen in local government. Ratepayers have got precisely nothing out of it because the services are now less reliable and the fares are about to cost more! What was the point exactly? A job creation scheme for regional council staff?

  11. Doug Watson, 16. August 2017, 15:26

    The $15m figure is consistent with the jump in GW rail spend since Transdev was appointed – but I suspect is not a one off cost but an ongoing annual cost – somewhat at odds with Chris Laidlaw’s earlier claim of savings of $100m over 15 years. He does not seem to realise that costs only ever increase, and at an accelerating rate – whilst the performance indicators for the Wairarapa line head remorselessly in the opposite direction.

  12. PCGM, 16. August 2017, 19:57

    If there really are savings of $100 million over 15 years, where is all the money going? GWRC are claiming poverty on paying for the infrastructure upgrades, so it’s clearly not being spent on the rail network. Ticket prices are going up, so it’s not being spent on encouraging more people to use public transport by subsidising the fares. And reliability is going down, so it’s not being spent on better service. Perhaps someone from the Regional Council can enlighten us about what pet projects the putative savings are being used to fund.

  13. Daran Ponter, 16. August 2017, 21:09

    @ CPH. I like your creativity – brilliant. Though of course this is not the cost paid by the ratepayer. The cost saving, as identified by Doug, is $100 Million over 15 years, compared to what would have otherwise been paid under the old contract. Note that the Regional Council has recently announced that after Easter 2018, off-peak trains are set to begin running every 20 minutes, rather than every half hour, on the Johnsonville, Kapiti and Hutt Valley lines.

    I agree, agree, agree with the comments and concerns about the Wairarapa line. I accept that the Regional Council will and does attract the bulk of criticism for the delays. The Regional Council (you the ratepayer) pay track charges for the privilege of running the Metlink trains on Kiwirail lines. These track charges are supposed to pay for the maintenance of the tracks. But we now face a situation where deferred maintenance over many decades by previous owners and Kiwirail has caught up with us.

    The cost of bringing the Waiararapa Line up to par is estimated at approx $50-60 Million. We are arguing that the Government should pay the majority of this cost as Kiwirail runs freight services on this line and the patronage on the line avoids road maintenance costs.

    Yes, the trains have got slower. If there are pot holes on the road and no money to fix them a sign goes up reducing the speed from 100, 80, 50 or 30 km/hr. Same situation on the Wairarapa Line.

    Now brace yourselves – unless there is a funding commitment from government, which the Regional Council can match – this situation will only get worse. For the Regional Council’s part we lobbied for $$$ in the 2017 Budget but were denied (but we did get $98 Million for traction poles). We will do so again for the 2018 Budget.

    With respect to rolling stock the Regional Council has started initial work on planning for a new fleet of diesel electric multiple units – to cover the Wairarapa line and the Palmerston North (Capital Connection) line. Again this requires a Government contribution. And from the day we push “Build” it is still likely to take three years to roll these units out.

  14. Piglet, 17. August 2017, 9:04

    Given that the old contract was with Kiwirail, what would they have spent the $100million on? Has the deal negotiated by GWRC lawyers and contract staff (I see the redacted rail contract extended to a whopping 247 pages and this excludes the important bits on reliability) just led to a reduction in train crew wages and less maintenance, or to less management overheads? Remember there are no free lunches in PT contract negotiations!

    I have heard that Transdev plans to not wait for last passengers to catch the train since it compromises their reliability and hence might incur a penalty from GWRC. Transdev is contractually obliged to care less about passengers since they don’t keep the ticket revenue.

  15. Neil Douglas, 17. August 2017, 9:19

    So Daran are you saying that the amount GWRC pays Kiwirail on our behalf is insufficient to maintain the track? There are only ten passenger services a day ( 5 each way) to manage! How much is paid for the Upper Hutt to Masterton section and what should you be paying to keep track speeds where they were in 2004 when Toll Holdings ran the service?

    How much is Transdev paying in fines for late running or are they arguing it’s the counci’s fault for not paying enough to Kiwirail to keep the track up to standard?

    I can see only lawyers and consultants winning out of this convoluted business model. It has to be simplified to stop waste and underperformance. With a unified Wairarapa council looming, the performance of the GWRC is going to questioned even more.

  16. CPH, 17. August 2017, 21:12

    Daran Ponter – I accept your point that the $15 million cost of the procurement process wasn’t borne exclusively by ratepayers. But in the real world, all the staff who worked on both the successful and unsuccessful bids did get paid their salaries, so the total costs of the process are valid. Think of the $15 million as the deadweight drag the Regional Council has imposed on the wider economy.

    In this context the comment from PCGM following mine pertains – what exactly are the benefits from this? If service levels have fallen, fares risen and the infrastructure deficits remain unaddressed, then it’s an open question as to what the putative savings are being spent on.

  17. Ross Clark, 17. August 2017, 21:54

    We’ve been here before. Back in the day, I can recall a time (early calendar-2003) when TranzRail as-was had agreed to a maintenance programme in the Wellington (metro) network, then stopped said programme when they ran out of money. The result was that come the first phase of warm weather, trains were affected by significant heat restrictions and the Regional Council got very difficult with TranzRail (or more specifically, its metro arm) because of the resulting poor performance. To jog our collective memories:


    The problem is we have not resolved how much we should be spending on the railway network in Wellington as a whole, and then how the burden of that expenditure should be split between regional and central government. This debate has been going on since the mid-1980s; we are no closer to an answer.

  18. Daran Ponter, 18. August 2017, 0:05

    Hi Piglet – The savings we have made with Transdev only relate to the operation of the trains, not the maintenance of the track. This was also the case with Kiwirail – where we essentially had two contracts, one for running the trains and one for maintaining the track.

    Under the new arrangements, Transdev now operate the trains but Kiwirail continue to own and maintain the tracks. The Kiwirail staff who were operating the Metlink services were transferred to Transdev under the same terms and conditions. There is less train maintenance under the new contract as the trains are largely new – but maintenance costs will creep up over time.

    Yes, under the new contracting arrangements GWRC keep the fare revenue and there are time penalties. I don’t believe that this means that Transdev care any less for their passengers than Kiwirail did. Metlink customer lines would run hot if this were the case. On all of the network (except Wairarapa), reliability has improved significantly since the Matangi trains were introduced.

    Hi Neil. Yes, that is what I am saying – the amount we pay Kiwirail is currently insufficient to maintain the track. It doesn’t matter how many trains a day there are on the Wairarapa line – if the track is shot, it is shot. I will ask how much we pay for track maintenance for the Upper Hutt to Masterton section. I will also ask whether any fines have been paid by Transdev.

    Hi CPH – The tendering process that GWRC went through is a process required by statute. This model is called PTOM (Public Transport Operating Model) – see http://www.nzta.govt.nz/assets/resources/ptom-implementation-update/docs/ptom-information-sheet.pdf. PTOM was put in place by the Land Transport Management Amendment Act 2013. Councils are obliged by this legislation to use PTOM. All train, bus and ferry services across the region, and indeed across the country, are progressively being tendered (unless exempt), using PTOM.

    Service levels have fallen on one line. On the rest of the network they have been rising. On the Wairarapa line the service level can’t, I believe, be attributed to the operator, as this is a consequence of a lack of investment over many decades. We were already experiencing problems with the line under Kiwirail. And don’t forget that Kiwrail locomotives continue to haul the Wairarapa services.

    Fares have not risen since 2013. There is currently a proposal to increase fares by 3% average across the network but this is part of a much bigger shakeup of fare products that will result in many users paying less for their fares (Off-peak discounts, free fare transfer on buses, student fare discounts, free bus connector services to rail). This proposal is on the GWRC website and open for consultation.

  19. ND, 18. August 2017, 9:46

    Piglet, I have just looked at the full rail contract and it is 891 pages long (according to PDF (as the pages aren’t numbered 1-891) when you ask to print the documents of which there are 3). I wonder how much the lawyers were paid? Probably ran into the millions of dollars. Could have re-ballasted the track for that much?

    Must be somewhat off-putting for any operator to have to wade through such incredibly lengthy tomes to read that you shan’t run an extra service, that every cent is the Regional Council’s, that you shan’t market your services without GWRC say so, and to learn to calculate how 2 late services will cost you XXX dollars after filling in equations extending over several pages.

    I think that back in the mid-noughties, the rail-GWRC contract was less than 30 pages.