Wellington Scoop

Train chaos follows six months of rail failures – who’s responsible?

Photo: Patrick Morgan

In the midst of a heatwave, Wellington’s trains ground to a halt yesterday because of a major power outage. The result was chaos as thousands struggled to get home in the heat and traffic congestion, with delays and restrictions lasting well into this morning. This is the latest in a series of management failures and operational disasters that have plagued the network over the last six months or more.

Before Christmas, an inquiry was announced into the breakdowns and operational shambles that have plagued the Wairarapa line.

This was hot on the heels of two network-wide strikes, caused by the apparent unwillingness of Transdev to match the pay and conditions that staff had previously experienced under the earlier KiwiRail contract. And every day on MetLink’s text alert system there seems to be a drum-beat of delays, failures, “operational issues” and general systemic malaise.

Part of the problem with the trains seems to stem from the level of bureaucracy and complexity in Wellington’s rail network. For the uninitiated, here’s more or less how it works … at least, as far as us mere mortals can understand it.

The Regional Council pays for the train service, and is ultimately accountable for its performance. Your Regional Council rates are a big (but falling) portion, with around 55% of the cost of the system being paid for out of regional rates, the balance coming from fares. This is the lowest subsidy level in the country, and has been slowly and inexorably decreasing over the last 15 years or more as the costs have been shifted to commuters in an apparent bout of user-pays neoliberal enthusiasm from councillors.

This is a trend that’s set to continue as the council again hikes fares in the coming months – although the effects are becoming a bit ridiculous. Get on the train from Wellington to Petone, and a casual one-way ticket will set you back $5.50 for a trip of less than 11 km – and that’s before the council raises the fares. Give it a few years and it will be cheaper to Uber your way from station to station than take the train.

So the Regional Council are the ones that hold the purse strings, and dispense the money to the operators. Oh, and they also own the electric trains and the carriages, but not the diesel engines (those belong to KiwiRail).

Next in line are the people who run the train services, Transdev. They collect the fares, employ the staff, operate the carriages (but not the diesel engines) and run the timetable. These are the people who were awarded the operating contract by the Regional Council a couple of years ago, over the top of long-term operators KiwiRail, and who then got into a dispute with the staff union over pay and conditions. You’ll remember the strikes from last year when the disagreements bubbled over into the first industrial action on the network since 1994.

What Transdev don’t own, however, are the rails and associated infrastructure such as overhead poles – that still belongs to KiwiRail.

So the Council are responsible for the services, which are contracted out to Transdev who operate the trains, that run on Kiwirail’s network. Got that? But wait, there’s more!

All of this has a stunning degree of operational and management complexity to go with it. For instance, train timetables need to be negotiated between all the parties, to make sure the services have trains on the platform with staff to run them (Transdev), don’t clash with any freight services and other operational requirements on the network (KiwiRail), that there is a bus to meet the train (the Regional Council, but through the bus contract), and that the fare subsidy makes sense for all concerned (the Regional Council). And that’s before we get into the detail of which bit of hardware is owned by whom and who actually pays the power bill.

Apparently, all this complexity was put in place in the name of “efficiency” – perhaps the most impressive statement of post-modern irony imaginable.

In light of this, you’d think that the Regional Council would be stepping up to reassure Wellington’s commuters that the system was not a patchwork quilt of operational gaps and management mis-steps. After all, they are the ones who designed the web of contracted services, who dispense the money and are ultimately accountable for the outcomes.

No such luck.

At the time of writing, the council’s website was eerily silent on the whole subject of the trains – the challenges of toxic algae were getting more of a run than thousands upon thousands of people who’d been stranded in public transport hell. And more importantly, there has been complete radio silence from the politicians accountable for the debacles.

The buck for the performance of the trains ultimately stops with Cr Barbara Donaldson, who is the Chair of the Regional Transport Committee. She appears to have been involved in every major decision that has led to the chaos we saw on Tuesday – the re-tendering of the operational contract that led to lower service levels and strikes, the lack of forward planning for future capital investment in the network, the decision to ramp the fares whilst running down the service, the attempt to gain efficiency by pushing layer upon layer of bureaucratic complexity into every facet of running the trains.

If there is one person who is accountable for the mess, then it’s presumably Cr Donaldson.

So the question is, will she do the right thing by admitting the errors and resign? Or will she attempt to cling to her ratepayer-funded salary whilst Wellington’s train service descends to Third World levels of reliability?


  1. luke, 31. January 2018, 19:56

    time to vote the muppets at gwrc out for giving the contract to transdev who don’t appear capable of organising a booze up in a brewery. Gwrc decisions have ruined everything.

  2. Dave B, 31. January 2018, 20:30

    Also to blame for this are successive governments which have continually altered the rules on provision of public transport services, always with a view to driving down subsidies and in practice making fares higher. The latest is the Public Transport Operating Model which was forced on us by the former National government and has the same basic agenda. GWRC simply goes along with this.

    Question is, are we going to see the new govt do anything to intervene? No sign of it happening yet.

  3. Michael Barnett, 31. January 2018, 21:03

    Dave B. Quite right in what you say. Even now the NZTA is pushing on with its plans for an uneconomic highway through to Levin. Time this government stepped in and said halt and started to divert investment into rail based systems and coastal shipping.

  4. TrevorH, 31. January 2018, 22:25

    Yes the system is nuts and has its origins in the Treasury driven convulsions of the mid 1980s, introduced under the Lange Labour government while activists were happily distracted protesting “nuclear ships”. Parallels can obviously be found in the electricity (National government) and health sectors which have led to massive, expensive corporate bureaucracies and systemic dysfunction. Under the delusion that “there is no alternative”, no subsequent government has been prepared to address the core philosophical problem which requires the repudiation of the failed neoliberal model. It is unlikely there will be any change, even as services descend to Third World levels of efficiency.

  5. Ross Clark, 1. February 2018, 1:22

    Dave B – this is all about money, and at the heart of it, the unwillingness of Central Government to support public transport with any degree of generosity. Then, the Regional Council know that there is only so much they can contribute from rates before they face a revolt. So – the user bears the brunt of higher fares. Who pays for transport in Wellington is a question we have been wrestling with for over thirty years and we are no closer to a definitive answer.

    Michael – while I see a lot of enthusiasm for spending more on rail, I don’t see any enthusiasm for spending less on roads. I can recall Dave Watson being asked at a conference once if he wanted more rail or more roads for the region and he replied, “We want both!” Also, coastal shipping mostly competes for traffic with rail – not with the trucking industry.

  6. Glenn B, 1. February 2018, 6:45

    Thought this was an article on rail, didnt take long to divert the subject to that old chestnut roading….once again. Good luck with getting ships to and from Levin Michael.

  7. CPH, 1. February 2018, 8:18

    Michael Barnett – Even if the current government stopped the highway investment tomorrow, it wouldn’t make the slightest impact on the train service in Wellington as GWRC are still in charge of it!

    The rail problems aren’t down to a lack of money, it’s a basic lack of organisational competence. Bigger cheques are no help when the people concerned aren’t up to the job.

  8. Jonny Utzone, 1. February 2018, 10:52

    It’s not all about a lack of money, it’s the convoluted organizational structure with responsibility governed by bureaucrats and lawyers nitpicking over clauses in contractual documents running to hundreds of pages that sap initiative from engineers and operators and add millions to the cost of providing transport services.

    When it was privately run, Tranzrail had to sort out problems from track heat restrictions largely on its own, and it did so reasonably quickly. Today everything is about getting stake-holders together to have a robust meeting to decide a strategy to be put out to consultation to …blah….blah….blah.

    Go back to a Transport Board with reps from local councils and operators and ditch the GWRC.

  9. PCGM, 1. February 2018, 17:49

    Jonny Utzone is largely correct – the organisational mess appears to be largely of GWRC’s own making. It wasn’t the Treasury bogeymen that said the Kiwirail contract should be re-tendered, with the resulting strike action and operational messes on the Wairarapa line – that was entirely a decision cooked up by GWRC staff and enthusiastically rubber-stamped by councillors. Who should now be taking accountability for their mistakes, surely.

  10. CC, 1. February 2018, 21:59

    Re-nationalise. Successive idiots have done more than enough damage and milked far more than their ‘investments’ warranted from an infrastructural asset that the taxpayers used to own.

  11. Cr Daran Ponter, 1. February 2018, 22:51

    PCGM – The Rail operations were tendered because GWRC was required by law to do so (this is the Public Transport Operating Model in action). Yes there are issues with the delivery of services as there were also with the previous operator.

    Note that with respect to the Wairarapa line the single biggest issue by far is the lack of investment in the line (not looking to divert from other recent on-board issues). A failure by successive governments and private operators to maintain the line means that speed restrictions are now in place on many parts of the line.

    GWRC has worked with Kiwirail to prepare a bid for Budget 2018, which has been received by the Government. We are hopeful that this will result in funding for the upgrade of the Wairarapa line. In the meantime Kiwirail is working to replace traction poles and wires on the Hutt Valley and Johnsonville line – a consequence of a successful Budget 2017 bid (circa $98 Million).

    GWRC is also working with Treasury on a further bid for Budget 2019 which is aimed at delivering new rolling stock for the Wairarapa and Palmerston North lines – Electro / Diesel Multiple Units.

    There is no doubt that there are many parties involved which makes things more complicated than they might otherwise be. Quite frankly I like CC’s suggestion of some sort of consolidation. That might fix some things but not everything.

    I know its easy cracking into GWRC. I feel like having a go myself some days! However, as a GWRC councillor I don’t have that luxury – my job is to get answers from Council officers and other organisations to the same types of questions that you are asking, and insist on a joined-up approach between the GWRC and Government and stronger oversight over the rail operator and Kiwirail. This is leading to significant developments…..but it will take time for this to materialise into tangible results (i.e. trains that arrive on time 365 days a year).

  12. PCGM, 2. February 2018, 7:43

    Daran Ponter – thanks for your interesting and considered response. It’s good to see an elected member engaging in this way. But we can’t help wondering – where is Cr Donaldson, who after all, is not only accountable for the mess but should really be the one fronting up to answer questions? Is she still on holiday?

  13. Ross Clark, 2. February 2018, 9:36

    Even in the days in which the contractual relationships between rail and the GWRC were a lot simpler, things often didn’t work all that well.

    I had better declare an interest here. In early 2002 I was the business analyst for Tranz Metro and at the time we had problems with a lot of heat restrictions on the track. The GWRC’s response was to ‘claw back’ money from the monthly payment they made to us. What had happened was that the previous year, the Auckland management had abandoned a programme they had been running the previous year which would have fixed the track problems. Effectively, the programme had run out of money and this was at the time when Tranz Rail was slowly going bankrupt. Did the Auckland management care about our problems in Wellington? Ah … no.

  14. Patrick Morgan, 5. February 2018, 15:40

    Where’s the public transport advocacy group in Wellington? Trust me, advocacy works. [via twitter]

  15. Dave B, 5. February 2018, 17:59

    There are public transport advocacy groups in Wellington. The problem is lack of agreement between them as to what to advocate so they don’t come across with a unified voice.

    FIT (Fair Intelligent Transport) advocates a light rail line from Wellington to the airport (and other future destinations), but as a separate entity from the existing “heavy rail” system with no possibility of trains running from one network on to the other.

    TA (Trams Action) advocates a light rail line from Wellington to the airport but in a form which can share tracks with existing heavy rail and allow limited through-running from one network on to the other.

    DIP (Do It Properly!) advocates an extension of the heavy rail system from Wellington to the airport, such that trains from all rail-served parts of the region can run over the new line. Unlike light rail which would mainly run in the street, heavy rail extension would have its own right-of-way as the existing system does.

    Each proposal has its pros and cons and requires proper evaluation by experts. Meanwhile the powers-that-be continue to advance motorway “solutions” for Wellington which commit us to a more traffic-dominated future and which leave only crumbs for public transport.

  16. John Rankin, 6. February 2018, 13:10

    @DaveB: “Each proposal has its pros and cons and requires proper evaluation by experts.”

    FIT’s submission to LGWM recommends that LGWM “Consider adopting a technology-neutral approach to procurement, specifying the services that the rapid transit system must deliver.” This would let potential suppliers of light rail, tram-train, heavy rail, and other solutions (such as guided bus) compete on a level playing field. Potential suppliers could propose the technology mix that in their view best delivers the required services.

    As a rider, I’m interested in the service on offer — things like the frequency, travel time to my destination, and transfer time if I need to change to a connecting service. The asset owner is interested in things like impact on vehicle traffic at busy intersections, taking advantage of the existing regional rail assets, and operational resilience such as ability to recover from earthquake damage.

    Form follows function. State the function, then ask the market what form offers the best fit. A competitive tendering process is more likely to deliver the best value for money than evaluation by experts. At the moment, little in the LGWM documents made public gives much sense of what function “mass transit” will provide. My best guess is it means “bigger buses”.

  17. Cr Daran Ponter, 6. February 2018, 23:43

    @ John Rankin My fear exactly – “Mass transit” = bigger buses”. There is no definition in the LGWM about what mass transit actually is, and how LGWN would commit to mass transit. And therein lies the biggest problem with the scenarios as proposed – public transport gets lost in the scenarios and becomes something for the never never – once all the other things are done.

  18. Wellington Commuter, 7. February 2018, 9:34

    @ Cr Ponter: The GWRC is the lead agency for Wellington Public Transport and, as a full partner in Lets Get Wellington Moving, I would assume that your council would have ensured that “Mass Transit” for Wellington City did not “get lost in the scenarios and becomes something for the never never” … But this appears to be what has happened.
    I’ve been trying to get decent investment in the Wellington City PT for over 15 years but every year the GWRC itself puts it on the never never. For example, please tell us the PT investment funding amount proposed by the GWRC for PT in the next 3 years and then tell us how much is for the Wellington City “mass transit” service ?
    The major funding issue with Wellington City getting any “Mass Transit” is the GWRC doesn’t give a flying …

  19. Kerry, 7. February 2018, 9:44

    Daran: Bigger buses must fail. LGWM have commissioned a review of PTSS options, which found that BRT capacity has been overstated. For a quality service within the restrictions set by the PTSS, capacity would be about 4500 passengers an hour using 24 metre double-articulated BRT buses, or 2100 pass/hr using local buses.

    That raises several problems:
    — All-BRT services on a two-lane route would require far too many transfers. The same is true for light rail, which is why central Wellington needs two public transport routes.
    — Existing ridership is about 30% greater than BRT can manage. The rest will apparently run on a ‘secondary spine’ as far south as Wakefield St, before making a U-turn into Jervois Quay.
    — BRT buses will be 24 m long, double articulated, running every two minutes. Will they fit through the city? LGWM’s consultants have recommended that “…a more detailed network planning exercise should be undertaken at the earliest opportunity.”

    If Wellington were to follow widespread best practice, it would choose light rail, because city ridership is already enough to prefer light rail over BRT. The break-even point is about 3000 passengers an hour. Wellington buses are already carrying nearly double this figure, in the 30 minute morning peak-of-the-peak.

  20. Cr Daran Ponter, 7. February 2018, 10:26

    @ Wellington Commuter. Fair assumption. But remember that LGWM is a three way partnership between NZTA, WCC and GWRC. Wellington based councillors are very focused on public transport but that iis not necessarily the case for non-Wellington councillors who are often focused on how regional folk can get to the airport or the hospital by private car.

  21. Conn G, 7. February 2018, 11:12

    I’m surprised that the never-ending saga regarding Wellington’s future public transport planning involves LGWM. A tripartite group comprising of NZTA (roads and motorways) WCC (hated their old trolleybuses and the GWRC (despised the trolleybuses)

  22. John Rankin, 7. February 2018, 11:43

    @CrPonter: A useful start would be for LGWM to:

    – adopt the definition of “rapid transit” that Auckland Transport uses in the North Shore Rapid Transit Study (section 3 on page 6)

    – commit to delivering a rapid transit solution for Wellington City (or explain why the project has decided that Wellington City doesn’t need rapid transit)

    – get on with designing and building the first rapid transit line, starting now

    – identify and implement interim measures to improve “mass transit” while the rapid transit line is being built

  23. Wellington Commuter, 7. February 2018, 17:16

    @Kerry: As a supporter of the Bus Rapid Transit Option, the constant biased criticism of the BRT by Light Rail fans is tiresome … especially the selective quoting of statements from reports.

    This time you quote from the LGWM “Wellington Mass Transit Independent Review” (http://getwellymoving.co.nz/assets/Uploads/153717A-ITP-REP-001-WMT-Summary-Report-v2-16-10-17-final-PT1.pdf). You claim “For a quality service within the restrictions set by the PTSS, capacity would be about 4500 passengers an hour using 24 metre double-articulated BRT buses, or 2100 pass/hr using local buses.” This figure is based on the report’s assumption of a maximum frequency of 30 buses per hour or, quoting from the report:
    “Wellington is striving to improve the quality of its CBD environment while delivering a reliable, high capacity, mass transport system. In these circumstances, an ideal maximum frequency of operation might be around 2 minutes. Higher frequencies may be achievable but, at 2-minute headways, there is likely to be a good balance between capacity, reliability and vehicular impact on the CBD.”
    The key word here is “ideal” and, as outlined in the report (but not mentioned), “Higher frequencies may be achievable …”

    You also state “BRT buses will be 24m long, double articulated, running every two minutes. Will they fit through the city?” to which the obvious response is the SHORTEST light rail vehicle in this report is 28m long. I am not that strong at physics but I am reasonably sure that if there are challenges with fitting a 24m long BRT vehicle into the Wellington CBD then there will probably be more challenges in fitting a LRT vehicle that is 4 – 8.5 metres LONGER !

    You also miss the report’s actual prediction which is on page 41:
    “The baseline is a continual upgrading of the corridor to provide more segregated running for buses and priority measures at key locations coupled with softer measures such as branding and integrated ticketing. By continually monitoring the trajectory of passenger growth early identification of trigger points for transition to mass transit will be possible. At this point in time the trajectory would appear to be most aligned to a BRT end state but this could change in the future. … In the short to medium term future (10 to 15 years), the forecast patronage growth suggests there should be a continual upgrading of the existing corridor to optimise service patterns and provide more segregated running for buses, with priority measures at key locations.”

    So this report predicts that a mass transit solution is not needed in the next decade and, if it was, it is likely to be Bus Rapid Transit!

  24. Kerry, 9. February 2018, 19:58

    Wellington Commuter. You claim to be an (anonymous) supporter of the Bus Rapid Transit Option. Which option do you support? PTSS, WSP or both? Why?

    You complain about “constant biased criticism… by light rail fans” and accuse me in particular of selective quoting. And yet you seem to know very little about either BRT or light rail. What relevant experience, backing or credentials do you have, if any?

    You object to my basing BRT capacity on 30 buses an hour, but I was following WSP. See Table 6.1 and Figures 6.1 & 6.2. I have apparently failed to seize on a tentative “Higher frequencies may be achievable…” which you seem to think I should have used to trumpet unproven capacities.

    Perhaps you missed another WSP quotation, on page 33:
    “Frequencies of less than 2 minutes between vehicles tend to result in delays and poor system reliability, largely due to the dwell times at stops and bunching caused by signal delays along the corridor. As such, when the corridor is shared by mass transit and regular buses, the overall frequency of services on the corridor should be a desirable maximum of 2 minutes to maintain reliability for all services.”

    You seem unaware of the phenomenon of ‘BRT creep.’ Googling the phrase turns up several sources reporting under-performing BRT, because too many corners have been cut. Ignoring a desirable maximum frequency — as you expect me to do — is a good example of how BRT creep develops.

    You also seem unaware of a BRT Standard, developed by the ITDP. GW also seemed unaware of it, which is one reason why the PTSS was such a bad example of BRT creep.

    A further explanation of maximum frequency is given by WSP (page 10):

    “The project objectives highlight the need for a high-quality passenger transport service. Hence, the assumed minimum standard for BRT options assessed in this review was ‘bronze,’ as defined by The Institute for Transportation and Development (ITDP) Policy for BRT, 2016. This would require medium to high investment in the BRT infrastructure. For example, a Bronze Standard BRT requires good pavement quality and minimum disruption due to maintenance, such as utility infrastructure works (water, electricity telecom, etc.). It also requires service frequencies that ensure a good quality service, without causing congestion; typically, this is a maximum service frequency of 2 minutes.”

    Your comments about BRT and light rail on street corners make no sense. All light rail wheels are steered by the track and follow the same path. Large trucks don’t — the rear axles take a smaller radius than the steering axle — and a 24 m double-articulated BRT vehicle would be worse still. They are not yet legal in NZ.

    For the record, I am a member of public transport advocacy group FIT (Fair, Intelligent Transport) and a retired civil engineer (CM Eng NZ). I have taken a technical interest in light rail for Wellington for some 30 years, and was responsible for most of the technical work for the first light rail proposal for Wellington, in 1992.

    I have no in-principle objection to BRT and would be keen to see a viable proposal for Wellington. However, I expect that it would be more costly than light rail because of the street-width needed for stops. In Brisbane it is some 27 m, nearly double the width of Manners St. In Wellington, BRT stops would have to be two-lane, using the two-minute frequency limit recommended by WSP. BRT in Wellington is a choice between too costly or insufficient capacity. BRT would probably also be slower, with lower capacity. Broadly, the same 30-an-hour applies to trams as well as buses, but trams have greater capacity, need not run so frequently and can be given greater priority.

    In Wellington, trams would probably also be cheaper than BRT. The break-even figure, favouring trams, is just over half of present-day ridership on Lambton Quay.

  25. Wellington Commuter, 12. February 2018, 17:09

    @Kerry: Thank you for clarifying your view on Bus Rapid Transit that you “expect it would be more costly than light rail because of the street-width needed for stops. In Wellington, BRT stops would have to be two-lane, using the two-minute frequency limit recommended by WSP.”
    You further claim that “in Brisbane it is some 27m, nearly double the width of Manners St” without providing sources or explaining what these claims have to do with each other. Looking at Google maps (e.g. https://goo.gl/maps/Z2setj7uY8w) one can see that South East Busway bus stations do NOT consume 27m of road width – they are about 16m wide. You also do not mention the South East Busway is massive and carries in excess of 15,000 commuters per hour per direction, and is not yet considered at capacity.
    More importantly the issue we are discussing is about Rapid Transit through the CBD which is something for which the Brisbane Bus Stations are not relevant because they use underground bus stations in the CBD. Helpfully, “Public Transport Infrastructure Manual (PTIM)” from the Queensland Dept. of Transport (https://tinyurl.com/ybepbea2) has a whole section on Bus Stations. BRT stations can take a lot of space but do not have to. Where it is narrow the PTIM Section outlines that a “linear staggered platform” can be used with minimum lane widths of 3.5m and a stop width of 3.0m giving a total road width of 10 metres; according to the people who have actually built multiple busways, a road corridor of 11m cane support bus stations.
    I am concerned we are letting patronage levels on one small section define the whole Wellington Rapid Transit solution. Yes, the Wellington Mass Transit Independent Review does raise the concern about peak hour commuters from the north combined with transfers from the rail overloading one direction from the Rail Station to Manners Street. But it is wrong to let 20 year predictions for this 1/2km section define the whole rapid transit system. No other section gets to half this patronage and most of the network outside the CBD will be under 1,000 per hour … well within BRT capability and patronage levels well below LRT viable minimums.

  26. Dave B, 13. February 2018, 21:11

    Wellington Commuter and Kerry: While you two squabble over BRT and LRT, you are both continuing to disregard the enforced disconnect that exists between the existing rail system which serves 75% of the region, and the remaining 25% south of where rail stops. Although Wellington Commuter, you allude to it above, but only in the somewhat theoretical context of rail-passengers who continue their journey by bus contributing to “Golden-Mile” bus-congestion. I say ‘theoretical’, because transfers from rail to bus are a rarity. Very few rail passengers bother to do this, and if significantly more did then yes, the system would be swamped.

    But the current pattern is that most rail passengers walk to their destinations, and in general these destinations lie within 1Km or a 10-12min walk from the station. That gets you only to about the south end of Lambton Quay or Frank Kitts Park lagoon. This was identified by the Public Transport Spine Study, but with no conclusions drawn that it is symptomatic of an problem-situation that needs to be solved. The unfortunate reality is that people from the north (i.e. the rest of the region, 75% of the population) with destinations beyond these points tend not to use rail at all, and simply add to the city’s serious traffic-congestion problem. Sure, bus congestion down the “golden-mile” is a problem, but a much greater problem are the traffic volumes generated by a burgeoning motorway system feeding traffic from the north and a hamstrung railway system unable to provide the service that it should.

    Please stop confining analysis to the localised bus-problem in the CBD and open your eyes to the regional issues at stake here. I think a complete lack of regional significance is what gets localised LRT or BRT schemes dismissed as any form of serious answer to the basic problems the region faces.

    The best antidote to these problems is to extend the existing heavy rail system, IMHO.