Wellington Scoop

A letter from a train (after getting on a bus, eventually)

An open letter to Chris Laidlaw from Feargus ORaghallaigh
Dear Chris Laidlaw,

You are the boss of the Regional Council, the ‘Big Chief’ as they say in ‘Westerns’ (or used to). I live with my partner Trish under your extended chieftainship: we are ‘Coasters’ out on Kapiti’s ‘golden coast’. I have a bone.

Last Wednesday evening (7 February) I was, with many other passengers, sitting on a Waikanae line train awaiting departure … and waiting, as it turns out, for Godot.

Eventually the driver told us that a freight train was broken down in a tunnel up the line.

Some minutes later he told us he’d learned the goods train was down and out between two tunnels (really good to know the minutiae).

Shortly after, we were told the goods train engine was buggered and we wuzn’t goin’ nowhere. Service cancelled and we had to go to platform 9 for the replacement buses.

Ironically I was going home to Waikanae from a Fabians meeting on ‘Rediscovering Public Service in New Zealand after 30 years of “New Public Management”?’. With my fellow travellers, I was now rediscovering the wonders of your council’s brilliant MetLink public service in the line of rail (excuse the pun, I’m Irish).

Four or so years ago after serious discussion and research, my partner and I chose Waikanae as our place to live – for three reasons. One was location, the second the train service and the third, Wellington actually. We thought it the perfect combination. But in our experience, Greater Wellington’s regional, municipal and district local governments excel in general incapacity, monstrous stupidity and an excess of hubris. We have discovered the joys of ‘New Public Management’.

We love Waikanae. But in our time in the township, the Regional Council has torn its heart out with its purchase and demolition of the local hotel (and only pub) to make way for a park-n-ride; shut the best steak house (reputedly) on the Coast; created an acre of tarmac on an historic spot; and made the Wellington CBD journey almost a risk too far.

You destroyed a business and many jobs, demolished a local venue (not least for our community of tradies) and of course the car park went off-course, over budget and delivered late. Even better, the old SH1 to Peka Peka remains a car park on work days.

Not your problem (but it is actually) the Mahara Gallery remains a joke with the internationally important Field collection unhoused as a result of the inverted elitism that now rules your region’s councils. I won’t mention, other than mentioning, the Wellington Town Hall.

Happy days. Rugby, diplomacy or broadcasting may have offered better opportunities than running a municipal region.

But back to rail (or its absence as the case may sometimes be).

For at least two years now ‘upgrading the line’ has been a constant advisory in relation to a pattern of non-service over late week and evening schedules as well as at weekends and on public holidays and holiday periods such as Christmas.

Now we seem to have a new element, the random breakdown, whether of an engine or a signal or a point. We are not yet quite in the Freddie-land of the Wairarapa but you are getting us there.

Going into Wellington for the day for work and getting home is now a risk undertaking (I’m an economist). This is a Regional Council achievement in New Public Management! It holds out great hope for the projects of adding 300m to the airport runway and the future of the Basin, never mind Levin. We might move to the Wairarapa for added vim.

But to get back to Wednesday last. The buses eventually dribbled up. All of the guys (and they were all guys) left to deal with the mess were great, humorous and informing. The bus I was packed into was a wreck, with barely functioning steering. It was also understandably overloaded – such that it barely made it up the hill through the Gorge; the slomo in the middle lane was wonderful, truly. Getting on a train at 8pm and getting home by 11pm was a privilege.

There were other beautiful moments. For example as we headed north we passed the yard stuffed with GoWellington buses parked for the night: now you’re suckin’ diesel ‘n’ smellin’ tar Chris … the bus company doesn’t talk to the rail provider? And all of these new roads, bridges and flyovers. Fantastic!

As we cranked through the Gorge I again recalled the purpose of my trip, attending the Fabian event ‘Rediscovering Public Service in New Zealand after 30 years of “New Public Management”?’

To be humorous and adding a touch of levity: maybe central and local government need to add tens of billions a year for a decade to its baseline public infrastructure spend if they are to meet the claim that we are a first-world country, moderne and at the forefront, which we patently are not, not at all at all.

To be serious though, this is simply silly. Market-based procurement will solve everything? Take that ball and run with it Chris, run with it!

The Prime Minister, the Ministers for Transport; Mike Smith (Fabians); Bill Rosenberg (CTU).


  1. Norma McCallum, 9. February 2018, 9:52

    Well, well, well! I sympathise with your terrible travel story but it is news to me ( a Waikanae resident of 30 + years) that the old pub was the heart of Waikanae! To Mahara Place, the village centre and venue for many of the town’s events, falls that honour. And the tradies don’t have anywhere to go for a beer after work? How about Salt and Wood, the popular after-work venue of choice?
    And Mahara Gallery a joke? I was a co-founder way back and have seen it go from strength to strength – plans for the development of a place for the Field Collection go ahead with enthusiasm and the Gallery attracts almost 20,00 visitors annually. C’mon, Fergus, towns move on, things change – why not try to see the good things in the town you love!

  2. syrahnose, 10. February 2018, 1:46

    Salt and Wood has by far the best craft beer in NZ… cask conditioned, hand pumped, complex and balanced. I’ve waited over 25 years for NZ to finally get beer of such quality. Now I can stay without suffering. Food isn’t bad either, although the service often leaves something to be desired.

    To qualify all that, I’m from Portland, followed CAMRA avidly from its early days in UK and then Trappisters from my local in Amsterdam, and eventually brought over and judged with ‘The Beer Hunter’ in Wellington back in 1999. Beer in Waikanae improved exponentially when they tore down the old pub.

  3. K, 10. February 2018, 12:58

    The regional council doesn’t have anything to do with freight trains.

  4. Traveller, 10. February 2018, 22:27

    But the council is supposed to be in charge of buses…

  5. Neil Douglas, 11. February 2018, 9:03

    Syrahnose, get yourself to Carterton (probably by car) and sample a pint of Brent and Gary’s English style beer. Reasonably priced at $7.50 a pint. None of the weird and expensive over hopped drivel served up by most craft breweries. And the Region 58 ale house is very friendly.

    A few years ago, I would have recommended you going by train as it is only a 5 minute walk from Carterton rail station, but current services are so unreliable I’d be a sadist to do so now (much the pity).

  6. Chris Laidlaw, 11. February 2018, 19:32

    Having read this I’ll give Fergus credit for one thing; he has a wonderfully vivid imagination.

  7. Lindsay, 13. February 2018, 9:46

    Chris: How about giving us a response to PCGM’s article about six months of rail failures

  8. Piglet, 13. February 2018, 13:31

    How about the Regional Council having nothing to do with Public Transport.

  9. City Lad, 13. February 2018, 16:38

    As a former All Black, Chris Laidlaw should know the rules by now. Please accept Lindsay’s challenge and play the game!

  10. Keith Flinders, 14. February 2018, 11:08

    The GWRC ought not to be left in charge of running public transport, as they don’t employ the required skill sets, rather they rely on an appointed elected chair to adjudicate on matters she doesn’t appear to understand. One can see why the previous transport chair declined the poison chalice this term.

    With things mechanical like buses, electrical supplies to trolley buses and suburban units it is essential that maintenance of the infrastructure is kept up to date, and the GWRC should have been keeping tabs on what deferred work there is in the Wellington rail yards. It should be questioning why 70 year old components are not being replaced.

    The much lamented trolley bus service was discontinued on the pretext that the buses were clapped out and causing service issues. The buses weren’t the issue as they could have been replaced with new, instead it was the 60 year old infrastructure that should have been receiving upgrades over the past 25 years but wasn’t. Wellington Cable Car Ltd received over $5 million from the GWRC annually to maintain and provide the trolley infrastructure. Of this sum $2 million was paid to their owners, the WCC, as a dividend, and that money couldn’t have come from the cable car operation which we are told runs at a loss.

    Ratepayers hand KiwiRail and Transdev millions each year to provide the train services yet I venture to suggest that no GWRC officer has any idea of the full state of the run down carriage and locomotives used on the Wairarapa line.

    Perhaps we need an Italian type solution to get the trains running on time.

    It is not only public transport that we ought to be worried about.

    Wellington Water run the Karori sewage treatment facility and in spite of the sums of money it receives it allowed the roof over the screen room to rot to the extent that small birds could get through the holes. When I raised this issue, the response was “it doesn’t matter if equipment in the screen room gets wet.” Totally ignoring that the building framework is deteriorating for the want of new roofing iron after 30 years.

    How many other facilities under the control of local bodies are deteriorating due to lack of maintenance? For the past 45 years I have been involved with plant maintenance, being contracted by private firms, as well as central government agencies, whose philosophy was “maintenance doesn’t cost, it pays”. A notion that local bodies fail to understand, rather they wait for something to break then fix it inconveniencing the public.

  11. Dave B, 14. February 2018, 11:49

    +1 Keith. A fair summary of what goes on in the real world of ego-driven, rather than service-driven political leadership.

  12. Keith Flinders, 14. February 2018, 16:17

    Just when Wairarapa train commuters thought about ending it all, a lifeline. “$300 million sought for train fleet”. The GWRC is putting together a business case for 15 new electro-diesel multiple units which will dramatically improve the Wairarapa service. These new units, not expected before 2023, will be able to run using the existing overhead electrical system Wellington to Upper Hutt, then run in diesel mode to Masterton.

    First things first GWRC, get KiwiRail to upgrade the tracks and track beds. I’m sure Phil Twyford will advance the money if you ask him nicely.

    Spending $300 million on how many passenger movements per annum? If Wellington City commuters paying about double the cost per km travelled can be relegated to 3rd world ancient polluting buses, why not employ some lateral thinking and look at using the diesel multiple units ex Auckland now in storage at Taumaranui for the Masterton run? Run these Upper Hutt to Masterton only, with all passengers having to change trains at Upper Hutt and able use the station facilities if they need a comfort stop.

    Cr Ponter appears to think passengers don’t mind changing buses on short Wellington City routes, so why not on the train ones too. From July my journey Karori – Hospital return will require 4 buses, and take nearly twice the time as now with one bus each way. I’ll be tempted to use my car instead from July.

  13. michael, 14. February 2018, 19:01

    Keith, I agree – if Wellington Central residents and workers must put up with Auckland’s second-hand smelly carcinogenic polluting discarded diesel buses, then it should be good enough to use the disbanded diesel units on the Wairarapa line.
    Considering the number of commuters using the Central Wellington transport system, compared with the number using the Wairapapa line, $300 million would be better spent on the Central City. But that is clearly not a priority for the GWRC.
    It is appalling how “Third World” our capital city transport is becoming.

  14. Jonny Utzone, 14. February 2018, 23:16

    $300million for new rail cars for the Yrappa line? You must be joking!

    Say the rolling stock lasts 30 years with no mid life refurbishment) that makes it $10 million a year (ignoring fancy discounting). Divide by say half a million rail trips a year and what do you get? $20 per trip for a bucket seat to sit in (or an aisle to stand-up in).

    Looked at another way, I reckon the Yrapa line needs 20 carriages so that makes it $15 million a carriage! Are the cars platinum plated? Or does the $300 million include travel and allowances for GWRC politicians, staff, consultants and hangers-on to travel first class to China, Korea or wherever to oversee the overspent for a decade or two?

  15. Cr Daran Ponter, 15. February 2018, 0:19

    Dear Keith,
    Not true Keith. I have never ever said that passengers don’t mind changing buses. In fact international research suggests that passengers prefer not to change. But to get more efficiency out of our bus network, we needed to remove some of the route duplication that exists now. I.e. near empty buses being run at the expense of ratepayers. The reality is that less than 5% of daily passengers will need to change buses to complete their journeys. And most of these will be people travelling in the off-peak.

  16. Jonny Utzone, 15. February 2018, 9:16

    Daran. International evidence says ‘passengers prefer not to change buses’! We are enlightened by GWRC’s literature review.

    Who put the bus route duplication in? Wasn’t that GWRC? Having most bus routes running through the CBD to reduce transfers produces brown clouds of diesel bus emissions (especially now GWRC has got rid of our trolley buses – for efficiency reasons).

    What is the average load for a GWRC funded bus? Is there any research on this? Any better than 6? (calculated as passenger kms / bus kms)?

  17. Ross Clark, 15. February 2018, 9:56

    Daran – agree with your comments about transfers. Transfer-based systems, and I’ll use London’s as an example because I am familiar with it, only work when both legs of the journey have very high frequencies – much higher than what we are used to in New Zealand.

  18. Cr Daran Ponter, 15. February 2018, 11:22

    Hi Jonny, Yes we have route duplication in the CBD and will continue to do so even if we move to Light Rail. If Wellington was a flat city laid out in a grid there might be little route duplication. But we have difficult totpography and end up threading many routes down one set of streets along the Golden Mile.
    The EDMUs are not just for the Wairarapa line. They will also cover the Palmerston North line and additional capacity that we are likely to require on the network in about five years time.