Friday, 4 February 2011

Down Under Tour 2011: AUCKLAND

Considering the size of New Zealand's largest city with over one million inhabitants, the suburban rail system is rather insufficient. For many decades, Auckland has been known for its underdeveloped public transport system, while the private motor car seemed to be the preferred mode of transport for individuals, but also politicians. But there is good news, Auckland is finally catching up, although it may take another decade at least until a rail system comparable to that of Perth or Brisbane, both similar in size and urban structure, will be available.

At present, the modest rail system consists of four non-electrified lines running south and west from the city centre. They all start in the 5-track underground Britomart station, which features quite a pleasant design, but despite its high ceiling and the certainly existing exhaust fumes extraction, the air is not at all pleasant. All in all, the layout is similar to the Estació Intermodal in Palma (Mallorca), where also diesel-powered regional trains terminate underground in a station located at the edge of the city centre. Britomart is actually located at the site of the original railway station, but this was relocated in the 1930, some 1.5 km further east, and a Post Office was built there instead (this building is now the impressive station entrance). In a first attempt to improve suburban rail services, a tunnel was built to bring trains back into the city centre again. The terminal station, however, has already reached its capacity during peak hours, and I could experience that myself today when I had to wait for quite a long time until my arriving train could get a free track inside the station. For this reason and to improve access to the downtown area the construction of a city loop has been proposed. I would also consider this completely essential, especially as it would reduce travel times enormously for passengers coming into the city on the Western Line, which now takes a long detour, including a reversing manouvre at Newmarket station.

The two lines running south from the city centre take two different routes as they leave Britomart, but further south rejoin and most trains continue to Papakura. Only a few trains continue even further south on the main line to Wellington to terminate at Pukekohe. This network layout has the curious effect that actually the headway on the outer section, with trains about every 15 minutes, is better than on some inner sections, notably the Eastern Line via Sylvia Park. The stations south of Newmarket, however, are now also served by the Onehunga Line, a branch re-opened in 2010. The Western Line runs every 15-30 minutes, with every other train terminating at Swanson. This line used to be mostly single-track, but has been doubled in recent years all the way until just past Swanson. At the same time, all stations have been modernised or completed rebuilt, the one suffering the most changes being New Lynn, which was put into a trench to eliminate an important level crossing. Now only a few level crossings remain, and at some stations, also passengers have to cross the tracks. Provisions have also been made for electrification, and along some sections masts can already be seen along the tracks. The Southern and Eastern Lines, which have been double-track for a long time, have an older appearance, but several of the busier stations have already been modernised recently. Infrastructure work for electrification has also started here. Another major work completed in this upgrading process is the new station at Newmarket, an important shopping area, and Auckland's second „downtown“. To allow trains from the Western Line to change direction here, the station now has three tracks, but in the future it will also be possible to run direct trains from Grafton towards Britomart as the junction north of Newcastle is now a full triangle.

At present the service is provided with either diesel multiple units or push-pull trains with diesel locomotives (which look very much like shunting locos to me). The latter are much more pleasant as at least the noise inside the carriages is acceptable, whereas the DMUs are horribly loud. Both types cannot compete with electrically powered trains when it comes to acceleration, not to mention the exhaust fumes they deliver when leaving a station. Therefore it was high time for Auckland to go for full electrification! Let's hope that the new electric trains were designed to match the platform height, as the present rolling stock requires a high step up to climb into the vehicles.

Trains in Auckland are operated by Veolia, but they are integrated into the MAXX transport system, which also includes all buses and some ferries. A Discovery Pass, available at NZD 14.50, covers all these modes. The Auckland trains, however, need more onboard staff than any other transport system worldwide, I would say. Typically each carriage has its own conductor, at least every second carriage. They check the doors and sell tickets in a very traditional way, i.e. They carry with them a huge book of paper tickets, a different colour for a different amount of fare „stages“, plus all variants of concession tickets etc. Hopefully one day they will buy them small electronic devices which are able to print any ticket as needed if they want to keep the system of onboard personalised ticket sales. In any case, it is surprising to see so many staff onboard. One person for security reason is always welcome, but 3 or more on rather empty trains during off-peak is quite a luxury. On the Southern Line, the conductors have to fulfil yet another important job as long as no next-train indicators have been installed: they shout out the route of their train at every station. Modern indicators can already be seen at several refurbished stations. All stations have information panels with current timetables and basic information. All in all, the new design is very European.

The re-opening of the Onehunga Line must have been rather a political decision than part of an overall effort to create a rapid transit system. It was probably cheap to do, as the track was already there, but the line is only single-track and very slow, with numerous level crossings on its short route. It certainly served some politicians to say, hey, we did something. It has been proposed to extend the line to the airport, but this would then really give a rather embarrassing image of the city if tourist had to take this „airport express“ into the city. It would probably take as long as the current airport bus.

Yet another branch off the Southern Line will open in 1-2 years to connect the Manakau City Centre, a large new town with a shopping mall and several office buildings. This will, however, be a completely new line with an underground terminus at the egde of the town centre. I imagine that all buses in that area will be redirected to the new station. Hopefully express trains will then run to Britomart as several stations along the Southern Line have hardly any passengers, and like Westfield, may be closed altogether.

So these are my impressions on Auckland's suburban rail system, still a long way from being classified as 'adequate' but on good track. It will be interesting to see it in 10-20 years!

Check out also the UrbanRail.Net page for Auckland at


  1. So after visual inspection, does it count as metro?

  2. A sober and accurate assessment of the current state of affairs, however with electrification on the way, the city loop tunnel and calls for further line extensions it should be a very different state of affairs in a decade or so.

    Just a note on the proposed airport line. The current proposal is not for an 'airport express', but rather a fourth main line servicing the south-west and southern suburbs as well as the airport and interconnecting with existing lines to provide a true grid-like rail 'network'.
    The line would include five new stations: two suburban interchange stations, one at a town centre, one at the large airport industrial/commercial park and one at the terminal building. It would also continue to the east of the airport to interchange with the southern/eastern lines before terminating at the new Manukau CBD station.

    Even stopping all stations the projected journey time from the terminal building to Britomart downtown is about 30 minutes. This is considerably faster than the 49 minutes timetabled for the so called Airport Express bus, not to mention that the bus sees considerable un-timetabled delays at peak hour on Auckland's congested roads.

  3. >>>So after visual inspection, does it count as metro?<<<

    Of course, not, but once electrification has been carried out, it can at least be qualified as S-Bahn or Suburban Rail.

  4. What´s the design of Britomart-station? If the proposed loop will be constructed they probably have to change the layout of Britomart-station as it was mentioned that it is similar to Palmas terminus. Any provisions made for future extensions in this station?

    Any news about the electrification-type, 1500V DC, 25kV 50 Hz AC or even diferent?

    Kind regards

  5. @Alex, for the design of Britomart, and more information visit

    Currently the loop plans are extending the two outside tracks through the present walls, whilst retaining the three centre tracks as a terminus. This is subject to change, but I can't think of another way this could be done.

    Electrification will be 25kV AC, which has commonality with electrification on the North Island Main Trunk Line.

  6. Thanks a lot for your information, Alex M. It´s really interesting how a real suburban-rail-network is developped out of a former Diesel-service step by step.

  7. >>>Alex M said...

    Currently the loop plans are extending the two outside tracks through the present walls, whilst retaining the three centre tracks as a terminus. This is subject to change, but I can't think of another way this could be done.<<<

    That was also my guess when I looked at the station and makes sense, too.

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