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What the hell went wrong with Parnell Station?

It should be one of inner-city Auckland’s most-used stations, but the newly opened Parnell Station is already looking like a lame duck. So what went wrong? One word: Disneyland. Harriet Gale explains.

This post was first published on Greater Auckland.

A friend inspired this post with her attempt to use Parnell Station recently. She phoned me to say she was late to a meeting because she had tried to catch the train from her workplace in Parnell.

The story she told was one of great frustration:

1. She had trouble finding the station, taking a wrong turn down the back streets and having to double back and search for the way down the hill.

2. Next, she arrived at the platform, but couldn’t find the way to the other side to catch the train, and eventually found out you have to walk hundreds of metres up the gully to a culvert that lets you pass under the tracks, only to walk back down the other side. 

3. Then while she was trying to complete her expedition up Mt Everest Parnell Station the train came and went. 

4. So she stands in the scant shelter at the wrong end of the platform trying to hide from the rain. “No matter,” she thinks, “I’ll get the next one.” But as the next trains – the Western and Onehunga express – zoom past, her frustration continues to build.

She later huffs to me that she should have just caught the bus as usual. “What the hell went wrong with Parnell Station?” she asks. “Why is it so hard to get to, how come it’s so hard to get to the platform, why don’t the trains stop there?”

The answer to those questions is a long and tortuous one. You see originally Parnell Station was supposed to be somewhere else. Back in 2010, the powers that be realised there was a great opportunity for a very useful station in the area. The rail owner at the time, Ontrack, the train operator, and the Council all agreed that the Parnell Station should be down at the lower end of Parnell, near the rail bridge over Carlaw Park Avenue. They discussed whether it should be the cheaper option just back from there on the solid ground, or if they should opt for the more expensive choice, building on the bridge itself.

Parnell Station options, 2010. The station was eventually built at Cheshire Street.

Either way, it was seen as an ideal location: On one side you had the new Carlaw Park development of offices and apartments, straight ahead there was the university, with tens of thousands of visitors a day, and in the other direction was Beach Road, leading to Quay Park and the Arena. On the other side there was Parnell itself, with close access to the dense cluster of jobs and apartments at the northern end, and lastly behind you was the Domain and the gully up toward Newmarket. In short, the proposed location was close to everywhere, and just minutes’ walk from Link bus connections on Beach Road and Parnell Rise to boot. The planning work, the catchment analysis, the operations team all agreed: this was the best location, right in the middle of a range of busy and important destinations.

So what happened? Political interference. A politician decided, against the advice of his own staff and the railways, that the station should be shifted almost half a kilometre away up the Parnell Gully. This was reported well at the time by Joel Cayford as well as by Greater Auckland. The politician was Mike Lee, who is currently an Auckland city councillor and at the time was chair of the Auckland Regional Authority.

Parnell Options summary, 2010

This one decision sealed the fate of Parnell Station to forever be an also-ran. This decision moved the station 400m further away from Carlaw Park, 400m further away from the University, further away from Beach Road, Quay Park, and further away from the part of Parnell that most Parnellites actually live and work in. It pushed the station into a gully where a full half of the catchment is a bush covered corner of the Domain, a place where a few hardy joggers visit during the day and nobody visits at night. This location moved the station away from any possible connecting buses, at the base of steep narrow alleys where buses cannot go, even if you did want to put them through the tortuous diversion. To top it all, Parnell Station was moved to a site that doesn’t even serve Parnell well. As my friend found out, the station will always be out of the way and down the hill, tucked away via a warren of dog-leg back alleys. It’s hard to find, physically hard to walk to and so deserted it’s a little scary, especially in the rain or at night. Indeed in this location, the only way the elderly or less abled could ever use the station would be by being driven down there in a car.

However, that’s not all. The downward spiral continued. The government saw the likely failure and declined to contribute funding. Unlike most rail projects in Auckland, they didn’t chip in 50% of the funding, for example as they did for the Otahuhu Interchange. Thus Council had to pick up the full tab, which meant the station in effect cost ratepayers twice as much as it should. But likewise, the city had difficulty prioritising a lame duck station over other more worthy transport infrastructure and elected to build only the bare minimum. Then Auckland Transport and the rail operator declined to stop all the trains there, assessing the limited patronage gains and benefits to not be worth the impacts on the timetable, fleet utilisation and operating performance.

This left the city with a much delayed, half built, underfunded yet expensive station, located in the wrong place and served by only a third of the trains that pass through it. Not surprisingly, Parnell Station is currently duking it out for last place on the list of least used stations in Auckland. To be fair it is early days yet – the station opened only in March. Time will tell if this inner city station can ever pull itself out of last place.

 

What went wrong

So how could this happen? What could possibly possess someone to take a perfectly located station concept and, against all advice, move it out of the way, away from everything it might have been used for? The answer is unfortunately very simple: Disneyland.

“Disneyland Transit” is a term used in the transport industry to describe public transport that is built for image reasons. It is transit developed, not to actually move people, ease traffic or enable urban growth, but to create the right look and feel for passers-by. Like the fake old-timey steam trains of Disneyland’s equally fake Main Street USA, or the monorail of Tomorrowland that whizzes people around in a circle back to where they came from, Disneyland Transit is built in real cities by people who don’t want actual transport. They want transport-themed window dressing.

The best example of this in Auckland is the Wynyard tram, a tiny one-way loop tram that circles a few blocks of the waterfront in a couple of minutes. It is by all measures entirely useless for transport purposes; it is there simply to look the part, because waterfronts need trams, right? In this case, I don’t actually have a problem with a little Disneyland on the wharf. The tram is small, cheap to build and run, and doesn’t interfere with any real transit. It’s a bit of fun for the kids on a day out, a horizontal Ferris wheel with no pretensions to do anything other than providing a few minutes of joy. That’s fine, but Parnell is a different story. Parnell is – or rather, should have been – a very significant part of the regional rapid transit system. It’s a stop on three of the four rail lines, in an area thick with transport demand, people and traffic. This is not the place for Disneyland, but Disneyland is what we got.

You see the location of Parnell station was driven by a number of goals, none of which were actually about building an effective transit system. One of these goals was to create a themed historical destination by the old Parnell railway workshops. At the time a group of locals talked of a community centre and performing arts space in the old tin sheds. Unfortunately, nobody checked in with the people who actually owned the buildings, which have since been demolished to build a gated retirement community. A related goal was to provide a home for the old antique Newmarket station building, a wooden shed shifted from Newmarket when that station was rebuilt into a proper transit hub. It was decided that this building should be rehomed in Parnell, to create some sort of pseudo-authentic historical train station in a place where a train station has never been, and where no evidence of train activity remains.

A third goal was the idea that the grand old Museum building deserved a matching grand old train station, despite the fact that even the relocated station site is still very far from the Museum itself. Even the most cursory site visit reveals how poorly a Parnell Station would ever serve the Museum – between the two stand a great wooded hill and the expanse of the Domain. Walking from one to the other requires not only the best part of a kilometre hike through the bush paths and the roads of the Domain, but a vertical climb of over 50 metres – that’s the same as walking to the top of a 15 storey office block. Clearly impractical, this is pure Disneyland: transit for image, rather than transport.

Parnell Station options, 2010: blue is the generally preferred option, by Carlaw Park; red is where they built

So the mess we have is the result of political meddling, wilfully disregarding any actual transport considerations to try and create a heritage theme in the back of Parnell gully. Because of the lack of fundamental accessibility and connections, it is hard to see Parnell Station ever doing particularly much of anything on Auckland’s rapid transit system.

It was amateur hour, plain and simple

Is all lost? Well, perhaps not. Clearly, there is a need for a better link between the two sides of the station and a connection to Carlaw Park, allowing people to walk through to Stanley Street and the University. A better path up to Parnell Road would also help, but it’s hard to see quite how that could happen given the indirect nature of the street network and the steep hill. But the question is, after getting the fundamentals so wrong, can much be done to try and fix it? Or is it now an eternal case of good money after bad? Do we just accept Parnell Station was done for all the wrong reasons, write it off as a failure, and move on to bigger and better things? After all, there are so many other stations needing funding to expand coverage, such as Greenlane Southern Access and Sylvia Park Eastern Access, or to improve access, such as the Northern Busway stations.

I get the feeling that 20 years down the track we will come back and shift the station to the right place, as we did with Grafton Station. In the case of Grafton, moving it a few hundred metres from an out of the way corner under the motorway to a central spot close to the hospital and new university campus has caused usage to skyrocket, going from a whistle stop used only by a few high schoolers to one of the busiest stations in the region.

But for now, I don’t have much hope. The amount of money that has been sunk into putting Parnell Station in the wrong place ensures that nothing much will be done anytime soon.

This post was first published on the Auckland transport and urban planning blog Greater Auckland. Feature image: Parnell Railway Station viewed from the city-bound platform on the first day of services from the station, 12 March 2017. Photo by Pcuser42 / CC BY-SA 4.0


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