One Question Quiz
Trains at Wellington Railway Station. (Photo: Getty Images)
Trains at Wellington Railway Station. (Photo: Getty Images)

The BulletinMay 1, 2023

A morning of chaos on Wellington trains

Trains at Wellington Railway Station. (Photo: Getty Images)
Trains at Wellington Railway Station. (Photo: Getty Images)

As rail users struggle through a nightmare commute, politicians are blasting an ‘unacceptable’ situation that ‘beggars belief’, writes Catherine McGregor in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

A bad day to be a Wellington train commuter

It was only last Wednesday that we reported on a survey showing Aucklanders have never been less satisfied with their public transport service. Two days later, Kiwirail said to Auckland Transport: hold my beer. On Friday it was announced that Wellington’s Metlink train services would be severely reduced – potentially for weeks – because Kiwirail’s track evaluation car, the only one in the country, had broken down, forcing a blanket 70 kph speed restriction on the Kāpiti line and creating flow-on effects across most of the network from today. Daran Ponter, chair of the Greater Wellington Regional Council, which runs Metlink, called it a “monumental failure” by the state owned enterprise. “It’s not clear how long Kiwirail have known about this but to only give Wellington three or four days’ notice before the restrictions are in place is simply ludicrous.” On Saturday, Kiwirail said disruptions should now last less than a week, after mechanics were able to fix the evaluation car more quickly than expected. Kiwirail has also apologised to commuters for the problems.

An ‘unacceptable’ situation that ‘beggars belief’

The revised timeline is a relief, but questions are still being raised about how the go-slow was allowed to happen in the first place. Transport minister Michael Wood says the disruptions are “unacceptable” and he has expressed his displeasure to those in charge. “All options are being explored to reinstate services as quickly as possible, and assurances will be put in place to prevent this from happening again.” Wood has summoned Kiwirail executives to the Beehive this morning to explain what went wrong and how they plan to address it. National’s transport spokesperson Simeon Brown says the situation “beggars’ belief” and is calling on the government to “move heaven and earth to do whatever it takes to fix this problem and then urgently order an independent inquiry to get to the bottom of what has happened”.

For some commuters, better days are on the horizon

It’s not all bad news for Wellington rail. Over the weekend The Post – the newly rebranded Dominion Post – reported that the government is to buy a fleet of 18 hybrid trains to run on the Kāpiti and Wairarapa lines into the capital. The government declined to reveal how much it was spending on the trains, but The Post understands it could be in the “high hundreds of millions”. A fortnight ago on the website of the campaign group Save Our Trains, Darren Davis & Malcolm McCracken wrote about the poor state of the network serving Wairarapa and the Kāpiti Coast north of Waikanae. The Capital Connection from Palmerston North to Wellington “is on life support and being patched up with refurbished rolling stock from the 1970s to keep it limping along for a few more years”, they wrote, while Wairarapa trains “are out of capacity and also in urgent need of an upgrade”. Both lines are set for major improvements when the new trains arrive.

Meanwhile, on the ferries…

For Kiwirail, the rail track breakdown is another headache in what has already been a very bad year. Interislander services are getting back to normal after its Kaitaki ferry resumed sailings in mid-April, but the passenger strandings caused by the ferry’s two-month suspension – along with a number of other issues – may have a long-lasting effect on the Interislander brand. Kiwirail does not expect to take delivery of replacement ships for its ageing fleet until 2025, and while their arrival will be welcomed by passengers and freight operators, some Picton residents are worried about the massive size of the new “mega-ferries”. “If something goes wrong here, it’s going to be carnage,” warned Tim Healey of watchdog group Guardians of the Sounds.

Keep going!