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Breaks put on trains

Poor maintenance of KiwiRail equipment is holding the entire North Island’s rail network hostage, Greater Wellington Regional Council [GWRC] chair Daran Ponter has claimed.

A KiwiRail equipment failure in Auckland will force Metlink to run fewer passenger rail services across the Wellington region from May 1, KiwiRail and Metlink announced in a joint press release at about 3.40pm on Friday.

KiwiRail’s one-and-only specialist rail track evaluation car – which “makes very exact measurements of the tracks” so trains can operate safely – is experiencing “unforeseen technical issues”, and inspections due on the Kapiti, Hutt Valley, and Wairarapa lines are now overdue – making them non-compliant.

Due to this lack of compliance, KiwiRail will introduce temporary speed restrictions of 70kmh from Monday.

These speed reductions from the usual 100kmh will mean fewer trains can use the lines, forcing Metlink to put limited timetables in place for most of its rail network, although Ponter confirmed Wairarapa services will run as normal.

Buses have replaced trains on Wairarapa’s line during weekends and off-peak times on Monday to Friday for close to two years to allow for the upgrades.

KiwiRail chief operations officer Siva Sivapakkiam apologised for the impact of the delayed inspections, acknowledging they will be “will be hugely disruptive to many”.

“Due to unforeseen technical issues with the track evaluation car, we have been unable to undertake the necessary inspections due on the Kapiti Line by the start of May. The machine also needs to assess the Hutt Valley and Wairarapa Lines by May 7,” Sivapakkiam said.

KiwiRail’s safety equipment failure showed an “abysmal lack of accountability and management”, Ponter said.

“To be clear, this is a monumental failure by KiwiRail. The poor maintenance of this essential piece of equipment is holding the entire North Island’s rail network hostage.

“If ever there was a perfect example of a lack of prudent management and accountability for critical rail infrastructure in this country, here is exhibit A.”

The delays were going to impact hundreds of thousands of rail passengers in Wellington alone, Ponter said, which will harm tourism and “put a strangle-hold on the freight industry using rail and ferry connections”.

Metlink general manager Samantha Gain said the sudden news of the equipment failure and its impact will test the patience of Metlink passengers.

GWRC and Metlink said they were notified of the equipment failure late on Thursday.

While it was not clear how long KiwiRail had known about the fault, Ponter said that to only give Wellington three or four days’ notice before the restrictions are in place is “simply ludicrous”.

The issue put significant pressure on Metlink staff to roll out new timetables, Ponter said, as well as on Transdev to re-roster staff, and on rail and connecting bus passengers – whose “lives will be tipped upside down”.

Ponter said GWRC, Metlink, and Transdev are doing all they can to run as many services as possible.

“It doesn’t bear thinking about what impact this will have on the rest of the North Island if they can’t get it fixed, with Auckland and Hawke’s Bay tracks also in line for inspections,” he said.

“I expect the Transport and Infrastructure Select Committee will be keeping a watching brief for an investigation into the cause of this failure and the response.”

Ponter said GWRC and Horizons Regional Council have been advocating for government to fund new passenger trains in the lower North Island because the aged locomotive-hauled units of Wairarapa and Manawatu lines are approaching the end of their service lives.

“We shouldn’t need to advocate for safe tracks and functioning inspection equipment as well.”

Passenger communications about the reduced services are now in effect on Metlink’s website and app, as well as on social media, radio, and other channels.

Metlink and its operator Transdev will be reviewing timetables and services over the course of next week and keeping passengers informed.

Grace Prior
Grace Prior
Grace Prior is a senior reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age with a keen interest in environmental issues. Grace is the paper’s health reporter and regularly covers the rural sector, weather, Greater Wellington Regional Council, and coastal stories.

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