THE New Zealand government has announced it will invest in 18 new tri-mode four-car commuter trains for the Kāpiti Coast and Wairarapa lines into Wellington.

The trains will be powered from overhead electrification, batteries and diesel engines, replacing the existing fleet introduced in the 1970s.

The new fleet will support the introduction of express services which are expected to increase traffic on the Kāpiti Coast Line, which runs from Waikanae to Wellington, and the Wairarapa Line, which runs from Masterton to Wellington.

“Many commuters are familiar with the disruptions associated with the current fleet, so this news will be a game-charger for these communities,” says minister of transport, Mr Michael Wood. “Providing viable and attractive public transport alternatives is critical to busting congestion throughout the Lower North Island.”

Both lines are expected to exceed capacity by 2030, despite the current problems with service frequency, reliability and punctuality, which Wood says indicates significant untapped demand for these commuter services.

“This initiative to co-fund a fleet of 18 four-car trains and upgrade track will strengthen public transport links for those travelling or working in and out of Wellington from Manawatu or the Wairarapa,” says minister of finance, Mr Grant Robertson. “It will also support growth along these rail corridors as well as boosting productivity for the regions and the country as a whole.”

Alongside the introduction of the new fleet, associated network improvements will increase corridor capacity and resilience for both passenger and freight services. Stations will also be comprehensively refurbished to meet current accessibility and amenity standards.

Track maintenance failure

The new fleet was announced as the Wellington rail network was hit by major disruption following the inability to complete track inspection before the expiry of the network’s compliance certification. This resulted in major disruption for commuters across the city after temporary speed restrictions were introduced on the network.

The chief executive of national railway KiwiRail, Mr Peter Reidy, says a combination of factors led to the disruption, including a mechanical fault with a 41-year-old Track Evaluation Car (TEC) and scheduling problems.

“When leaders learned of the issue last week, we immediately launched a recovery programme to minimise what we recognise is an unacceptable level of disruption for Wellington commuters,” Reidy said on May 2. “Urgent priority was given to repairing our TEC and getting it down from Auckland.”

The TEC completed its assessment of the Kāpiti Line the following day, meaning a blanket 70km/h speed restriction could be lifted to allow operator Metlink to restore commuter services across Wellington to their normal timetable on May 4. The TEC is now assessing the Wairarapa, Johnsonville and Melling lines.

While separate reviews have been announced by KiwiRail and the government, KiwiRail says an initial review found that the TEC needed repair work before it could operate, which was scheduled for early May after the compliance period for the Kāpiti Line expired April 30.

According to the TEC’s operating schedule, going back at least to mid-March, it was due to assess the Wellington network in May, also outside the Kāpiti Line compliance period. KiwiRail says the fact that the implications of this were not recognised in March appears to be a critical systems failure, which will be a focus of its review.

The inability of the TEC to assess the Kāpiti Line was only raised with KiwiRail’s senior managers on April 26. After KiwiRail engineers examined options to stay within the conditions of the company’s safe operating licence, including imposing the 70km/h speed restriction, KiwiRail contacted Metlink on April 27 about the situation.

Reidy says there are a number of elements that need to be aligned to ensure effective scheduling of line inspections using the TEC, including maintenance, operations and rostering.

“The TEC has worked in Wellington three times a year for decades without issue but a combination of a mechanical fault and maintenance and operational schedule issues has resulted in major disruption to passengers,” he says. “There have been obvious system failures within KiwiRail and we will be making changes.”

KiwiRail has now gone to market for a replacement TEC and expects to award a contract later this year. The new TEC will require less time out of service for maintenance and will therefore achieve higher productivity rates, KiwiRail says. Given this, KiwiRail has concluded that a single new TEC will be able to meet work requirements on lines across New Zealand in combination with good schedule management.

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