A NEW era of commuter rail in New Zealand's largest city is about to dawn with services due to start in May 2014 on Auckland's newly-electrified suburban railway network.

Transport planners consider the $NZ 1.6bn ($US 1.32bn) project as a crucial component in efforts to ease the city's notorious traffic congestion, consistently rated as the worst in Australasia. Demand for travel within the metropolitan area is also growing rapidly in line with the city's burgeoning population, which is predicted to reach 2 million by about 2040, up from 1.3 million in 2013.

The scheme comprises three distinct projects. The first is the upgrade of the existing railway corridor between Papakura in the south of the city and Swanson in the northwest including the North Island Main Trunk loop between Westfield and Britomart which serves the city centre. The second is the electrification of these corridors, and the third is the purchase and introduction of a fleet of new emus and associated maintenance and train storage facilities.

Construction of the first phase known as Developing Auckland's Rail Transport, or Dart, began in 2007 and is scheduled to be completed in May 2014 at a cost of $NZ 600m. This project involved the complete duplication of the northwestern line from Newmarket Junction to Swanson and upgrades of the remaining railway lines along the existing corridor, primarily by replacing wooden sleepers with concrete sleepers and Pandrol clips. In addition, as part of this phase, 40 structures, mainly bridges, have been raised or replaced along the rail corridor to accommodate the additional clearance required for the catenary.

Two branches off the Newmarket to Papakura line have also been added to the new network; one serves the suburb of Onehunga, and utilises an 8km former freight line, which has been upgraded and reopened for passenger services; the second is a new 2km line to serve Manukau city centre, the commercial centre of the South Auckland region. This branches off the Newmarket - Papakura line at Puhinui and includes a 300m section of track laid in a trench up to 7m deep and 18m wide. In total 80km of double-track railway has been either constructed or rehabilitated.

Improving network safety is a major priority for the project, with a particular emphasis on level crossings. Upgrades have taken place on the 31 level crossings on the main corridors and eight on the Onehunga branch line to enhance vehicle and pedestrian safety. The work includes installing improved barrier arms, warning lights and crossing surfaces.

Auckland Transport has also upgraded stations to accommodate the higher patronage that the new electrified network is expected to attract. In particular, rebuilding Newmarket Junction and its associated station was a crucial step to improving the efficiency and capacity of the network. This junction connects the northwestern and southern lines to Britomart and was previously a bottleneck due to the restrictive track layout which prevented trains running directly from Britomart onto the northwestern line to Swanson, travelling instead to Newmarket to make the transfer.

The upgrade involved linking the three double-track lines which meet at the junction directly to each other creating a full double-track Y-junction, which is now the longest section of continuous concrete slab track in New Zealand.

Another major infrastructure project was carried out at New Lynn on the northwestern line. Here a 990m-long, 20m-wide trench up to 8m deep was built to carry the rail line through the centre of a major suburban shopping centre. The trench separated road traffic and trains in an area that experiences major traffic congestion. Specifically the double-track trench has eliminated two existing level crossings, and lowered a third, while four road bridges with spans of 12m to 18m were built over the railway line.

Stage two

Construction of stage two, the Auckland Electrification Project, began in January 2010 and will be completed in April 2014. The project has a budget of $NZ 500m and has involved installing 3500 overhead masts to support the 25kV ac system as well as associated sub-stations and other electrical supply equipment.

Siemens Rail Systems supplied and installed a new train control system for the project. The new fibre-optic-based system features LED lineside signals and is linked to an upgraded centralised train control system located in Wellington. Bi-directional signalling is a feature of the system which allows trains to run in both directions on either track. This will greatly enhance operational flexibility especially in the event of an emu breaking down and blocking one track, or by allowing services to continue during scheduled track or catenary maintenance works.

AucklandServices on the revitalised infrastructure will also be enhanced through the introduction of a new fleet of 57 three-car emus being built by CAF at a cost of $NZ 420m. This is the Spanish manufacturer's first sale in the Australasian market and Auckland Transport will own the train fleet. Driver training has already begun with the aid of two computer simulators manufactured by Lander Simulation and Training Solutions, after the first vehicle arrived in late August with the first emu set to enter service next April. The full fleet will be operational by the end of September 2015.

The 72m-long stainless steel trains, which have a maximum operating speed of 110km/h, are based on the trains supplied for London's Heathrow Express. They will be able to carry up to 375 passengers, including 230 seated, which is 40% more capacity than the former Perth and Western Australia dmus and locomotive-hauled trains they will replace, while each air-conditioned unit has 12 1.45m-wide doors to minimise dwell time at stations.

The colour-contrasted interiors and exteriors have been designed to assist the visually impaired. Audio and video passenger announcements, priority seating and belt restraints for wheelchairs and bicycles are other interior features of each vehicle. The middle car will have level boarding access with an automatic ramp to assist with access and exit for mobility-impaired passengers.

Passenger safety and security has also been given high priority through the addition of on-board CCTV. This will operate continuously in all cars, providing images to the driver from any of the 16 cameras within a train. Images will be continuously recorded on-board and will be available for investigation following any incident.

With acceleration and deceleration rates twice that of the service's existing fleet, both the speed and frequency of services will be improved significantly. Peak time headways of up to six services an hour from Swanson and Papakura to Britomart will be offered with all services terminating at Brtiomart.

Construction of a depot at Wiri in South Auckland where the new trains will be maintained and stabled began in January 2011 and was completed in July. The 4.4ha site incorporates 6km of sidings with a capacity to stable up to 28 emus as well as a 7650m2 maintenance building. This has seven maintenance berths with underfloor lifts, overhead gantries and jacking systems, which are the first permanent train jacks installed in New Zealand. There is also an automatic train washer and covered platforms to facilitate cleaning inside the vehicles.

CAF New Zealand will maintain the emus until 2026 as part of the rolling stock supply deal and offices for CAF employees are situated on the ground floor of the building. The first floor will also house the depot control office, offices for train operator, Veolia, and staff amenities. The main maintenance and storage facility will be complemented by smaller train stabling facilities at Henderson, Parnell and Papakura.

Additional passengers

Auckland Transport is banking on the electrification and new rolling stock strategy to attract additional passengers to the city's rail network, which carried just 10 million passengers in the year to June 30.

Chairman Dr Lester Levy said in July that he hopes to almost double this level of patronage within the next two years. He said that "customer revolution" is required to get Aucklanders back onto its public transport network, stating that pricing must be attractive, and even hinting that Auckland Transport may replace current operator Veolia and run its own train services.

"If they can deliver what we want then all good," Levy says. "If they can't, we will look at it again. In the end I am so determined that we're going to get this done that no-one and nothing will get in the way."

Further network expansion is planned in the long term, including a branch off the southern line to connect the rail network to Auckland International Airport, and most notably a 3.5km twin-bore underground rail loop which will connect the northwestern line at Eden Terrace with Britomart incorporating three underground stations beneath the city centre.

However, the rail loop project is facing difficulties in securing the funding it needs to proceed. The government says it will contribute 50% towards the cost of the loop, estimated to be almost $NZ 2.9bn, but only if network patronage is on course to reach Levy's target of 20 million trips by 2020. Even if ridership reaches this figure earlier, it is unlikely that construction will start on the project before 2020.

A lot is therefore riding on the improved service offered by the electric commuter rail network. Auckland Transport hopes that when it opens in the middle of next year the city's commuters will be convinced to leave their cars at home and use the new trains. It is at this point that the race to reach the golden figure of 20 million passengers really begins.