From this Friday, all Onehunga trains will terminate at Newmarket, in a move critics have labelled as a ‘death plan’ for public transport links to the Auckland suburb.
Due to City Rail Link construction reducing the number of platforms at Britomart Station, passengers hoping to reach the CBD from Onehunga or the other way around will need to hop trains at Newmarket.
Auckland Transport’s announcement attempted to soften the blow, saying there are easy and frequent transfer opportunities at the Newmarket station, with the southern and eastern lines going by every 10 minutes at peak times, with buses also available.
But the Public Transport Users Association has hit back, saying the move represents passengers being the last consideration of the agency.
Association chair Niall Robertson said 60 percent of passengers on this line wanted to go all the way to Britomart, which will soon be a more difficult feat due to the truncated service.
It’s a difficulty compounded for the young, old or disabled, as they are asked to quickly get from one platform to another.
Robertson said it fell in line with the agency’s proposed idea of a $30 billion light rail to the airport deal, which he said could jeopardise the future of the Onehunga line already in place.
“It appears senior AT management have a death plan for the Onehunga line, hence their recent idea of shuttle trains to Penrose and now this,” he said.
Meanwhile, the association’s national coordinator Jon Reeves said the decision was borne of “silence, zero public consultation and general incompetence” from a “faceless senior management”.
“Passengers are AT’s last consideration in this major mistake,” he said.
The association is calling on the council to show all of the alternatives they considered before pulling the trigger on the service.
“The tail is wagging the dog,” said Reeves. “AT is destroying good public transport services while the mayor and councillors hide behind their faceless officials.”
Former Auckland councillor Mike Lee has a personal connection to the line. As a councillor, he worked for years to finally resurrect the disused Onehunga branch line back in 2010.
In his speech at the reopening of the station back in September 2010, he said the crowd was the biggest he had seen at any station opening – including the grand ribbon-cutting of Britomart in 2003.
He questioned the decision to cut a vital service right at a time when the council was ostensibly trying to get more and more people onto public transport – as seen in the recent ‘Let’s Go There’ advertising campaign.
“AT’s plan will just drive down patronage at a time when we should be incentivising more, not less, zero emission public transport,” Lee said. “There are much better passenger-friendly solutions than cutting this popular ‘Queen Street to Queen Street’ service off at the knees.”
Lee said he had heard from rail staff that they don’t believe the Onehunga line services need to be terminated at Newmarket as there are four lines and four platforms still open in Britomart during the construction work – one platform for each line. One platform at present is being used to accommodate the ‘hot spare’ EMU train, which is used during service disruptions.
“When one of the platforms closes with the tunnel construction works, the hot spare could instead be positioned up in the siding behind KFC on Quay Street, with the crew waiting nearby in the adjacent Strand depot,” Lee said.
Back before 2010, breathing life into the disused Onehunga line was something of a cause célèbre amongst the local community. It had originally been a link between the port at Onehunga Wharf and the rest of the city – and indeed the only train line to reach the eastern seaboard.
Passenger services ran until 1973, when it was put on ice. But an 8000-strong petition from people in the local area helped restart train service to the suburb.
But the idea of bringing the rail line back to life wasn’t supported by everybody, and Lee said some of the same people who opposed it are now behind the decision to truncate the service.
“I note it is the very same individuals in AT whom I well remember stubbornly resisted the recommissioning of the Onehunga branch line who are now the AT managers retrenching this service,” he said. “AT is paid hundreds of millions of dollars per year by Auckland ratepayers to provide public transport services for the public. But once again we see the public’s travelling convenience coming last in the considerations of AT bureaucrats. AT shows once again it doesn’t or even care much about the needs of public transport commuters.”
Lee was present with John Key and then-Mayor Len Brown at Britomart in June 2016 when construction on the City Rail Link was launched.
“All sorts of wonderful things were pledged at the time,” he said. “I think 2021 was the finishing date. Six years later perhaps 50 metres from the controlled explosion that signalled start of work, AT are intent on in effect crippling a service their managers always opposed. It says a lot about the competence of the managerialism that dominates the city. There are better ways, more intelligent [ways] to manage this work than sabotaging a popular rail service and turning city-bound Onehunga commuters out onto a platform at Newmarket on a winter’s morning to wait for another train.”