"Turning back, she just laughs. The boulevard is not that bad." Busy transport byways can be expected ahead of the two Elton John concerts at Mt Smart this weekend in Auckland. Photo: Getty Images

The yellow brick road to Mt Smart stadium looks to be packed this weekend as thousands travel to dual Elton John concerts

In the words of pop royal Elton John, “I think it’s going to be a long, long time” – in this case for the 40,000 odd concert-goers driving in the rain to his dual finale concerts at Mt Smart over the weekend.

That’s because the summer concert season in Auckland has coincided with rail closures on the Southern line, leading to Auckland Transport tweeting out a since-rescinded recommendation that people should drive to the venue.

Count the headlights on the highway, indeed.

Confusion and traffic abounded outside the venue last week following the Red Hot Chili Peppers concert last week, where Anthony Kiedis’ lyrics “get there quick, by street but not the freeway” proved somewhat prophetic as thousands of people were unable to be siphoned out of the area by train.

Stuff reported a journalist was unable to use their ticket to board a bus after the show, rendering one of the event’s transport solutions a moot point.

Part of the problem is KiwiRail’s closures of rail lines for the network upgrade. It’s a near total rebuild, with stage one seeing trains unable to operate between Ōtāhuhu and Newmarket until late March.

“During this time we will be digging up and replacing the rock foundations under the tracks and improving drainage in the rail corridor, which is a crucial part of preparing the network for the more frequent trains to come with CRL,” said KiwiRail Chief Operating Officer David Gordon.

But for nights like this, where Penrose station provides a crucial transport hub for thousands of people, it’s at best poor timing.

Public transport expert Dr Timothy Welch from the University of Auckland’s School of Architecture and Planning isn’t planning on heading along to see the rocket man, but said those who do could expect a bit of chaos and gridlock on the way in and out.

He said the tweet urging Elton John concertgoers to drive or walk to Mt Smart Stadium shows that Auckland Transport doesn’t have enough power over its own transport network.

“We’re talking about 40,000 people potentially gathering in a single location with no public transportation but buses, so I don’t see a way around chaos,” he said. “The Red Hot Chill Peppers played on the 21st and that was pretty chaotic, and I think Elton John probably draws a bigger audience.”

Elton John performs at Mission Estate in Napier back in February, 2020. Photo: Getty Images

The chaos may be mitigated by Auckland Transport’s promise that bus operators will all be aware of the ticket for a ride programme, but Welch said the event is indicative of broader issues with Auckland transport system.

“This whole thing comes down to the amount of control that AT actually has over its public transport network, which is surprisingly low,” he said. “They don’t own the rail lines so KiwiRail kind of calls the shots there over when they close them. Then there’s contractors for buses, which means you can ask them to do certain things and that doesn’t mean that’s necessarily what will happen all of the time.”

He said these factors have come together to cause these events that get high publicity negative PR for the often-maligned council-controlled organisation.

Special event buses are set to depart from the city centre every 10 minutes from 5pm, departing after the concert back to the city for one hour after the concert is finished.

This should alleviate some of the post-show fracas, and Welch hoped people who aren’t usually bus-riders would have a positive experience with them.

“For a lot of those people, it’s their first or only time using public transport, so if they are met with chaos in their one time using it, they’re more likely to shy away from it in future.”

That’s bad news for reducing traffic and getting those carbon emissions down.

It’s a crucial time of year for public transport infrequent users and getting them into the habit – with people travelling to popular events like St Jerome’s Laneway Festival this weekend and the Lantern Festival’s post-Covid return next weekend.

The rail closures are solved in part by rail replacement bus services, but the Public Transport Users Association this week voiced concerns that these services are letting passengers down.

Association national coordinator Jon Reeves noted a train service from Papakura to Britomart station last Saturday afternoon had been replaced with buses.

“I was disappointed to see AT has replaced two half-hourly 350-seat trains with just one, hourly, 40-seat bus all weekend between Papakura and Otahuhu (to connect with trains to and from Britomart),” he said. “The bus was full.”

He also voiced concerns that one wheelchair-accessible space per bus was all there was to replace the plethora of disabled-friendly space on two different trains.

“That is appalling. It is not fair and not first world public transport for disabled passengers,” he said.

He also cited the slower journey completion times of rail buses as making the system less user-friendly and efficient during this rail closure period, and called for rail bus service frequency increased to match those of the trains they were replacing.

Meanwhile, for Kiwis keen to take their last opportunity to see Reggie Dwight live and in person behind his piano, this weekend they may have to put up with a bit of chaos around the stadium and no small amount of rain.

That’s because as John himself sang on 2001’s Songs from the West Coast, this train doesn’t stop there anymore.

A concert-goer on her way to Friday’s concert was excited to see the show, but disappointed in the weather.

“It’s a bit disappointing, every time I go to Mt Smart it rains, when I went to Adele it poured,” she said.

She said the transport options for the night had her scratching her head about the best way to get out to the venue.

“It’s difficult and I think a recommendation to take your car is definitely not the way to go. Saying to go early is a good plan but now with the weather, going early is not such a good plan, so it’s going to put a lot of pressure on the roads. If we could be assured there would be a train, we would definitely,” she said.

“I’m looking forward to hearing him live – I’m waiting for Candle in the Wind.”

There may not be any candles tonight, but there’s sure to be plenty of wind.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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