Stranded passengers believe a fault which shut down all outgoing Wellington rail services for several hours this week is another example of an increasingly unreliable network.

KiwiRail was investigating what happened but local council and transport advocates said it was obvious the capital’s trains were severely underfunded. Nearly 140 commuters spent hours stuck in carriages in sweltering weather on Wednesday.

KiwiRail Metros general manager Jon Knight said overhead lines expanded in the heat resulting in connection shorting and outages. Power had to be shut off at Wellington Station to allow staff to safely inspect and fix the problem, he said.

Rhys Hobbs and his partner were stuck in Wellington, weighed down by heavy luggage after arriving back from overseas.

He said the capital’s train service was consistently inconsistent.

“When you compare [it] to somewhere in Australia like Melbourne, Sydney, Perth the trains are just always going basically.

“[Here] there’s just bus replacements all the time, every weekend. Work last week and the week before? I just shifted my work hours,” Hobbs said.

Jaden, a regular on the Hutt Valley line, said last-minute bus replacements were no substitute for properly scheduled services.

“It’s always frustrating especially like after work and you’re just expecting to go home and then you have to wait for a bus or, if a bus is even coming, there’s always delays with that as well,” he said.

‘We need $150 million’

On Wednesday, Greater Wellington Regional Council chair Daran Ponter said the shutdown could be a foretaste of what lay in store without further government investment in the ageing network.

“We need somewhere in the order of $150 million in the next three years to keep the renewals programme going. If that money isn’t forthcoming KiwiRail has already advised us we would have to, in some cases, run twice as few trains as we currently do and [in] some instances we would have to close particular lines,” Ponter said.

Public Transport Users Association national co-ordinator Jon Reeves said there was no doubt that underfunding was behind the unreliability of the capital’s trains.

He said the 25-degree high was not so severe that it should have crippled the city’s rail transport system.

“Countries like France and Switzerland often have 36, 38, 39 degree days and they don’t close down their railway system every time. It’s kind of ridiculous. Clearly, it’s all about the funding and making sure the maintenance is carried out,” Reeves said.

The amount of money needed to shore up the capital’s trains was “chicken feed” when compared to the cost of roading projects, he said.

Reeves said the country’s rail network was a crucial asset for reducing traffic congestion and providing sustainable transport options in the face of climate change.

“We’ve seen railways kicked around like a football over the last 40 years whether it’s been wound down, privatised, bought back, semi-privatised, a whole myriad of things.

“It’s just not appreciated. We don’t do that with our roading system so we shouldn’t be doing that with our railway system either,” he said.

Knight said KiwiRail was conducting a “full and detailed technical investigation” into the cause of the faults.

By Bill Hickman of rnz.co.nz

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