10 October 2009

Take the ‘A’ train

Britomart 08.10.09 What with the bus company lockout cancelling most bus services in Auckland on Thursday I decided it would be an excellent opportunity to try taking the train to town.  Not only would it be a good chance to see how reliable and affordable the service was, but there was also the possibility that the city might be afflicted with a relatively small number of school holiday kids from the suburbs spending their parents’ money and generally being annoying.

In contrast to Wellington’s trains, which I use whenever possible, in the past I’ve seldom used Auckland’s rather meagre train network.  The last time I can remember was probably 10 years ago, when I had been dropped off for a meeting in Henderson and decided to take the train back to Newmarket rather than take a long bus ride.  As I’m from Onehunga and still stay there when I’m in Auckland, the train stations along the main trunk line are just too far away for me to use with ease.  Things will be different when the branch line to Onehunga finally reopens in 2011 – I look forward to trying it out – but for the time being taking the train to town isn’t practical.

Still, when there’s no buses you have to make an effort.  Fortunately I was able to get a lift down to the nearest train station, Penrose.  While not particularly rundown, Penrose station isn’t exactly a welcoming place.  Once you’ve descended from the over-track walkways down to the platform you have to bypass the old wooden station building, which is all boarded up now, and walk another 50 metres or so to get to the raised platform that’s currently in use.  There’s a small shelter but it’s pretty exposed to the elements, and the platform isn’t the sort of place you’d want to hang around after dark – it’s in the middle of an industrial zone with almost no people around.  There’s no ticket booth; you buy your ticket on the train.  On the plus side there’s a well-designed timetable and network map explaining how to use the service, and it hadn’t been graffitied yet. 

A couple of southbound trains rattled past, a reminder that Auckland’s still beset with its outdated diesel trains designed to pull freight rather than passenger carriages.  One five-carriage train pulled up with a massive diesel unit at each end, and both engines were roaring as it departed.  No fun living near the train tracks with those monsters going past four times an hour. 

My northbound train to Britomart downtown arrived seven minutes late, which was noticeable but no major inconvenience.  It was at about three quarters capacity, which is impressive given it was midday on a weekday.  A ticket to Britomart (see picture above) only cost $3.80, which is 50c cheaper than the bus, and whereas a bus ride to town would take around 50 minutes from Onehunga, this trip only took 20 minutes. 

The return trip from Britomart was equally efficient, leaving on time and costing only $2.80 because I decided to try getting off one stop early at Ellerslie and walking home from there.  Certainly, it’s a fairly deserted neighbourhood and you have to cross the heaving Great South Road traffic, and ultimately the walk home was impractical at 35 minutes.  But it was an interesting experiment, and I can see why public transport advocates feel frustrated at the limitations of planning and policy around Auckland’s train network.  If only the public transport network was better integrated with feeder buses running to train stations and secure park and ride services for commuters, then it would be much easier to convince more Aucklanders to reduce their reliance on congestion and pollution-creating private car journeys to travel about the city.

(Disclaimer: To anyone from outside New Zealand, a blog post about ‘how I caught a train’ might seem a laughably trivial subject to cover.  But in Auckland the importance of passenger rail links has long been subjugated to the roading imperatives of local and central government, and as a result Auckland has been dominated by cars and motorways for the past 50 years.  Sadly, ‘how I caught a train’ stories are all-too-uncommon in Auckland.   

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