This week, as you may have heard, Auckland finally joined the league of grown-up cities. After 174 years of existence, Auckland finally started to run electric passenger trains on a local metro network, with the first few of their 57 new CAF Spanish-made trains joining the network. Out go the diesel-powered locomotives pulling railway carriages, in come three-car electric units that are faster, quieter, and with a bit of luck, a lot more reliable.

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There has been extensive coverage of this fairly momentous occasion over at the generally fantastic Transport Blog, but there has been newspaper and TV coverage as well, and (as they do) politicians crowding around to have their photo taken and claim responsibility. As you know, it is primarily Mayor Len Brown that has been the real push behind this, and good on him – there is still sniping feedback from some of the other Auckland Councilors like (the well-named) Dick Quax – but predominantly it has been well-received. The network in Auckland has, somewhat amazingly, three separate lines and I’ve travelled them all recently. There is a Western line, an Eastern line, and the other one which I guess is the Southern line, as it sure as heck can’t be a Northern line until they find a way of crossing the Waitemata harbour. All of the lines congregate into downtown Auckland, popping passengers out of the ground at Britomart, as does the once-every-couple-of-days Overland service from Wellington. Transport Blog and Generation Zero have pulled together to create the excellent resource and plan for the future of Auckland that is the Congestion Free Network.

Of course in Wellington we have had electric trains for many, many years, and we have quite a few train lines too, with an extensive branch network up the Hutt Valley, as well as over to Porirua and north to Kapiti, and the frankly quite exciting service rattling it’s way up the hills to Khandallah and Johnsonville. I think I’m right in saying that all of these are electric ? Perhaps some of the long distance ones are diesel, like the Wairarapa wanderer? but regardless, Wellington has long held the rightful title of commuter train capital of New Zealand.

Well, not any more. Although Wellington has, by proportion of its population, still the largest percentage of people making their way to work by train, Auckland’s total train-bound numbers have been creeping up and up over the past 10 years or so, and quite incredibly, Auckland has now overtaken Wellington in terms of sheer numbers – there are now more people physically taking trains as transport in Auckland than there are in Wellington, if we believe the figures produced by Transport Blog. Those figures are just going to keep on climbing too, especially now that the trains up there are electric. those figures will absolutely sky-rocket in future years if Brown gets his way and the CTRL project goes ahead, although the government are clearly still not keen to get involved in that possibility just yet.

Auckland’s total percentage of rail commuters will probably always be way less than Wellington’s percentage, given how much they love their cars and motorways up there, but the plain truth is that Wellington reached a plateau of rail passengers many years ago, and we will be doing well to keep the numbers stable, let alone stop them falling once Transmission Gully is in place (GWRC figures, I think, forecast an approx 20% drop off of numbers taking the train from Kapiti due to car travel being made easier). Exactly where all those additional cars are going to fit into Wellington has not been figured out yet, seeing as we are quite full down here already. Perhaps they will just sit on the road and never find a parking space, much the same as they do all day long in Auckland, and for a half hour each day in Wellington. Congestion. The solution to all your parking needs…

But back to trains. Auckland’s wild crowing about the Britomart development always seemed a ludicrous thing to me. Excitedly billed as “The World’s First Underground Diesel Train Station” when it was opened – like that’s a good thing? There is a damn good reason why diesel trains are not run underground anywhere else in the world, and that is because of the smokey pollution, which was only avoided in Auckland by virtue of them having such a paucity of services in their early days. Great termini of the world often have diesel trains, but they normally cope with that pollution thing by having a decent size volume as well. Grand arched sheds like that in Koln or York, where the trains pass through, or end of line stations like Paddington Station, Kings Cross, St Pancras, all with their massive steel arches over the station volumes, swallowing up the diesel particulate particles and redistributing it over wider London via the wings of sooty pigeons.

Britomart is a poor, sad excuse for a train station, designed and built with an appalling lack of forethought by engineers and architects who could not, quite frankly, see the wood for the trees. While it has become quite clear to Auckland transport in recent years that a one-sided terminus is a distinct draw-back when it comes to running a metro service, and what they need is a bit of the old through-action, this thought appears to have been spectacularly free from the minds of the designers a mere ten years ago when Britomart was built. Despite the huge, expensive, extensive task of rebuilding the former GPO to become a train station, the route through wasn’t incorporated, and so a lot of that work will have to be redone when they eventually try to ram the extension through.

I despaired when I first saw it, although it just makes me laugh now, with it’s silver-foil covered kauri trees and the glass louvred box that counts as an architectural gesture. Of course, Auckland used to have a station here many many years ago, which was then shifted, bizarrely, back to the other side of Parnell where it was no use to man nor beast, and now sits abandoned, used as cheap and crappy student housing, in which Auckland specializes so well.

By the same token, it has to be said that we here in Wellington used to have a more convenient station as well, the Te Aro station, sitting down virtually at the doorstep of Chris Parkinson’s black box of the Museum Hotel. How useful would that have been if they had kept that! But no… Admittedly, it would have been obstructive having tracks along the waterfront and that was undoubtedly one of the reasons it went away as well, but instead of a pair of train tracks, we built a six to eight lane highway there instead. Because, that’s a lot easier to cross….

Regardless of all that, it is a shame that Wellington has lost its lead as railway commuter capital, and a real shame that the leap of faith to Light Rail was not taken to further capitalize on the growth spine. In years to come the city will undoubtedly regret this decision, as some of us do already, as the growth of cities has always been bound up with the growth of the transport systems serving them. If you want quality service, build a rail network, if you want congestion, take the bus and sit in traffic. If Wellington wants to continue growing, we need to continue growing the transport network too, and for that, certainly, trains are the answer down here, for now and for the future.