The revolution in rail in New Zealand’s Wellington region just clicked into gear, with KiwiRailâs launch of passenger services on its new electrified double-tracked Paraparaumu to Waikanae line.
This is a significant change in the way rail is being delivered in New Zealand, and with works completed to allow KiwiRail’s new electric trains to operate, puts the country among the leaders in modern, mainline electrification.
Electrical and communications engineering group, O’Donnell Griffin – Rail has been part of the project, completing the NZ$33.5m upgrade of  Wellington’s regional rail system on time and on budget.
The project included refurbishing an existing 160km network to accommodate the new rolling stock, upgrading of the 1500V DC overhead electric rail lines, and duplicating the track between MacKay’s Crossing and Waikanae to double the current capacity of the lines.
The refurbishment consisted of updating the Wairarapa and Johnsonville lines as well as the North Island Main Trunk line (NIMT), which is scheduled to be completed within the next six months.
The $NZ7.5m 30km track extension for the Wellington electric passenger service was handed back to KiwiRail two months ahead of the program schedule, and under budget. The two-year program is within 2% of being on time despite the project growing significantly since ODG’s initial appointment.
According to ODG – Rail NZ project manager Rex Mason, NZ is one of the first countries in the world to embrace the radical privatisation model of the 1980s (along with Thatcher’s Britain), and has been progressively returning private assets to state control.
"Over the past four to five years the government has repurchased rundown track and rolling stock from the private operators and is going through a period of modernisation. The upgrades we have completed have been central to the revitalisation of the rail system," he said.
Mason said the state-owned rail service had a goal of being financially self-sufficient within a decade – and sooner if possible. These goals have already been achieved with the state-owned postal service and Air New Zealand.
"To achieve this turnaround the freight and passenger system needed significant investment from the state sector," he said.
"Lines are being upgraded, services improved and new rolling stock will make the system more attractive to passengers.”
NZ’s turnaround plan
The government has ordered 48 electric multiple units (EMUs) from Hyundai Rotem as part of the NZ$550m Wellington program upgrade that will improve passenger services in the region. The upgrade program is a part of the NZ$4.6bn turnaround plan which will cut freight time, improve the sea crossing between the islands and make rail attractive to business and the public.
Mason said little had been spent on the rail system since the 1960s and previous carriages dated back to the 1950s.
He said rail patronage had been falling due to issues with reliability, but the focus on upgraded and expanded rail systems around Wellington was expected to see a jump in numbers once the new rolling stock arrived. Initial reports confirm this is the case.
KiwiRail, formerly known as ONTRACK, is a division of the New Zealand Railways Corporation and looks after 4,000 kilometres of railway track, signals, bridges and tunnels, as well as controlling the safe movement of trains around New Zealand.