Trainfinder Auckland: Travelling every train line in a single day
Only 185km to cover, but when the first train of the day runs late panic sets in.
Throughout 2018, Angus Kidman is undertaking the Trainfinder challenge, visiting every city in Australia and New Zealand with a suburban rail network and travelling across the length of every line in a single day. Learn about why he's doing it and what's involved.
When I last caught an Auckland train over a decade ago, it was all diesel-powered and services during the day were infrequent. Since then, almost the entire network has been electrified, a smart card has been rolled out, and usage is on the rise. But how easy is it to traverse the entire system?
How much train travel are we talking here?
Auckland's suburban train network comprises four lines: west to Swanson, south to Onehunga, east to Manukau and further east to Papakura, with an extension diesel line to Pukekohe. That makes it marginally less complex than New Zealand's other suburban train network in Wellington and considerably smaller (185km to cover it all, versus Wellington's 326km). That simplicity means that my official timetable says I'm done before lunch, assuming everything runs on time. That turns out to be a totally false assumption, but we'll get to that.
As well as shiny new electric lines almost everywhere, Auckland also has a smart card, the AT Hop (pronounced "eh tea hup"), which can be used to pay for fares and which allows you to switch between buses, trains and ferries. I'm taking advantage of the day pass, which offers unlimited travel for just $18. I still need to tap on and off for every trip, but there won't be any nasty fare surprises. Unusually for this kind of pass, there are no peak hour restrictions.
Covering the whole of Auckland's network took me around 4 hours and 30 minutes (station breaks not included) on Thursday 30 August 2018. Here's what went down and what I learned.
This is the very first train of the day from Britomart, Auckland's central station. As you'd expect from the biggest station in the system, there are gates so you can't cheat your way on.
During previous Trainfinder odysseys, I've often been the sole passenger (trips out from the centre are frequently positioning runs to bring in commuters from the suburbs). But there are at least a dozen other people also catching this train. Annoyingly, the carriage I choose is the one with the guy who decides to talk on his phone the entire trip to Papakura.
Because of the recent electrification, Auckland's fleet is new, and displays all the features you'd expect in a modern train: a mixture of longitudinal and paired seating, electronic displays showing where you're going and announcements for each destination. (Many, but not all, of these are in Māori as well as English.)
One nifty touch is the display showing the outside temperature. Given it's still dark outside, that's quite reassuring.
This line is also the main freight line out of Auckland, which turns out to have consequences. I'm due to arrive at Papakura at 6:28am, and switch to a diesel shuttle at 6:34am. However, at 6:31am, we're still not at Papakura. I'm assuming they'll hold the shuttle. I am wrong. There's a two-car train waiting on platform 4 at Papakura when I finally get there, but it's the 6:54am.
I'm assuming that the need to shunt trains around and the fact much of the line from here is single-track means there's no capacity to hold without wrecking the timetable. So I'm running late after catching my very first train, which doesn't bode well for the day.
Oddest station name on this line: Penrose (for today's selection, I'm generally picking places that are also the names of towns in NSW, because that amuses me, and because who am I to judge whether Māori names are weird?)
The shuttle train running to Pukekohe is, as you'd expect, rather more dated in style. Again, I'm not the only passenger on board (or the only person complaining about the missed connection; a guy doing a trade course is swearing profusely down his phone).
There are eventual plans to electrify this segment of the line too. However, it seems unlikely any extra stations will be added. For much of the time we're in open country, and my mobile signal drops out completely.
Although Pukekohe is the end of the line, it still runs to two platforms. After we get off the train, it continues forward to reverse out of sight of the station. It is quite literally out of sight due to the fog.
My first AT Hop lesson: you can't tap off and then tap on using the same post, but you can by moving to a different one. Fair enough, I guess: how many people would do what I do and arrive at a station to immediately board the same train going in the opposite direction?
Despite the early hour, there's a healthy crowd of commuters at Pukekohe. Everyone gets a seat, but there aren't any to spare.
I spend the journey replanning the rest of my day (initially in an old-school way, on paper), feeling grateful that I had downloaded PDF timetables onto my phone given the lack of signal. Silver lining: my adjusted timetable means I should just be able to squeeze in breakfast around 9am, which hadn't been the case with my original schedule. That probably counts as bad planning.
The transit at Papakura is easier than on my outward journey, with just a short walk to platform 3. I'm going back the way I came, but only as far as Puhinui, where I'll switch to the Manukau branch line.
One oddity on the journey to Puhinui: a warning announcement that the train may stop at the Wiri depot (built to accommodate and service all the new electric trains) to pick up staff. That doesn't happen, but we do slowly crawl through the area, which also has freight loading facilities in abundance.
There are more passengers than I expected waiting at Puhinui for the Manukau service, including an overexcited pair of teenagers who can't stop snogging. I try and use the waiting time to log into the free Wi-Fi service which Auckland Transport offers at every station, but the connection refuses to work, a pattern that will continue everywhere else I test it. At least the train is on time.
Manukau boasts two platforms, an escalator and a full gate line. While an 8:15am train would work for commuters heading to Auckland city centre, there are not many people on board initially.
We do gradually acquire more passengers as we continue down the Manukau line, which deviates from the main branch after Otahuhu. This offers more attractive vistas, especially once we've passed Meadowbank, with water views replacing freight containers.
We're back in Britomart on time at 9am, and I just have time to grab a coffee and a bacon-and-egg roll before heading back in again.
Oddest station name on this line: Glen Innes
The trip to Onehunga is relatively short (the branch itself only has two unique stations). Now that I'm exiting Britomart in the daylight, the station's main issue is clear. Despite boasting five platforms, the station throat has just two tracks. That's a constraint on expansion, and there are plans afoot (with the grandiose title of City Rail Link) to build a new tunnel from Mount Eden to enter the station from the other side to improve capacity.
Onehunga itself replicates an odd approach I first saw in Wellington: a train station which connects directly to a car park, with nary a fence or barrier in site. Once again we arrive a couple of minutes late, so it's a mad rush to take photos before reboarding the train.
Oddest station name on this line: Onehunga (not a NSW match, but it did let me make a "My Onehunga don't want none unless you've got trains hon" joke on Twitter)
I don't have to head all the way back to the city for my final trip out to Swanson, since I can interchange at Newmarket. Something unusual I've only just noticed: this train is carpeted throughout. That's a rarity on trains, since it makes cleaning much harder (and Auckland isn't renowned for being dry all the time).
Because Newmarket is the intersection of two distinct lines, westbound trains enter the platform in one direction and then leave in the other. The inbound platform has a shiny new colour display, but the outbound services have to make do with an older LCD model.
Swanson wasn't always the end of the line. In diesel days, trains continued on to Waitakere, but that connection involves a tunnel, and the cost of adding electrification wasn't deemed worth the relatively small passenger numbers. So now to get there you need to take a bus, but that would be mission creep so I'm not going to bother.
Swanson station has retained its heritage buildings, including a vintage train cafe.
Oddest station name on this line: Grafton
With every branch covered, it's time to head back to the city. Part of me is impressed that I'm done by lunchtime. Then I remember that for two hours more travel in Adelaide, I covered close to twice the distance.
What I learned
Despite my gripes about timeliness, the Auckland system is impressive overall. At no point did I board a train and feel crowded out, even during morning peak hour, which suggests there's still plenty of room for growth. The newness of all the electric trains (Pukekohe branch aside) also meant that there was a lot less difference between individual services than has been the case on other Trainfinder journeys. And I'm certainly not going to complain about value for money.
Auckland is my most easterly Trainfinder destination, while for September I'll be lurching to the other extreme, heading west to Perth to check out its network. Catch you there!
Angus Kidman's Findings column looks at new developments and research that help you save money, make wise decisions and enjoy your life more. It appears regularly on finder.com.au.
- Trainfinder Sydney: Travelling every train line in a single day
- Trainfinder Perth: Travelling every train line in a single day
- Trainfinder Newcastle: Travelling every train line in a single day
- Trainfinder London: Visiting every London airport by train in a single day
- Trainfinder Adelaide: Travelling the length of every train line in a single day
- Trainfinder Wellington: Travelling the length of every train line in a single day
- Trainfinder Brisbane: Travelling the length of every train line in a single day
- Trainfinder: Travelling every suburban train line in Australia and New Zealand
Pictures: Angus Kidman