after 8 year battle – Onehunga Line and Station opens in grand style
Mike Lee’s speech
Thank you to each and everyone in this enormous crowd for coming along today. This is a remarkable day in the history of Onehunga.
In Auckland in recent years Auckland has seen a remarkable renaissance in passenger rail. Over the last six years for instance coinciding with my time in office as chairman of the ARC (a period which coincides with the establishment of ARTA so we can share the credit) public transport in Auckland has gone from 49million passenger trips per year to nearly 61m. Rail patronage has gone from 2.5m to 9m trips per year – and those are the ones we count.
As part of that renaissance there has been a considerable investment in rolling stock and stations. There has I believe been 25 new stations built and opened over that period by ARC, ARTA and KiwiRail but this today has to be the biggest crowd I have ever witnessed at any station opening ever – including Britomart.
I think this expression of public support indicates a sea change in public attitudes – and I will talk a little more about this later. But it wasn’t so long ago that people used to talk about Aucklanders’ love affair with the car and conventional wisdom would have it that ‘you will never get Aucklanders out of their cars’. The facts are proving otherwise and clearly commuter rail is now an accepted and valued part of the Auckland way of life.
Over the last 10 years it is fair to say reopening the Onehunga Branch Line became something of a cause celèbre.
Before I briefly recount my involvement in this cause – let me say that though I was born in Wellington I do have Onehunga connections. Two of my grandparents lived here and they are buried up on the hill overlooking the harbour at Hillsborough. My mother was born in Onehunga and she and my father were married in the Our Lady of the Assumption Church in Church Street in 1940. I bought my first home in Onehunga in the 1970s before I moved off to Waiheke and a whole new life.
But ten years ago I was back in working in Onehunga – at Church Street. It was the habit for staff members including me to go for jogs during the lunch break. Along the waterfront and over the bridge to Mangere and back again.
One day while running along the waterfront instead of crossing the track I decided to turn right and run along it. I did so fairly cautiously – mindful of trains and being a dutiful citizen I used to stop pick up trash such as sheets of ply or car bonnets which people used to throw down onto the track especially from the Neilson Street overbridge – all the while keeping an eye out for trains. And then after a couple of runs I realised there were no trains using the line. I made inquiries at the ARC and discovered that passenger services had stopped years before in 1973 – and the line was only used for the odd shunt. And much to my horror I discovered that there were no official plans to ever use the line again for passenger services – ever.
So in June 2002 I sent an email to Cam Pitches who at that time headed up Campaign for Better Transport – and still does:
“From: MLee (Michael)
Sent: Friday, 7 June 2002 8:30 a.m.
Subject: FW: Network Plan (edited)
> copy fyi.
> Would like to talk to you about re-activating the Penrose Onehunga train line. Just ran it this afternoon and I see great possibility in a Harbour to Harbour service Queen St to Queen St next year after Britomart opens.
A station could be located at lower Queen Street (the Onehunga mall) in the present ITM yard – quite handy to the bus terminus, and adjacent to an intensive apartment unit development.
Another station could be located just after the line cuts across Church Street where there is a small park and toilets, again hard up against a very large apartment development and another at Ericson Stadium.
Strategicallly this opens up a significant area of employment and growing residential activity as well as revitalising old Onehunga. It could be a jumping off point for new corridor to the airport and of course the exisiting but unused corridor to Avondale.
> What do you think?
Ladies and gentlemen I’m not going to bore you with too much detail of what happened over the subsequent 8 years.
Reading this again I must say that I feel quite proud of my prescience – but in trying to get the line reopened in time for the opening of the Britomart Station by mid 2003 I have to confess I was just a little bit optimistic – naïve in fact. When I started I never realized how difficult this task would be. Sometimes I felt I was making progress and then it seemed we were going backwards.
But of course it wasn’t just me – a lot of people swung in behind this cause.
I would like to mention my fellow elected members of the ARC including my predecessor Gwen Bull who when she was chair and I was a fairly isolated back-bencher she and a majority of other members always voting to support me to keep this issue alive –this was critical in the early days when the professional transport officers were decidedly unenthusiastic
Of course I want to especially Cam Pitches of Campaign for Better Transport.
Over the summer of 2005/2006 CBT members led by Garth Houltham worked to gather over 8,000 signatures in support of reopening the line, mostly from local residents. Garth is now running for the local board on the Roskill Community Voice ticket.
His slogan is: “He’s Houltham, and he’s good for you!”
And I have say he’s proven that to be true.
Garth’s petition was formally presented to the ARC by Cam Pitches in 2006. However by that time operational responsibility for public transport had been placed in the hands of a new agency – ARTA. So I went along to the ARTA Board and presented the petition along with what I hoped was a rousing speech in support.
However a few weeks later ARTA chairman Brian Roche wrote back to me explaining that as the government of the day had decided to take all below-track rail responsibilities off ARTA and give them to Ontrack (now KiwiRail) he was now sending the 8000 signature petition back to me at the ARC. Brian did give me some valuable advice – he suggested I present the petition to Hon Mark Gosche chair of parliament’s Transport and Industrial Relations Committee.
Happily Mark also was the local member of parliament and who had became very interested in the Onehunga Branch Line. So after exchanging correspondence Mark came to my office late in 2006 and I gave the 8000 signature petition into his hands,
The following March I was called to Wellington to speak to the petition before the parliamentary select committee which Mark Gosche chaired. I was arranged that I speak jointly with the Chair of Ontrack Cam Moore and the chair of ARTA Brian Roche – all three of us at the end of the table. Only problem with our joint submission was that Ontrack was saying that according to their expert advice re-opening the Onehunga Branch Line wasn’t a priority – in fact shouldn’t happen at all. This was also the advice from ARTA officers – but I as the chairman of the ARC was saying the direct opposite.
This was a little awkward and of course the parliamentarians were quite bemused. Here were we three at one end of the table and the parliamentarians at the other. But before this difference became too embarrassing Brian Roche to his credit told the Select Committee that we would go away and sort out our differences.
That afternoon we went along to the office of the acting CEO of Ontrack William Peet in that wonderful art deco building at the Wellington Railway station and to cut a long story short – after a wide ranging discussion about a number of Auckland rail issues – good sense prevailed and William Peet said he would recommend a change of policy.. To me it sounded a little too good to be true but yes a couple of weeks later a notice came from the office of the Minister of Finance Dr Michael Cullen saying $10m had been budgeted to re-open the Onehunga Branch Line. So thanks to William Peet and Michael Cullen and Mark Gosche.
And so ladies and gentlemen the battle to reopen the branch line was really decided in March 2007 and though there were still some twists and turns along the way and significant delays we got there in the end.
Then the ARC stepped in to buy this ITM land early in 2008 (thereby and quite coincidentally realizing my jogging vision) where ARTA and KiwiRail have built this marvelous station and bus interchange.
I talked earlier about the enormous turn-out here today. This seems to suggest a sea-change in public attitudes to rail.
Earlier this week the NZ Herald DigiPoll survey on the Super City came out with the surprising result that 23.5% of respondents put extending rail to the airport as their highest priority ahead of 18.4% for road improvements. Over all combined rail projects amounted to 47.1% over combined road projects of 26.8%.
I guess any politician or any government for that matter would certainly appreciate a support majority of that size.
Of course better use of rail corridors helps take pressure off the roads – to the benefit of all travelers.
So lets give thanks to all who made this happen – but on Monday let us note that we have pushed Auckland’s rail line to 14 km from Britomart and there are only 9km to go across the new rail capable crossing to reach Auckland International Airport.
Before I close I want to pay tribute to someone who is not here today – the late Alistair Tewsley. Alistair who only recently passed away was the former president of the Auckland Branch of the NZ Railways & Locomotive Society. The society is mainly made up of older people – most of them retired NZ Rail workers. Alistair was a passionate advocate for re-opening the Branch Line and every Christmas Alistair used to organize an excursion train trip along the branch line for the members and guests and have lunch across the road at the RSA. At the last excursion in December 2005 I remember standing in the middle of the floor and solemnly promising that not only would I fight to see the line re-opened but that it would be re-opened.
That promise to those old people always played on my mind and redoubled my determination to see the job through. So to Alistair rest peacefully the job is done – the mission is accomplished. Thanks once again to everyone who was involved.