Good things in politics never come easy and unfortunately the converse also is true. Nothing illustrates this maxim better than the protracted saga of the Parnell Station. First proposed by ARTA transport planners in 2005 it suddenly assumed political sensitivity with plans to build a major new station at Newmarket. Ontrack and ARTA (predecessors of KiwiRail and Auckland Transport) argued they first needed to demolish the splendid old Newmarket station building. Auckland Regional Councillors objected to that. Built in 1908 and designed by the architect George Troup (known as ‘Ginger Bread’ Troup who designed the famous Dunedin Station). It was only one of five historic station buildings still on site on the Auckland commuter network. In other words it was a heritage building. So we opposed its demolition and sought ways to integrate it into the new station complex. Early in 2006 I received a series of briefings on the Newmarket project from the CEO of Ontrack, William Peet. The problem with keeping the old station building in situ as he explained, was the lack of room for the extra track (three tracks instead of two) needed to enhance network resilience. The adjacent former rail land had been short-sightedly privatised only a few years before.
Early in March 2006, as the chairman of the ARC, I attended Parliament’s select committee on Transport & Labour Relations dealing with a petition from Campaign for Better Transport calling for restoration of rail services to Onehunga. I had earlier presented the petition on behalf of CBT to the local Onehunga MP and former transport minister Mark Gosche who chaired the select committee. Mark was supportive of reopening the Onehunga Line and it was his idea to hold hearings on the issue. I presented along with the chairs of Ontrack and the chair of ARTA; the three of us side-by-side. The only trouble was my submission, which strongly supported restoring Onehunga services was at odds with those of my two colleagues. I even had to (politely) correct my colleagues during questioning. This rather bemused the MPs. At that point the chair of ARTA (Brian Roche now CEO of NZ Post), living up to his reputation as a problem-fixer suggested that the three chairs ‘go away and talk about it.’ This we did.
The discussions were held in the splendid art deco boardroom of the Wellington Railway Station. There William Peet made a proposal. Ontrack would recommission the Onehunga Branch Line provided the ARC lifted its objections to the removal of the Newmarket station building. I agreed but added a condition that the station building be preserved and relocated to a suitable nearby site i.e. the historic Waipapa Valley in Parnell. This was agreed and I took the deal back to my colleagues at the ARC. Peet was good as his word. In late March a press release from the office of the Deputy PM, Michael Cullen announced provision in the forthcoming budget of $9m for rebuilding the Onehunga Branch Line and $5m for the storage and relocation of the Newmarket Station building. Construction then got underway and the brand new Newmarket Station complex was opened in January 2010. For its part the Onehunga Branch Line was reopened before a massive crowd in September 2010.
Onehunga services have proved to be very popular, with well over 1 million trips per year, far exceeding projections. Interestingly Onehunga was the first line to be electrified. Then in November 2010, after Ontrack was reorganised into KiwiRail, the ARC disappeared and Auckland Transport became the new mega transport agency in Auckland.
Despite these changes late in 2011 enabling work started on lowering the track gradient at Parnell. There had been some debate about the location of the actual station. Ontrack had wanted it further down the hill next to the rail bridge, being closer to the University, but I argued with the support of the Parnell community, this would not serve the Parnell Village, nor the Museum, ‘a Museum station’ always an important consideration in my mind (besides a 100 year old heritage building would look out of place in overlooking Stanley Street). Despite the track enabling work being completed in 2012, and a strong business case, (it is projected to be the 4th busiest station on the network), Auckland Transport management have postponed completing and opening the station from 2013 to, to 2014, to 2015, to 2016 .
In March 2015 work finally began by AT on building the two platforms, access road and turnaround and a new underpass to the Domain and Museum. This has been completed and KiwiRail, after some argey-bargey, have relocated the Cullen funding to restore the station building which has been in storage these last seven years at Swanson.
But late in 2015 Auckland Transport management advised that the opening the Parnell station to services scheduled for 2016 would be postponed indefinitely until the building of a road bridge at Cowie Street to replace the Sarawia Street level crossing near Newmarket. The overbridge is hotly disputed by local residents who backed by engineers have proposed instead a more inexpensive, less environmentally intrusive underpass. This dispute is going to the Environment Court and is another story. Auckland Transport’s position seems to many Parnell people suspiciously like holding the whole Parnell community to ransom for technically dubious reasons. I have challenged management over this and AT is reconsidering its position. Meanwhile KiwiRail intends to have the heritage station building on site and restored ‘before the end of the year’. The Waitemata Local Board has offered to contribute funding for a pedestrian access via a Carlaw Park link to the University. As noted Parnell Station when it opens is predicted to be the 4th busiest on the network – with over 2000 passengers alighting there on a week day morning. ‘When’ being the operative word. The local business association Parnell Inc and the Parnell Community Committee fed up with continual delays are fully engaged. The battle is not yet over but be in no doubt we are going to win it. It goes to prove the point– good things in politics never come easy.
A version of this article appears in the April edition of Ponsonby News