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On Pukekohe, trains, and being forgotten.

April 29th, 2014

Since I’ll do almost anything to avoid having to go shopping with Wife and Daughter, I sat in the car outside Briscoe’s on Sunday as they went looking for, well, whatever it is that they shop for in shops like Briscoe’s. I pulled my iPhone out of my pocket, my tolerance for boredom having slipped to teenager levels, but, instead of flicking through Twitter or trawling through updates from people I hardly know on Facebook, I was distracted by the “4G” badge at the top of the screen.

4G data networking? In Pukekohe? This was new. And, it must be said, quite unexpected. Vodafone’s 4G coverage map shows where their priorities are: the big cities — Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga, Rotorua — get full coverage, as do the tourist towns like Warkworth and Whitianga, but south Auckland’s coverage is patchy, and south of Auckland, but still, crucially, part of Auckland City, we don’t warrant 4G networking. But suddenly my phone was on a 4G network. Web pages loaded very, very quickly — more quickly than they do at home, connecting by WiFi to my landline broadband connection. But when The Girls were finally finished with their shopping, when we’d picked up the supplies we needed from Mitre 10 for this weekend’s DIY project, when we finally got home, 4G was gone, only a mile or so away. Only the area around Briscoe’s — more importantly, the area adjacent to Briscoe’s, at the Pukekohe Racetrack, this weekend playing host to V8 motor-racing, had 4G networking. And today, with the cars all packed up and gone home, there is only 3G.

Pukekohe, you see, apparently doesn’t deserve a 4G data network. As far as I can tell — and Vodafone haven’t yet responded to my request for confirmation — just put in a temporary network while the races were in town; as soon as the carnival left town, so did Vodafone. And this, while it seems really, really odd, is typical of the treatment Pukekohe receives.

[Update, 02/05/2014: I’ve just had a reply from Vodafone, saying “We installed a temporary cellsite on wheels (COW) for the V8s at Pukekohe. This was removed on 28 April.” So there we have it — V8s get modern networking; Pukekohe doesn’t.]

[Updated 2, 02/05/2014: Another reply from Vodafone, this time saying “At this stage, there are no plans to provide 4G permanently in Pukekohe.” Heigh ho.]

Pukekohe is — and don’t take my word for it; check with Statistics New Zealand — a big and growing town. When they counted us in 2001, there were over 18,000 people in Pukekohe, a town that had grown by over 11% in the previous five years; the rest of the country was growing, during that time, at less than three and a half percent. And, according to more recent estimates, there are now some 27,000 of us here. And there are reasons for this dramatic increase. I am, and I don’t care who knows it, quite openly biased here; I do quite honestly believe that Pukekohe is a thoroughly liveable town, and others seem to be forming the same conclusion.

But we remain, despite having been subsumed into Auckland when the city was expanded to include the entire Auckland region in 2011, the red-headed stepchild of the SuperCity, and nowhere is this more true than on the city’s trains. Pukekohe is the end of the line for the Southern Line, and it’s an incredibly useful service. I take the train to work most mornings, and home again most evenings, but that’s the extent, however, of my usage; I’d love to be able to train into the city at the weekend, but since, for no good reason anyone’s been able to explain to me, there are no trains on Saturdays or Sundays out of Pukekohe; trains run as far south as Papakura, the next stop up on the line, and no further. During the week, the service is limited, but at least we can expect one train in three or four to keep going beyond Papakura; from Friday evening to Monday morning, nothing runs. There is very strong support in Pukekohe for a weekend train service, but Auckland Transport simply seem uninterested in servicing their southernmost customers. A bizarre stand-off has occurred, with Auckland Transport telling us that if passenger numbers go up, more services might well be laid on, but with, currently, no passenger service at all from Pukekohe at the weekend, it is impossible for potential passengers to demonstrate their willing to use any service that might be provided.

Of course, even if trains were to start running this very Saturday, we’ve already been told, quite clearly, where we stand with regard to trains. Auckland Transport have recently been touting the arrival of the city’s new electric trains, at a cost of well over a billion dollars. By the end of next year, when the electric trains are fully operational, it will be possible for us in Pukekohe to take an electric train, a train that will “make rail travel more attractive,” a train that is “faster, quieter and more energy-efficient,” a train that features  “the latest developments in technology and safety,” all the way from the city centre, as far as…Papakura. From there we’ll be changing back to the existing diesel trains that, apparently, aren’t good enough for the rest of the city. So while Auckland Transport were willing to spend $1,140,000,000 on electric trains for everywhere north of Pukekohe, to ensure a safer, faster, more comfortable ride, we not only miss out on this advance; we actually find our service downgraded, since we’ll no longer be able to take one train all the way from Britomart to Pukekohe. Estimates for the electrification of the final 17km or so from Papakura to Pukekohe cost the project at around $13o million, or around an additional less than ten percent, and a figure that doesn’t take into account any savings to be made by no longer having to keep a legacy stock of diesel trains running between Papakura and Pukekohe.

Which brings us back to the races. V8 racing came to Pukekohe in 2012 with much fanfare; a significant part of the town’s attraction, apparently, was its rail link with Auckland — a link, let us not forget, that doesn’t operate at the weekends, the very days when the cars race. So when the races are in town, such as this last weekend, so are the trains; as soon as the races finish, the train schedule returns to its usual, weekdays-only limitedness. Just like Vodafone’s 4G network, it’s only in place when Aucklanders — proper, grown-up, city-dwelling pre-SuperCity Aucklanders — come to Pukekohe. As soon as they go home, we’re promptly forgotten about.

I’ve written to Mike Lee, chairman of Auckland City Council, asking for his support. He assures me that he’s pushed for electrification of the railway all the way to Pukekohe, calling the decision to end the wires at Papakura “arbitrary.” But nothing has yet been done, although there is plenty of talk about upgrading our service. In the meantime, Pukekohe continues to grow, but the infrastructure that supports the town stagnates. The Council’s Unitary Plan calls for more than five thousand new homes over the next fifteen or so years to be built in and around Pukekohe, but with no supporting development in the rail network that will be increasingly essential to the continued prosperity of the town. The Southern Motorway is already straining to accommodate the traffic it has to handle most mornings, and even a small incident north of Drury can bring the motorway’s traffic to a halt; when this happens, State Highway 22, the main road from Pukekohe to the motorway and the city, also backs up, sometimes most of the way to Paerata. Add to this mess an additional five thousand homes, and with them thousands more people who need to make their way north every morning, and it’s clear to see that the road system will fail, and fail soon. We need rail — we need a comparable rail service to the rest of Auckland, with modern rolling stock and frequent, daily services — and we need it now, while there is still momentum, before we are completely forgotten.

When Auckland City Council want something from us — in this case a bit of money from the V8 races — then we’re part of Auckland. The Council badge the event ITM 500 Auckland, because that’s when they remember us. But, as we’ve seen, once the races are over, we’re forgotten. Our wireless networking goes back to being a generation behind what Vodafone choose to provide to towns with a fraction of our population. Our train service goes back to being weekdays only. Our diesel trains break down shuttling passengers the last few miles between Papakura and Pukekohe. And my home town is quietly forgotten for another year.

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