DISABILITY ACCESSBy disabilities commentator Jim Webber (Chair: Kapiti Disabilities Reference Group) 26th February 2010
First an admission: I hadn’t ridden on a train in New Zealand since the mid-1960s, so maybe my expectations were channeled on the high side — specially when I beheld a fridge-sized non-skid stainless ramp being flopped into place on the 11.05am unit to Petone from Wellington’s Platform 8.
Two attendants helped push my powerchair up the steep ramp and I manoeuvred into place easily in one of two wheelchair parks within the carriage. A car-type seatbelt extends to provide more security if you need it.
The unit moved away quietly and soon brought the past rushing back. It was noisy. As noisy as in the mid-1960s, I’d guess. Travellers raised their voices loudly to communicate. It was good to unload at Petone, where a glimpse of the future began to take shape.
At Petone the platforms have been stretched and raised and edge-surfaced with textured panels that help visually impaired travellers. The railway tracks have been lowered so that 680mm is the approved distance from rail to platform. Many of the train stations in the greater Wellington region have platform-height variations that might have been specified on the back of railway-cafe dockets; they’re often very different.
The carpark on the Western Hutt Road side of the Petone platform now has wheelchair-friendly access and improved park-and-ride space. It’s a long, hard, arm-straining manual-chair slog on the overhead bridge to the south-bound platform but no problem for a standard-issue powerchair. I suspect the subway could be easier. Although the overhead ramps are regulation one-in-12 slopes they are long and need some intermediate landings to give manual-chair users, also pram, walking frame and buggy-pushers, some respite.
The future glimpse arrived from the Wairarapa at 12.03pm. The diesel-hauled carriages glided closer to the platform, an electric hoist purred out of a doorway and took me and my powerchair aboard and lo . . . into a modern carriage with tea and coffee machine, information display panels, reading lights, toilets even!
And quiet! A Wairarapa passenger, just awake from slumber, whispered that the coffee was good today. The new Matangi trains, I’m assured, will be even quieter. Better. However I’ve got to say that the levels of comfort and accessibility in the present Waiarapa units are excellent and I’m impatient for the Matangis to hit the Kapiti line corridor and give us an alternative to the horrendous peak-hours drive and the equal nightmare of possible breakdown of the ancient electric units that will clank and growl through the coming winter on the Kapiti line.
The oldest EMUs, as they’re called (electric multiple units) are English Electrics that entered service in 1938. They’ll be the first to retire when the Matangi trains arrive late this year on order from Greater Wellington Regional Council. Next-oldest are the Hungarian Ganz Mavag units that were ordered in 1979 and refurbished extensively in the late 1990s.
The Matangi presence on the greater-Wellington network will involve 35 two-car units, built by Rotem-Mitsui, a Korean-Japanese consortium, and costing $210 million of which the majority is being funded by Land Transport NZ along with part of the upgrades like the double-tracking work and electrification of the line to Waikanae.
The point of checking out the platform upgrade at Petone and trying out the disability access equipment was to show some of us in the disabilities field what’s happening about the troubled rail service. Greater Wellington Regional Council organised it as part of its quarterly disability advisory group meetings schedule.
For me it was also an insight into how a once-proud capital city railway station can become a shabby and unpleasant place to visit. Covered car parking? Forget it. Park over on the wharves. If you’re early you might get a place to park. Then plod across Waterloo Quay to the great hulk that used to be a proud guardian of the city’s northern portal. It was NZ’s biggest building when opened in 1937, designed by W. Gray Young who was noted for his neo-Georgian styles and it was immensely strong — concrete over steel and clad with bricks specially designed for reinforcing rods.
Within, if you haven’t been here for 40 years, prepare to find the concourse invaded by a mini supermarket, the old cafe much reduced in the foyer. Just as well perhaps that the old statue of Kupe and friends, a towering relic of the 1940 Centennial Exhibition that stood 40 years in Wellington Railway Station, was relocated and re-cast many years ago — there just wouldn’t be room for it these days.
There is short-term (30 minutes) parking near the southern entrance. From a disabilities point of view there is, sadly, no wheelchair ramp here — if you unload a pram or a pushchair, prepare to drag it up the old stone steps, go round towards the west-side bus link or else walk around past crumbling kerbs to get in at Platform 9 where I negotiated a cluttered ramp.
There are positive echoes of the past in the public toilets. KiwiRail and Ontrack occupy the east wing, Victoria University of Wellington the west. Even the administration offices are, well, poky by modern standards and reached by a round-the-corner ramp and heavy doors to a lift lobby.
Modernisation seems to have been put off forever because it’s a Category 1 “heritage building”: Yeah, right. When you look at what’s happened at Wellington Hospital in recent times, heritage seems to actually gain from thoughtful reassessment driven by user-friendly function rather than form, specially when that once-grand form has been so compromised.
Here’s a short history of NZ railways as it moves towards the 21st century:
1870 start of the NZ Railways Department
1895 to 1993 there was a Minister of Railways
1980 NZRD becomes NZ Railways Corporation
1982 NZRC becomes a State-owned Enterprise
1983 Deregulation opens rail directly to road competition
1993 Government sells NZRC to a North American led consortium
1995 NZRC becomes Tranz Rail Holdings Ltd
2003 Tranz becomes unprofitable. NZ Government takes a 35 percent stake and injects $44 million. Australian-owned Toll Holdings buys Tranz Rail
2004 Toll sells the rail network itself back to the NZ Government for $1 in exchange for exclusive operating rights.
2008 NZ Government buys the Toll NZ rail and sea operations back from Toll Holdings for $690 million.
Toll NZ was twice nominated for the Roger award for worst transnational corporation in NZ. Tranz Rail, which Toll took over, won the award three times and was inducted into the “Hall of Shame” in 2003. The awards recognise former NZ finance minister Sir Roger Douglas who ushered in market-oriented reforms in the 1980s.