The (quieter) romance of suburban rail
Melissa Laing on first kisses and poetry on Auckland’s Western Line, on the ordinary adventures to be had on the trains we almost threw away.
You wanna fight?
This invitation was genially delivered by a drunken teenage girl half my size as she bellied up to me at the entrance to Henderson Station. When I somewhat bemusedly said no, she turned and offered my date the same privilege. He also declined. Her friends shepherded her off as we climbed the stairs to the bridge above the platform to wait for the train to arrive. Giggling a little, we idly discussed the encounter, and then he leaned forward into me and we kissed. It was a first kiss, a clumsy, sober, inhibited kiss, bumping teeth and noses. It was only our second date and we were not quite sure which way we should tilt our heads, or if we were even really supposed to be intimate yet. The second kiss immediately following was better. But then the train came, and he rode the Western Line back into town.
It was a small and, in retrospect, somewhat insignificant evening filled with low key drama – fights that could have happened and beginnings that would prove to be short-lived. An evening that encapsulated the quieter romance – of possibility and regret – that runs along the suburban rail line. As Michael O’Leary wrote in 1988 in a poem Livin ina Aucklan’ set on the platform of the Western Line’s Avondale Station just after he’d stepped out of the train
a railway is the most melancholy of transport modes
and when you are aboard
the motion is one of subtle love-making
—as the train pulls out
from the station you stepped down at …
it is your lover leaving, rolling down the track
While its epic cousin, the cross-continent rail-trip, dominates the Anglo-American cultural imagination – in songs, novels and films adventurers, hobos and tourists ride the rail, from the cross-America freight train to the Orient Express, on journeys of geographic and personal discovery – the suburban train-lines have their stories, and poems too. This essay tells something of my slow romance with public transport and more recently the Western Line – the train line that sings through my life now.
It is the poor old 1880s Victorian relative to the streamlined 1930s Eastern Line, the after-thought to the Southern Line finished in 1875. It was the last Auckland line to be double-tracked, the last to get the electric trains and the last to go to a ten-minute frequency at peak, all only within the last few years. And even now, with all these mod cons, this line is still wrinkled and slow. But it hums with life. From the boisterous clatter of infrequent users adventuring with their special event tickets to Eden Park, and families travelling to free outdoor concerts, to the skulking young people discovering the world illicitly; from the bookends of the early morning commute and the rush for the last service of the night, to the literary shadows of Maurice Gee’s Jack Skeat, waiting to burst out of Central Station onto a dusty 1940 Queen St in Going West – the Western Line is filled with people living their lives between ordinariness and adventure, as the trains quietly change how we get around Auckland.
Originally built along the cheapest route to get freight north and people to the city’s cemetery, then far out of town, in Waikumete, the Western line curves around the Waitemata Harbour. The stations are close together and its path to the city indirect. It has been straightened as much as possible over the years and stops have been shifted and even lopped off its route but, compared to the Eastern Line with its wide curve ratios and well-spaced stations, it’s a winding goat track of a line. From Swanson’s green fields, dotted with the fast-rising timber frames of new suburban development, the tracks pass through the outer sprawl of Auckland, traversing the West's industrial zones. The trains roll along the tracks, ticking off the town centres – Ranui, Henderson, Glen Eden, New Lynn – while inside the carriages people talk, read, poke at their screens, and let the edges of their audio bubbles leak out the sides of their headphones. Just after the Avondale Stream joins with the Whau Creek, the tracks curve sharply, left then right, moving toward the inner regions of Auckland – Avondale, Mt Albert, Morningside, Kingsland, Mt Eden. Then the tracks slide off on a frustrating detour east into Newmarket where trains idle at the platform while their drivers walk end to end.
Unlike other Auckland train lines, the Western Line threads through the back yards of suburbs, affording its passengers glimpses of washing, back decks, trampolines and gardens, tarpaulin-covered piles of ‘stuff’
When the Central Rail Link opens that will be a thing of the past: the Western Line will veer left at Mt Eden towards K’ Road and Aotea Square, shaving 10 minutes off its running time and finally realising a loop that was first proposed in in 1923. But currently, Newmarket is where the Western Line joins the Southern Line. The tracks of the joint line then cut through the gully behind Parnell, curl around the back of the old Central Station and finally head down into the tunnels of Britomart. It’s a fifty-five minute journey end-to-end.
Through the carriages weave the people who work here: train managers, ticket inspectors, station security and the Māori Wardens, contracted as train security. The Wardens nod to the regular passengers, and text each other up and down the line, about people they’ve put off the train or refused to let on, drunk groups loitering on the platform, young kids without tickets late at night. On weekdays, Western Line trains make 140 trips a day: that’s over 128 hours of travel every 24 hours, Monday to Friday. The line is an entire ecosystem of people, places and infrastructure that both builds on the local histories of whenua and tāngata, and influences the future growth of Auckland – out and up.
Unlike other Auckland train lines, the Western Line threads through the back yards of suburbs, affording its passengers glimpses of washing, back decks, trampolines and gardens, tarpaulin-covered piles of ‘stuff’ and the trumpet flowers of the Blue Morning Glory as it grows over the forested banks of the cuts. If we look carefully, we can spot guerrilla vegetable gardens along the embankment. Every so often, there is the flash of an artwork: a street mural of the West’s literary luminaries, Maurices Gee and Shadboldt, and Dick Scott, painted on the side of a building in Henderson; Louise Purvis’ rippling concrete tiles cladding New Lynn Train Station; the bright green of the council-commissioned Billy Apple street corner near Eden Park.
As we roll through level crossings, lights and bells flashing, we encounter other modes of transport – paused cars, cyclists and waiting pedestrians. Little kids wave while hanging off the safety fence – the passing train still holds the power to enchant even as the sight of it becomes more commonplace.
When I first moved to Auckland in 1994 I drove everywhere. An 18-year-old student, fresh from Palmerston North, I was deeply immersed in the car culture I’d grown up with, and Auckland’s public transport was a bit shit. The bus down Dominion Road only ran every 20 minutes at peak hour, and once an hour on Sundays. I only knew the trains existed because of my friend Vivien. Once every month or so during term time, if I was leaving at around 4pm, I’d drop her at Newmarket to catch the Southern train home to Papakura. That you could even catch a train, that it might be more convenient than driving, boggled my mind.
In 1991 staff were seriously considering closing the rail service down: patronage was at an all-time low, the rolling stock was old and faulty, the train stations run down.
That year and the following were possibly the lowest point for passenger rail services in Auckland. Thanks to Rogernomics, New Zealand’s national rail system had been running as a profit-orientated (yet loss-making) State Owned Enterprise since 1986. It was privatised in 1993, a sacrifice to the ideology of the free market. Auckland’s suburban rail services had been shifted to Auckland Regional Authority control two years before, in 1991 and staff were seriously considering closing the rail service down. This perspective wasn’t necessarily unjustified – patronage was at an all-time low, the rolling stock was old and faulty, the train stations run down, an underinvestment driven by the opinion that public transport’s sole purpose was to make the carless mobile. After 36 years of conscious design, the car was king.
Thirty-six years? Yes, everyone points to the 1955 Auckland City Council Transport Master Plan as the turning point for Auckland. It successfully set the city on a path of motorway, suburb and bridge building that gutted neighbourhoods and embedded motor vehicles into the very fabric of the city. The plan marked a significant shift in mentality and the moment at which the roads began to supplant the railway as the main vector for personal freedom and economic gain in our civic discourse and public imagination. In 2015 Muhammad Imran and Jane Pearce published an analysis of the ways we talk about road and rail in the Urban Policy and Research Journal. They identified several main storylines promoting roading investment that have appeared in planning and policy documents, business case studies and public discussions since the 1950s. These, they reveal, are our default ways of thinking about and discussing transport. They underpin our assumptions about what will and won’t work.
Firstly there are the economic arguments for investing in roads: by increasing the carrying capacity and speed of travel on roads, efficiency is improved – people get places faster, more goods can be moved. As a result we will be more productive and our economic prosperity will increase. Given our general preoccupation with economic growth as the primary indicator of New Zealand’s well-being, it’s easy to understand why the arguments that link roads with prosperity are so successful. Next there’s the idea of better mobility. The fixed routes of rail have repeatedly been described as limited compared to the flexibility of the motor vehicle to go anywhere. Safety is also a strong theme. Money spent on road modifications is justified as engineering safer streets and reducing the road toll, but feeling unsafe while walking to and from train stops is seen as a reason to get in the car. And so all our safety efforts have been orientated towards driving, rather than trains, walking or cycling.
We built more roads for the cars we bought and moved to the low density suburbs which the cars enabled, which then led to more roads and more sprawl... until we couldn’t live without cars.
Alongside all these tropes is the grand myth of neoliberalism: personal freedom expressed through the ‘market’ (also known as consumer demand). The snowballing effect of perceived consumer demand meant we built more roads for the cars we bought and moved to the low density suburbs which the cars enabled, which then led to more roads and more sprawl, which led to more dependence on cars. Then our motorways filled up, so we widened them and extended them a little further out, and five years later they were full again. And so on, until we couldn’t live without cars. Or with them.
The problem with these storylines is that they demonstrate a historical ideological fixation on the private motor vehicle and on short-term economic gains. It was a fixation that refused to recognise that a city benefits from strong public transport in a myriad of ways, from the social to the economic, and there are other measures for well-being beyond money. Public transport advocates mobilise their own storylines of efficiency (more people and goods carried for less space and time saved on not sitting in traffic or looking for parking); of well-being through social contact and active mobility (people walking and cycling to the train station is a good thing!); the lower ecological impact of public transport; and the economic benefits all of these factors bring. They also point to our inevitable shift from sprawl to density, and the impacts that’s going to have on how we get around. Fortunately, attitudes are shifting, as can be seen with the growing consumer demand for public transport, for both the trains and the Northern Expressway busses.
Luckily for Auckland, in 1991 we didn’t turn the signals off and mothball the trains. Instead we started reinvesting. In 2014 Matt Lowrie from the Transport Blog credited Raymond Siddalls as the saviour of Auckland rail. Siddalls was the rail operations staffer on the spot who didn’t wind up the train service as planned. Instead he worked out that the rail system could operate at a profit and, pushing against the prevailing attitude, managed to get it sufficiently supported that private companies were willing to tender to run it.
If Auckland intensifies as expected, we’re going to have to get better at tolerating each other’s presence.
Matt is one of a number of citizen-advocates for multi-modal transport who have used the internet to generate and sustain a critical conversation around transport in Auckland. We met at Corban Estate, in Henderson where we both lived, and, like most Aucklanders, we talked about house prices, diminishing affordability and congestion. He argues that transport, urban design, and urban form or land use are all interrelated. “People don’t realise how deep [transport] goes and how it impacts over a wide spectrum. It’s like going down a rabbit hole and the deeper you go the more you realise how it interrelates with what we do. Transport links across health, welfare, education, economy. Transport is an enabler of everything else.”
If Auckland intensifies, as our Unitary Plan expects, more of us are going to be making decisions about where to live based on public transport and public park options and what they enable – we’re not all going to be able to afford garage space, or find road parking, certainly not for multiple cars per household. So, we’re only going to have to get better at tolerating each other’s presence in space and sharing resources. If you look at the unitary plan, medium- and high-density zoning clusters around the train lines.
For me, the slow shift from car to train was inextricably linked with romance. In my early twenties, I dated an artist who drove everywhere, asserting that walking was for squares. Occasionally he would accompany that assertion with an ironic square drawn in the air. After I moved to Napier, we’d hook up when he was visiting – his family lived in the Hawkes Bay. Once we drove to the surf beach he used to visit as a teenager and we made out in the back seat of the car, pretending we were 16, naive, sexually inexperienced and newly licensed.
We snogged for ages at the interchange, letting tram after tram go by, reluctant to part.
It took moving to Berlin in 2002 to permanently shift my attitude to public transport. I kissed my Bolivian boyfriend for the first time at the train station in Berlin. He wasn’t my boyfriend then, we’d only met that night at a friend’s dinner party and drunkenly flirted in the line for the toilet. When I went to leave, he came too, and rode the train past his stop and on to the end of the line where I’d change to the tram. We snogged for ages at the interchange, letting tram after tram go by, reluctant to part.
For the better part of a year I rode that tram and train to and from his apartment, crossing from East to West over the river Spree. I discovered the quiet joys of riding urban trains - from the pleasures of people watching to the thrills of dodging ticket inspectors. There was the discovery of a whole different side to the city - glimpses of the secret backs of buildings and courtyards and the tunnels. Berlin is a city that has had underground and suburban train lines for over a hundred years. Public transport use was normal, the city dense enough that my friendship network all lived without owning a car. More than normal, it was demonstrably convenient - quick, frequent and without the hassle of finding a car park. Here I learned the truth of the advice Yuri, a Moscow-based Russian friend, had given me a few years earlier – it doesn’t matter that you live further out, so long as you live within a 5 minute walk of a station.
My parents would press the car on me, worried about us getting home in the dark, the cold and the wet, and my boyfriend would respond with unhappy body language.
In 2009 I returned to an Auckland consciously rebuilding its train network. While I’d been overseas, living in Europe and Australia, the city had been reinventing itself. Rediscovering the value of public transport, cycling and walking. And while it still wasn’t perfect, it was better. Before I could fully slide back into car owning, I started dating a guy who was militantly anti private cars, believing that you couldn’t justify their ecological or social impacts. His ethics and insistence on consistency challenged me. Departures from family dinners in winter were a comedic interplay of competing positions. My parents would press the car on me, worried about us getting home in the dark, the cold and the wet, and my boyfriend would respond with unhappy body language and repeated assurances we’d be fine. My mood was the adjudicator. Was I feeling morally virtuous, physically active, tired, rushed or lazy? Did I want to idle home, holding his hand while chatting at the bus stop or have a post-prandial walk? Or did I just damn well want to get there – only to have to return the car the next day? Looking back, I think making the offer was my mother’s sneaky way of increasing my visits.
By 2014, when I moved out to Henderson, I was determinedly without car. I’d chosen my house like Yuri told me, circling the train stations and calculating feasible distances. In June that year I started riding the Western Line; a year later I was experiencing a first kiss on a second date on the train bridge. There was no letting train after train go by this time. Instead we kept an ear out for the train, conscious not only of its imminent arrival but also of performing a private act in front of other travellers and security staff. The romance was quieter on a home line.
After I started researching this essay I’d look out the window as we rolled along, trying to spot where the old stations used to be. Their names – St George's Street, Croydon Road, Westbrook – tell me where they would have been. But I found nothing, their remains have been cleared away. Sometimes, when the train is cancelled, I feel like it has disappeared in the same way that these old stations have, with little trace and only my desire and seeking-for-it left.
Once I start looking though, I realise that there are a few old train station buildings holding on at the edges of the new stations. Henderson’s original building now serves as the African Welfare Services hub providing both a community meeting space and a secondhand store, clothing strung on the fence between the station platform and the old building. The old Avondale Train Station building currently sits in Swanson and is the home to the Swanson Railway Station Cafe. Parents take their young children on exciting rail outings to the end of the line, fitting in a coffee and fluffy and a play on the neighbouring park swings before taking the train home. Beyond Swanson, a lonely single track carries on to the Waitakere Township and Helensville Stations, their passenger services now discontinued. Only the freight trains travel north.
Alexander McFarlane was killed after he slipped and fell on the line in front of an oncoming train but the description of the ghost does not match his family’s photos.
The historic Glen Eden Station building, perched on the side of the new platform as if it were always there, is, in fact, relocated from its old position closer to Waikumete cemetery. The Western Line originally terminated there. Each week, the special Sunday Cemetery train would bring bodies out to Waikumete for burial in white-cross-marked boxcars. The mourners would travel that train too. Now the Glen Eden station building, too, is a restaurant, one where you can reputedly encounter a ghost. According to websites devoted to recording paranormal New Zealand, the ghost is of Alexander McFarlane who died in January 1924. He was a Tablet Porter, the person who made sure that trains didn’t collide head-on on the then single track line by ensuring they held the tablet – a token the train crew received as a guarantee they were the only train on the line. An assurance against a head-on-crash. Alexander McFarlane was killed after he slipped and fell on the line in front of an oncoming train but the description of the ghost does not match his family’s photos.
In 1993 Maurice Gee captured this old Western Line in his book Going West, about two men, Jack Skeat and Rick Petley, who grew up together in ‘Loomis’ – Henderson by a fictionalised name. According to Jack there were three ways from Loomis to Auckland in the 1940s: the green and yellow ABC buses, the (now gone) tram, and the train. Gee’s account of the train trip, written in Jack’s voice, echoes our experience of today’s journey only now the track’s a little straighter, the stories a little taller and the fields between Loomis and Glen Eden can be found further out – in Swanson.
Jack’s train worms and creeps through cuttings to Avondale then “stabs onward like a knife”. At Mt Eden prisoners break stones in a quarry beside the train line. His train plunges into the mysterious darkness of the Newmarket Tunnel where anything could happen. Sitting in our well-lit electric trains it’s hard to imagine Gee’s myth (perhaps fabricated, perhaps remembered) that once in the Newmarket Tunnel “a Seddon Tech boy rooted his sheila and they both had their pants pulled up and were sitting as though nothing had happened by the time the train came out the other end.” This description of Gee’s, capturing one of the train’s “odd bits of drama and a back view of things” was later turned into an urgently voiced, animated film.
Travelling on the train one afternoon I bump into a friend of my sister’s from her university days. He’s currently working as a train manager, a job he describes as surprisingly enjoyable. This is the fifth career he’s tried in twenty-odd years, having started out as a hotel concierge, retrained as an auditor, shifted into Human Resources and become a personal trainer. Conversations along the line are one of the job’s pleasures. I end up talking with a lot of people on the train too. That, and listening in to a lot neighbouring conversations conducted in outdoor voices.
“I don’t usually ride the train” one of them said “only poor people ride the train.”
For me, conversations with strangers spark up over route consultations, are triggered by mutual bicycle admiration, or happen because somebody is feeling chatty. We’re all in a moving bubble of space, waiting to arrive together. I’ve advised young adults on their employment rights at Grafton Station and shared what I know about Ane Tonga’s work while looking at her billboard photos of sports fields and housing developments at Henderson Station. I’ve been told funny anecdotes and listened to speculation about the upcoming game at Eden Park while sitting in the carriage. As for overheard conversations, I’ve never forgotten riding the train on a Friday night in Sydney in 2008, sitting near two suited men in their late-twenties. “I don’t usually ride the train” one of them said “only poor people ride the train.” The unthinking arrogance and prejudice of the twin ideas held in that statement – that you shouldn’t associate with poor people, and that they are the sole users of public transport – still trouble me today.
Riding the Western Line at peak hour debunks any assumptions about who uses the train. One morning I sit opposite a 50-something woman in an expensive wool suit, beside a man in his thirties in corporate casual, and diagonally across from a student working through her homework, as they all commute to the city. Coming home another night, a stylish early-40s man pulls a wad of architectural plans for a high-density-living building out of his case and marks changes as we gently sway along the line. I see tradespeople dusty from a day’s work alongside insurance brokers and council staff shuttling between local board offices.
Improved rail services effectively pull areas near stations closer to the city, increasing property and rental values. The pull becomes a push, shunting poorer residents further out into the next fare zone.
Throughout the day I see parents with young kids and elderly riding with their Gold Cards, school kids and, yes, people in evident financial hardship, their conversations swirling around encounters with social services and transitory jobs. For many of these users, the trains are a chosen option rather than a necessity. For others, public transport and shanks’ pony are their only ways of getting around. Either way it is an option that supports and enables people’s needs rather than constrains them.
However, the disparity of incomes on the train line reminds us that we need think about the implications of train-driven gentrification. Think about not just what transport enables, but also what it impacts. Improved rail services effectively pull areas near stations closer to the city, increasing property and rental values, changing the makeup of neighbourhoods. The pull becomes a push, shunting poorer residents further out into the next fare zone. The increased price is paid in both time and money.
It’s after school in early June 2016 at the Sturges Rd Station and I’m thinking about this essay when I turn around to watch a ticket inspector standing out the door of a train, making sure the youth he kicked off doesn’t get on again. The ticket inspectors do this a lot, standing in doorways to obstruct entrance, or on the platform to deter people without tickets from entering the train. Only that week I’d been thinking the ticket inspectors seemed calmer, less aggressive about their work. It was a welcome change from the previous year, over which I’d noticed a rising hostility and overheard many contemptuous conversations about youths on trains. More than once I’d seen an inspector stand intimidatingly over a youth trying to find the ticket they’d bought and shoved in their bags. The thing is, statistically the largest group of public transport users are school children and young adults, particularly the 15 to 24 age group. Alienating them isn’t really forward-thinking about customer retention in the long term.
Three months earlier, on an intermittently rainy day in March, I’d travelled out to Ranui on the train to visit a graffiti mural that the Ranui Action Project was creating, connecting well-known graffiti artist Berst with the kids they worked with. Many of the young people I met are known to the police for truancy, graffiti, fare evasion and other ‘anti-social’ offences. There isn’t a lot of work available in the area, and no local secondary schools, so many of the youth regularly travel down to Henderson or further afield. Very few of them have access to a car, let alone a driver’s licence, so public transport, walking and cycling are the main ways to get around. Ranui is an economically deprived area, and few of the young people that community organiser and artist Edith Amituanai works with have visited the city centre. Their lives revolve around West Auckland.
There is an automatic distrust of youth travelling the trains, doubled when they are Māori or Pacific: “ticket inspectors are rude, they got to give politeness to get politeness back."
When I ask the youth (mainly young men) that I saw that day if they used the trains, I got a wide variety of responses. Most of the guys I spoke to used the trains to get around West Auckland, to visit their friends, to shop, study, see their probation officer, get to the doctors or access social services. Henderson, the heart of the former Waitakere City, is where most of these activities intersect. A few of them stayed within Ranui, only going as far as they could easily get on their bicycle – friends’ houses, local shops, the community centre. However, the train stations are still pivotal in their social life, a place to meet and hang out. One boy said “without the trains I wouldn’t have met most of these people here.”
Talking with these young guys confirmed what I’d noticed while riding the trains – the worst is assumed of young people. These guys see that there is an automatic distrust of youth travelling the trains, doubled when they are Māori or Pacific. As one of them said: “they come straight to us, the ticket inspectors. For example, yesterday I had my ticket and I sat at the back and there was this whole line of people and they walked past all of these people and came straight to me.” He went on to complain that “I have a ticket and they still kick me off, they accuse me of fighting on the train.” Another of the young guys had a story about the time his paper ticket was confiscated after he tried to leave an ungated station with the intention of returning as he’d just missed the train. He felt that they’d robbed him of his money as his ticket was valid for 2 hours after purchase. I could hear how aggrieved the guys I spoke with were about this rising cycle of hostility. The ticket inspectors don’t talk with them, they said, instead the inspectors start in an antagonistic manner: “they get lippy, they give me that ugly look”. One of the older youth admitted he’s hostile back, saying “ticket inspectors are rude, they got to give politeness to get politeness back. If they treat us rude, I don’t see why we should be nice back to them.”
The young guys weren’t angry with the Māori Wardens, like they are with the ticket inspectors. They feel respected by them.
These same youth acknowledge that they don’t always buy a ticket, that they do fool around on the trains, and have been known to tag in the carriages and platforms. Riding the line I’ve experienced these teenagers – travelling in a bubble of self absorption, all sprawled limbs and noise. They can scare people. But fortunately so far I’ve only ever been irritated or amused by them. The young guys I spoke with weren’t angry with the Māori Wardens who police the trains, like they are with the ticket inspectors. They feel respected by them. The Māori Wardens, who are contracted to provide on-board security, will put youth off the train if they’ve been disturbing people on the train or refuse them entry if they’ve been making trouble at the train station, but they’ll also chat with them, and sometimes let them ride even if they don’t have a ticket if it’s the last train home. They are more attuned to the complicated social and economic dynamics of fare evasion. Part of the reason tickets aren’t bought is that money’s tight – the kids and their families have got better things to spend it on than train tickets: food, housing, clothes.
The last teenager I spoke with was the polar opposite of his friends who’d never stepped foot on the train. He’d roamed wide and far – cruising out to Glen Innes to check out Te Oho, taking a day trip to Manukau with his mates. He’d routinely stay out late into the night and come back from town hopping station to station as he and his friends were repeatedly turfed off. More than once they’ve ended up walking home along the train lines from Kingsland after the last train came and went, listening for the freight trains run through the night.
People do die trespassing on the train lines or running across the tracks when the signals say stop. It happens a few times a year but is rarely publicly announced as a reason for a delay over the tannoy. Their deaths appear as simple hundred-word announcements in the newspaper with headlines like ‘Train hits woman in west Auckland’, ‘Auckland train victim named’, ‘Man dead after being hit by a train in West Auckland’. Apparently it is a possibility you live with as a train driver in New Zealand, where level crossings are common. The deaths are the obvious tragedy, but the train drivers, who may escape physical damage from the impact, still have to live with the psychological aftermath of the accident – flashbacks, sleepless nights, overwhelming sadness, anxiety and anger. Former train driver Rachel Stewart: “Even though I haven't stepped foot inside the cab of a locomotive since the late ’80s, I still have the occasional dream about accidents and near misses – both real and imagined – which wake me in a cold sweat.”
With this in mind I very carefully described an alternate route home along New North Rd, to St Jude St then up the length of Great North Rd to avoid the freight trains, but I doubt he’ll use it given his blithe assurance to me that “you can hear them, they’re loud as”.
Eight months later, on 11 November 2016, I’m hanging out with Edith Amituanai and the Ranui youth again, only this time in Avondale, for Urbanesia. They’ve just ridden the train down from Henderson, along with a crowd of people, who are part of the burgeoning network of people in West Auckland marrying the arts and social activism. Tommy Nee and Sherydon Ngaropo, musicians with The Creatives Souls Project in Avondale, performed songs in the carriage through-out the ride. Everybody is filled with a upbeat hum, the joy of riding the train in a creative celebration of West Auckland is palpable.
They started their journey in Henderson because Edith’s photographs of Ranui youth have been installed on the billboards by the Henderson station for the whole of the month, as well as in the bus shelters in both the Henderson and Avondale town centres. Her images celebrate the young men and women of West Auckland, filled with physical energy and joy. ‘Tjay and the human flag’, installed at the train station, shows a young man hoisting himself up to fly horizontally like a flag. The other billboard features a cluster of young men on a concrete basketball court, one of them caught in mid air as he shoots. The train trip created a ceremonial link between Henderson and Avondale for that evening and the possibilities of the Western Line shimmered over us, holding at bay O’Leary’s melancholy regrets. Instead the evening lies firmly alongside the spirit of third stanza of his poem Livin’ ina Aucklan’, where he writes:
but I defend the suburban services
saying romance is not confined to the Orient Express
and Mount Albert is as important as Montmartre
if you live there.
In 2008 a 58 year-old O’Leary revisited Auckland in poem, capturing a trip out West along the train line, reworking his many poems set on the train lines, ‘Passing Young’s Lane’, ‘Livin’ ina Aucklan’, ‘Morningside Station’, that he’d published in a slim volume of the same title Livin’ ina Aucklan’. On the one hand, he finds that it has all changed from the Auckland of his thirties. The backs of factory buildings in Eden Terrace don’t care that he used to work there, and the prison walls are indifferent to his remembered visits. However, he finds there’s still graffiti in Morningside, still “New York subway copy-cats”. He turns around at Waitakere station and passes through a dingy as yet un-renovated Newmarket station. The poem captures the line as it is changing. Now, things have moved on again. Nine years later Newmarket gleams, and Waitakere station is closed, but the New York subway copy-cats still paint on. In January this year a crew bombed one of the new electric trains – ‘TDT’ is written in slick teal and green bubble letters, vibrating on a cloud of red.
Looking back at 1994, it no longer boggles my mind that Vivien would choose to use the train. Instead I wonder at the fact that we almost threw them away. In 2017, the 1991 level of abandonment that the train lines laboured on through seems distant, our attitudes to them have so radically changed. We can see that passenger numbers are steadily rising and they’ve cut the ribbon on the Central Rail Link dig. Rail is clearly romancing Aucklanders again.