At 12.10am on Saturday 18 November, the last train arrived at Pukekohe station and ten minutes later, the manual signal machine was switched off forever.
A spokesperson for KiwiRail said the signal box at Pukekohe was closed after it reached the end of its useful life, and the signalling system has been upgraded.
Pukekohe railway station, like the rest of Auckland stations, is following suit by being operated from Wellington, rather than manually at the station.
“KiwiRail and AT have undertaken a joint project to upgrade the signalling system with a computer-based interlocking machine, allowing it to be automated and controlled from the National Train Control Centre in Wellington,” their spokesperson said. “All other stations on the Auckland Metropolitan network were re-signalled recently as part of the Auckland Electrification Project. However, as the electrification was not extended from Papakura to Pukekohe, the signalling at Pukekohe was left unchanged during that project.”
Stations like Britomart and Newmarket are believed to have changed over to computer-based systems in 2011. The signallers manage the trains as they arrive and leave Pukekohe, and change tracks.
“We are the last of the manual signallers in the upper North Island. There is one other manual operating system in Wellington,” said signalman Quentin Olsen. “We have signals down by the Raceway and by the two road bridges on Stadium Drive.”
KiwiRail say the system in use in the box dated from the 1920s, and parts for it were no longer available, adding to the reasons behind the change. However the employees see this as progress.
Quentin has been a signalman for 13 years, starting as an operator. The change means he will start in a different role at KiwiRail, something he is looking forward to. “It is bittersweet, but it’s exciting for the future.”
Paul Bryden has also been working at KiwiRail for a number of years. “I started in 1975 and left in 1981, before I came back eight years later and I’ve been here ever since.”
“I’ve seen a lot of progress while I’ve been here. It is the end of an era, but we’re moving forward. You want to keep moving forward.”
While Pukekohe as a town continues to see growth, there has also been a steady increase in train services. In 1999 there were two passenger trains passing through Pukekohe each day, now there are around 104 passenger trains and 34 freight trains.
“We see about 52 trains per shift,” Quentin said.
The trains will continue to travel to and from Pukekohe, but they will no longer be controlled by the men in the station.