RWC chaos - three surprises & some finger pointing

Looking at the meltdown on the Auckland waterfront on RWC opening night, why didn't National MP's push the alarm button? And why did McCully's own committee predict no more than 50,000 people?

I'm one of the council appointed directors of Auckland Transport and so out of solidarity with its beleaguered officials I attended the Auckland Council Committee meeting which reviewed the disorder surrounding the opening Rugby World Cup game the preceding Friday.

It was a truly fascinating experience; with the kind of media presence you just don’t see when the agenda only includes trivial items like the future shape of New Zealand’s one big city.

Number one, everyone apologised. The mayor apologised, the CEO of ATEED (Auckland Tourism Events & Economic Development) apologised, the CEO of Auckland Transport apologised. Several of the councillors were sorry too.

What they were sorry about was bit unclear, given that only 68 rugby punters have come forward to say they’d missed the game, plus about four hundred who said they were late because of the transport problems.

I think what they were really sorry about were the TV images of people escaping becalmed trains and the wall-to-wall negative publicity which followed.

This sure as hell took the edge of the biggest knees-up Aucklanders have had in years and, as the ever-perceptive Duncan Garner observed, threatened to derail National’s carefully planned re-election campaign.

After the apologies, everyone then proclaimed that they weren’t about to apportion blame and then, more or less openly, did exactly that.

Two of the Councillors asked the right questions.

George Wood from the North Shore tried to find out who was actually running the show. He made the very fair point that if it had been a civil defence emergency, which it easily could have been, there would have been some clearly identifiable parade marshal.

RWC Minister McCully in his normal fashion pulled the strings via a body called The Queens Wharf Management Committee (QWMC) consisting of government, council and ATEED representatives. Auckland Transport had no direct representation or input into projected attendance numbers.

This outfit made some strange decisions. It was, for example, at its initiative that the giant inflatable rugby ball was placed on Queens Wharf, reducing the capacity of the venue by 4000.

It’s understandable that Minister McCully wouldn’t want to share the glory by naming some sort of supremo, but the result was patently headless-chook dysfunctionality.

This led to problem number two, exposed by isthmus councillor, Cameron Brewer who pursued a line of questioning around the prediction of turnout down at the Waterfront.

In his Herald column my old mate Paul Holmes says “and no crowd predictions were ever made we learnt this week”

Unusually, Paul hadn’t done his homework.

The official QWMC prediction was revealed in Auckland Transport’s CEO’s report to the Auckland Council committee reviewing the mess.

“Advice provided to Auckland Transport by the event organisers indicated that the anticipated numbers attending the CBD Waterfront public celebration event was 30,000 to 50,000 people.”

I beg your pardon?

As Councillor Brewer pointed out, any Aucklander can tell you that a 100,000 plus turnout for a freebie is regular occurrence as evidenced by Santa Parades and concerts in the Domain.

As late as the Monday before the game these figures still featured in the official event plan circulated by ATEED to all of the stakeholders including RWC Minister McCully and, one would, think National Party campaign manager and Transport Minister, Steven Joyce.

Auckland Transport did the sensible thing, took that prediction with a grain of salt and laid on every bit rail capacity at its disposal. This would have allowed 100,000 to get into the City.

In the event a human tsunami of something like 200,000 punters made the journey, either to the Waterfront or the game. They crowded the stations and packed the trains. They had heart attacks and other assorted conniptions, walked and piddled on the tracks, and tried riding on the locomotives. 

It started early and went on for hours.

Three things are surprising.

  • First - no one died – and that’s down to the professionalism of the Veolia staff who stopped when humans were on the rail corridor or in extremis and got the trains going again just as soon as the law allowed.
  • Second, that the system and its operators coped as well as it did. Despite the intense pressure, only sixty-eight people are claiming to have missed the game because of the transport system and four hundred say they were late.

The no-show rate at the game was one per cent, well below the norm of 3-5%, and the Veolia operated AT trains cleared the stadium within the planned seventy minutes.

Lack of investment in public transport going back more than half a century means that Veolia operates a vintage train set on behalf of Auckland Transport.

Some of the carriages were manufactured before Don Brash was born.

They don’t have toilets, and few have anything approaching good air conditioning.

The locomotives that pull the carriages are like King Charles’ axe – ten new handles and six new blades.

It’s a small miracle that none of the train delays were attributable to break-downs or the track falling apart. This is another tribute to the system operators.

  • Third, and most surprising, that the downtown crowd estimate of “thirty to fifty thousand people” got past McCully, Joyce and the PM, whose re-election campaign opening was the opening game.

Given Councillor Brewer’s simple statement of fact, that crowds well in excess of thirty to fifty thousand were unexceptional, why didn’t the key players in National’s election campaign structure, namely Joyce and McCully, push the alarm button?

After all, if you look at the whole schemozzle from a campaign manager’s point of view what you wanted was media concentrating on the PM and just how well this country’s coping with multiple nasties like earthquakes and still stunning the world with its ability to mount a major tournament.

What McCully delivered Joyce was an orgy of finger pointing.

Not a good look for the Tourism Minister either.