By Michael Nicholson
Reinstating national passenger rail is logical, it really should be as simple as purchasing a fleet of new trains and progressively upgrading or building new stations - there are of course a number of other things which must happen beforehand, all of which require political will, pragmatism, investment and commitment.
It is not that long ago that New Zealand had a passenger rail network with good national coverage, most of the network was injudiciously dismantled in the early-to-mid 2000’s. Since then, our population has grown, our roads have become busier and more dangerous, greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector are high and have continued to increase year-on-year, our regions have become less connected with a serious lack of transport options to choose from, and public consciousness has intensified around climate change and what this means for our future.
There is a growing call for modern passenger rail to take a more fundamental role in New Zealand's transport. The recent Select Committee Inquiry into the future of inter-regional passenger rail, and research by 'Save Our Trains', clearly shows strong support for national passenger rail, and that support crosses the political spectrum.
Most countries are improving and expanding their passenger rail networks as a means of climate action and to better connect their people. Passenger rail systems around the world are seen as basic public infrastructure and are enjoying increased investment in new equipment, modern night trains, high speed and fast rail, new and expanded routes.
In recent years the government of New Zealand has invested in rail track and infrastructure rehabilitation, following a prolonged period of neglect. Now it is time to advance transformational improvements which will permit the development of modern passenger rail. Long-distance trains are needed to help reduce New Zealand's reliance of road and air travel, trains are an excellent way to affect mode change, reduce emissions, connect cities and regions, improve transport resilience, save lives and rejuvenate regional economies. Trains which connect our regions are the missing link in New Zealand’s public transport system.
KiwiRail's passivity and indifference towards long-distance passenger rail for public transport, sets the scene for passenger rail In New Zealand. KiwiRail is the rail industry leader - government, organisations and people listen to them, their institutionalised ‘can't do’ attitude is not helpful and undoubtably influences general perception. To be fair, KiwiRail is juggling a few balls, freight and ferry operations, major unplanned events, catch up maintenance on infrastructure, and some big upgrade projects. The constraints of being a State-Owned Enterprise also come into play. At this time, it is likely easiest for KiwiRail to preserve energy by suppressing the development of long-distance passenger rail, for public transport needs.
On a brighter note, KiwiRail has aspirations to develop an important area of passenger travel, high end tourism trains. They are currently progressing some exciting plans in this area.
Presently one of the biggest problems for re-establishing a national network is the lack of centralised planning and co-ordination. Central government needs to provide planning leadership and capital funding, in much the same way as state highways - this is a matter of consistency. Passenger rail development needs a triple bottom line approach, considering social, environmental and economic benefits. It is unrealistic to expect individual regional authorities to advance trains which cross multiple regional boundaries, the process for starting new long-distance trains (if you can call it a process) is incredibly convoluted and delivers few results. There is also a gap in government policy around funding the operation of cross boundary passenger services - systems to fund capital improvements and operations need to be developed, impediments need to be removed.
It seems likely the best solution for advancing a national network is to take passenger rail off KiwiRail, then form a separate centralised not-for-profit passenger rail agency.
The agency needs clear expectations around developing a masterplan for improvement and expansion, with a schedule of work for staged and managed development. The masterplan needs to include a standard fleet of modern low emissions trains for use on services across the national network, also modern night trains for the Auckland to Wellington route. The agency would investigate, analyse, consult and plan network development, then project manage and operate /or contract out operations to standards set by the agency. A national network approach, rather than an ad hoc services approach, has advantages of scale and big picture insights. Standardising equipment, infrastructure, maintenance, training and processes, along with better utilisation of equipment and staff will provide efficiencies.
The last chapter of Andre Brett's book, 'Can't Get There From Here' is well worth a read on its own, it is a real gem! Ideas in this chapter around how New Zealand's future passenger rail network might look are refreshing and exciting - "We could have it all".
What could modern passenger rail with national coverage look like in New Zealand?
Identifying Some Benefits of National Passenger Rail
• Safe travel and reduction of the risk of people dying on New Zealand's roads.
• Connected cities, regions and communities.
• Improved transport options and improved quality of life, for those who cannot / should not / do not want to drive. Important when considering NZ's aging population.
• Reduced emissions pollution, working toward carbon neutral NZ by 2050.
• Reduced and avoiding road traffic congestion, train travel is also an efficient use of time which enables people to work, read, relax or sleep whilst travelling.
• Reduced reliance on air and road transport, improving transport resilience.
• Provides additional travel options on corridor routes (Capital Connection & Te Huia), new national trains will feed into existing corridors.
• Helps to reduce the need for households to own additional vehicles, saving families money and reducing carbon emissions.
• Provides a sense and feeling of linked-up nationhood, national pride.
• Good for New Zealand's reputation internationally, presents a modern country with 1st world infrastructure which is taking positive action on climate change.
• Helps to rejuvenate smaller regional centres, making them realistic living alternatives through improved access to education / employment / healthcare / entertainment and family.
• Increased regional New Zealand's economic and tourism potential through improved access.
• New trains can (and should) be assembled in New Zealand, with a high local content for the manufacture of trains. This will flow onto economic and employment opportunities for local New Zealand businesses.
• Provides professional and skilled employment nationwide, assembly facilities and long-term maintenance can be sited in regional centres, as can operations depots -once train assembly is complete staff can be transferred to long term train maintenance, providing long term regional employment opportunities.
Modern Booking and Payment System
Ideally a modern, simple to use, app-based national booking and payment system.
This should include timetables in real-time, up-to-departure ticket purchase for travellers and bikes. Tickets should be prepaid before boarding trains and automatically include frequent-user discounts based on the emissions reduction of travelling by train.
Traveller information could automatically be relayed to train staff and provide information on where trains needed to stop, and how many passengers are boarding.
Long-distance and inter-regional passenger trains should be included in the national public transport ticket system.
Railway stations are an important part of the passenger rail experience, they need to be attractive, safe and where possible placed close to central/CBD areas - they should become community transport hubs, by integrating trains with other modes and other transport systems. An assessment of location should be made before upgrading takes place. Consideration needs to be given to ease of access, parking, bike access, passenger shelters and facilities, new stations could be of a prefabricated design to help to simplify work, hardware, signage and timetable display should provide a uniform network image. Larger stations should provide nice waiting lounges, luggage stowage (lockers) and possibly some form of catering.
There should be an investigation of the potential for bike and scooter hire facilities, where passengers can reserve and guarantee availability of a bike upon arrival. This feature might be attached to the new passenger rail booking app.
• Not all smaller regional stations need to be of city metro station standards. Trains can be adapted to use stations which are built to lesser specifications, making inclusion of smaller regional stations more viable.
• New electric or hybrid trains would allow Te Huia and other inter-regional trains to access Britomart station, using two central terminating platforms (currently) 3 & 4.
• Investigate relocation /or additional new stations at more central locations, such as: Levin, Featherston, Hamilton etc. Where stations cannot be made more central, efforts should be made to incorporate bus routes (local and longer distance) to existing stations.
• Upgrade the Strand station in Auckland, to make it more attractive and pedestrian friendly. Once upgraded it will be a good station for night trains and trains which pass through Auckland to/from Northland. The Strand has good levels of operational flexibility and network access, whilst allowing for trains to stand for extended periods.
• Investing in a new passenger rail platform at the upgraded Cook Strait ferry terminal in Picton would be desirable.
• Establish a new central Christchurch station for use of long-distance, inter-regional and local commuter trains, possibly close to the previous Moorhouse Avenue station location.
Our new national network now needs a fleet of modern trains. New trains will greatly improve passenger rail performance, modern trains are typically low-to-zero emissions, self-propelled, lighter, flexible, designed for bi-directional operation, fast accelerating, possibly of tilt train design (becoming more common) and designed for fast boarding and detraining of passengers to reduce station dwell times. A standard fleet of modern trains will reduce maintenance, training and operational costs, they can be outfitted as required for specific needs and should be assembled in New Zealand, with a high local content requirement built into the manufacturing contract.
First and Standard Class should be considered, this provides a natural split between expectations around comfort and cost.
Recently approved new trains for the Lower North Island could be used as a template for standard Inter-regional trains and potentially on long-distance routes across New Zealand. These new trains are proposed to be of a tri-mode design, with the ability to operate as AC electric / DC electric / battery / small combustion backup engine and can be adapted to the individual needs of each route, such as AC electric traction which would allow Te Huia to access Britomart station /or AC, DC and battery operation for trains over the Auckland to Wellington route. Interiors can be fitted out to include better seating and catering on longer routes.
Orders for additional trains of this standard design could subsequently be placed as the national network develops and grows.
Tilt Train technology is becoming more common and should be considered for New Zealand. For many years Tilt Trains have played an extensive part in longer distance passenger train operations in Japan, which uses the same "cape gauge" track (3.6") as New Zealand. Tilt Trains, in some cases, can travel around curves up to 35% faster than conventional trains. This increases average speed over a route and reduces travel time, without the need to alter the track infrastructure significantly. Tilt Trains could be ideal on routes such as Wellington to Auckland (daytime express), Wellington to New Plymouth, Wellington to Napier, Auckland to Whangarei and Opua.
Opportunities may exist to trial Tilt Train technology; Japan has a fleet of Tilt Trains (HOT7000 series) which may soon become available for purchase, or lease. These trains could be rebuilt and tested over different routes in New Zealand.
Night trains should be fitted out with sleeper compartments, lay flat seats and standard sit-up seating, showers, and a lounge car. They could be either modern multiple unit style trains /or more conventional carriage trains. Brand new sleeper carriages have recently been built for the State Railway of Thailand, a fleet of these attractive and modern sleeper trains would be an excellent option for New Zealand.
In part two of this blog, I will delve more deeply into the types of services that could be offered in New Zealand.
By Darren Davis and Malcolm McCracken
Figure 1 V/Locity train at Southern Cross Station. Credit: Darren Davis
Thursday’s budget announcements have given some faint glimmers of hope for the future of passenger rail in Aotearoa, but we have some way to go before we get close to passenger rail fulfilling its potential here. The following article outlines how far and how fast the Australian state of Victoria has gone with rebuilding regional and long-distance rail over the past two decades. This can and should be a role model for passenger rail in Aotearoa.
Railways were one of the great inventions of the Victorian era. They transformed mobility in Great Britain and the entire world, including Aotearoa, opening up vast new possibilities for business, interpersonal connections and enabling everyone to travel for leisure for the first time. This transformational power of rail was critical to the development of Aotearoa and, until the middle of the last century, connected virtually the entire country. However, since then rail was allowed to wither on the vine, subsumed by aviation and driving as the primary forms of mobility and the focus of government policy and investment.
Elsewhere, huge rail revivals have been going on over the past two decades, spearheaded by high-profile high speed rail networks in Europe and Asia; the revival of night trains in Europe and heavy investment in rail in a plethora of countries from Lithuania to Portugal to Norway. So clearly while rail, like the car, were Victorian inventions of the 19th Century, rail is as if not more relevant in the 21st Century as a tool of inclusive access and decisive climate action.
Closer to home, the state of Victoria in Australia has taken to the Victorian invention of rail with a vengeance in a multi-decade, multi-billion-dollar investment in regional rail that continues to this day. The so-called Regional Rail Revival started off at the turn of the century at a similar point to where Aotearoa is today. Rail had been subject to severe neglect and under-investment for decades and was in pretty poor shape.
It started out in 2000 as the Regional Fast Rail Project. This $A750 million project, implemented in stages up to 2009, upgraded key sections of track to regional cities to enable 160km/h running, improved train timetables and provided better integration with buses at regional cities for service to non-rail served communities. Record passenger numbers and a substantial contribution to the growth of regional Victorian economies have both been attributed to the project.
These infrastructure improvements were accompanied by a rolling stock revolution in the form of V/Locity trains. These 3-car Diesel Multiple Units have been in continuous production since 2003. Capable of 160km/h running and large parts of the Victorian network now support these speeds enabling faster journey times. There are now 103 V/Locity trains in service and another 12 in production to support planned rail service improvements. The trains have comfortable seating with tray tables, have on-board toilets, and are quiet and smooth.
Building on the success of Regional Fast Rail, the $A3.65 billion Regional Rail Link Project, completed in 2015, built 47.5 kilometres of new railway through Melbourne’s western suburbs to separate regional trains from the Melbourne metropolitan network, thereby increasing rail capacity, speed and reliability for both urban and regional trains. For example, on the Geelong Line, this enabled 20-minute all-day trains on weekdays, and every 40-minutes at weekends with the last train leaving Melbourne at 1:15am.
More recently, the 2017 Regional Rail Revival programme is investing $A4 billion in upgrades to every single Victorian regional rail line. This includes track upgrades, track duplication, new stations, station upgrades, new and extended passing loops and level crossing upgrades. But most importantly, this enables new communities to enjoy the benefits of regional rail and significant train frequency improvements. For example, on the Warrnambool Line, this will enable a fifth daily return train to Warrnambool, a town with a population of 35,743 as at the 2021 Census.
The results of all of this rail investment are impressive. Regional rail patronage has over tripled from 6.4 million in 2004 to 21.05 million in 2019. While the pandemic and Melbourne’s epic lockdowns took a severe toll on patronage, recent rail patronage data shows a strong rebound, reinforced by the Victorian government introducing in March 2023 a daily fare cap of $A9.20 ($A6.70 at weekends) for all public transport, including regional rail, across the entire state.
Figure 2 Victorian Rail Patronage. Source: Wikipedia
The key elements of the Victorian rail revival are a combination of bringing all of the key elements of rail service together – frequency, reliability, speed, good quality trains and stations, price and network integration.
Figure 3 Victorian train and coach network. Credit: Public Transport Victoria
Regional cities with populations much smaller than Palmerston North, Tauranga and Hamilton have hourly train service to Melbourne, all day every day of the week. Every part of Victoria is connected by an integrated network of buses and trains, enabling access to business, access to work, access to healthcare, access to leisure, basically access to everything. The state of Victoria has a population of 6.8 million and pre-pandemic rail patronage of over 21 million. Aotearoa has a population of 5.1 million and inter-regional train patronage most likely in the low hundreds of thousands (there is no publicly available information for KiwiRail’s tourist-oriented rail journeys, so this is a rough guess).
Let’s be upfront about this. Turning back the clock on seven decades of systematic neglect of rail infrastructure and services didn’t come cheap for Victoria, nor will it be cheap for Aotearoa. But imagine for a moment what Aotearoa’s state highway network would look like if it had suffered a similar level of neglect as our rail network over the past seven decades – and how many tens of billions of dollars it would take to get it back to a fit for purpose quality of service. We wouldn’t accept that for a moment, nor should we accept it for rail.
Aotearoa has started this journey with the commitment in the 2023 budget to new passenger rolling stock for the Lower North Island, centred on the capital city of Wellington, analogous to Victoria’s early investment in rail to larger regional cities like Geelong from the state capital of Melbourne. Victoria has continued to build out from that initial investment that started over two decades ago. Aotearoa needs to do the same with the vision of building a national public transport network with regional and long-distance rail as its backbone.
The question for Aotearoa is not whether we can afford to have a rail revival like Victoria’s but whether we can afford not to, given the climate emergency we are facing. We need to provide kiwis with genuine transport choice the length and breadth of Aotearoa as a key tool in the battle to reach our statutory goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and simply because providing inclusive access to all of Aotearoa, without needing a car or to be driven by others, is a fundamental human right and the right thing to do.
By Paul Callister
Yesterday I travelled between Palmerston North and Papakura on the Northern Explorer. As an urban nerd, I notice lots of small things about transport options. There is no safe cycleway into the Palmerston North station and, if walking from town as we did, no marked crossing over the very busy Tremaine Avenue. The station building is also run down, with the former tea rooms now a childcare centre. Part of the station was closed due to raising the platform to cope with the newly refurbished Capital Connection which will start services soon.
On the bright side, the Northern Explorer train was on time arriving in Palmerston North (although half an hour late getting into Papakura) and the crew were helpful and friendly. The weather was fine and the views are always amazing.
While enjoying the scenery, I would have also liked to work on the train. But the lack of wifi and, for much of the route, mobile coverage makes working difficult. These days, working life generally requires being attached to the internet. I cover the difficulties of working on trains in an earlier blog. Also, lack of mobile coverage means that passengers have to pay cash for food and drinks in many places along the route, thus initially catching out cashless passengers. But they get around this by running a tab which you can pay when there is coverage.
Three pin laptop charging plugs are only available in the dining car. It is OK to work there if people do not want the seats to eat meals but it is not permitted to spend substantial time in the dining car.
It seems random whether seats in the main carriages have a table to work on. Mine did, which was great, but choice of a table did not appear to be an option when booking.
In the carriages there are plugs between seats for attaching headphones to listen to a recorded message about points of interest along the way. But the USB charging plugs are at ground level under the tables. This makes it a truly gymnastic exercise to charge a phone.
The Rubbish Trip have talked about the single use plastics on the train. There is so much waste generated. But they did encourage people to reuse their coffee cups and a small attempt at sustainability is their wooden knives and fork.
In the middle of the day we passed slowly through Taumarunui. but the train did not stop as it seemed no one was requesting to get on and off. The town is a low-income area so the train will be unaffordable to many residents. But as we passed by there was an InterCity bus parked by the station for their lunch break. Budget conscious travellers along the same route as the railway are forced to use buses, without the on-board cafes, baby changing facilities and on-board toilets that trains provide.
The lack of wifi and laptop chargers on the train are all small, solvable issues. More importantly, the Northern Explorer runs infrequently and is expensive, while also remaining the only long-distance train in the North Island.
By Paul Callister
In an article about lowering emissions for long distance domestic business travel, Peter Griffin wrote.
‘If you are regularly travelling between Auckland and Wellington, Vector’s Prageeth Jayathissa has some advice for you: block out a day in your calendar and do some ‘focus’ work while you take the train.
That might seem excessive, given that the Northern Explorer train journey takes nearly 11 hours and there are only 3 southbound and 3 northbound services a week. But Jayathissa, the general manager of sustainability at the Auckland-based lines company has made the trip has decided to make the trip his regular means of travel to Wellington.’
“Flights to Wellington are my largest source of carbon emissions. Now that our intercity [tourist] train is running again, I gave it a go…”
In our series of blogs we have explored how train travel creates just a fraction of the emissions of flights. But as Jayathissa points out, there are not regular train trips between Auckland and Wellington, a route where Ross Clark has estimated that there are 2.6 million passengers flying each year. Add in the other key sectors on the main trunk rail line and there are over 3 million people flying along this corridor each year. It is difficult to estimate how many are flying for business reasons, but the number is likely to be significant.
Nearly 11 hours on a train might seem a long time, although people regularly catch far longer international flights. But the time palls into insignificance when compared with a train trip a UK based climate scientist took. Kevin Anderson stresses that we need to quickly and dramatically reduce our emissions.
Anderson has been giving these warnings for a long time. In order to reduce his own carbon footprint, he takes trains to conferences and other events. In the mid 2000s he took a train trip from the UK to China travelling a total of 20 days. Writing about this experience, he notes:
“So what of the work you can do while travelling? I had planned and expected my many hours of mildly enforced confinement to provide a good working environment. But I wasn’t prepared for what turned out to be the most productive period of my academic career, particularly on the return journey. During the outward trip, I read a range of papers and managed to write another on shipping and climate change.”
“From a productivity perspective, the 20-day train journey easily trumped the two-day flight. Counter-intuitive perhaps, but I remain convinced that a carefully planned train journey not only delivers lower emissions by an order of magnitude, but facilitates the process of research in a way that universities and daily life simply can’t match. Add to that the ‘slower’ ethos that such journeys engender, and I think there may be early signs of making a meaningful transition to a low-carbon future – or at least a bridging ethos – while we wait for the panacea of low-carbon technologies to become the norm.”
So how easy is it to work on the Northern Explorer? Climate scientist and policy advisor, Dr Christina Hood, tested this out in March travelling from Kapiti to Auckland for the recent Environmental Defence Society conference. Christina had heard stories of no power plugs in the carriages to charge laptops so tweeted:
Finding out that three pin plugs had been removed from passenger carriages, Christina tweeted an additional question and received a reply from KiwiRail.
KiwiRail then added a tweet that confirmed these trains are for tourists not everyday New Zealanders, including those travelling for business.
On the actual trip Christina continued tweeting including.
But there is now a partial good news story to report. Perhaps as a result of the publicity generated by Christina Hood’s tweets, on the more recent trip by Prageeth Jayathissa the on-board staff made sure he had a good working space.
This was a good fix for Prageeth. But it should be what all business travellers expect.
In arguing for a revival of long distance passenger rail, we contend that trains should cater for everyone, not just tourists. They should: facilitate mobility among younger people who do not own cars or cannot drive; allow families to travel for holidays and visit friends and relatives, support cycling holidays, and be well set up to create a ‘hot desk’ environment for business travellers.
The Northern Explorer does not have on-board Wi-Fi and even for the user with their own data there are still many areas without good coverage. This is a well-recognised problem for trains passing through remote areas, but is solvable with new technology.
Making the Northern Explorer more business friendly is important. This includes running daily services.
But, for the business community, the ideal would be for night trains to be re-instated between Auckland and Wellington. This initiative could be led by the public service as they work to reduce their travel emissions. Such a train would still need to cater for those business travellers wishing to undertake late night or early morning work.
The Future is Rail in Aotearoa New Zealand will only come about with a bold vision that leads to the provision of safe, affordable and low-emission travel options for all New Zealanders, not just for wealthy tourists.
By Darren Davis and Malcolm McCracken
This weekend saw some great news with the announcement of central government funding to support the purchase of new fleet of 18 hybrid trains to replace the ageing and life-expired lower North Island rolling stock. This will enable, for the first time in many decades, better connectivity by public transport between the Manawatū, Horowhenua, northern Kāpiti, the Wairarapa and Wellington. This includes service outside of traditional commuter peaks and will add new weekend service to Palmerston North and improve weekend service on the Wairarapa Line.
This will deliver the first tender shoots of what regional rail could provide in terms of low-carbon, inclusive access for the lower North Island and in fact for all of Aotearoa. In Australia, the state of Victoria has demonstrated this through sustained and ongoing investment in regional rail from the turn of this century. Just prior to the pandemic, regional trains (and connecting coaches) carried 22.4 million passengers a year through a connective state-wide network of trains and coaches.
Figure 1 Victorian Train Network Map. Credit: Public Transport Victoria
It has to be acknowledged that this achievement didn’t come cheap to Victoria because they too had to invest heavily to recover from decades of under-investment and neglect in their rail network. But with a two-decade head start on Aotearoa, they have built, and continuously improve, a regional rail and public transport network that strongly supports Melbourne as the state capital and strong regional cities that are well connected to Melbourne.
For Aotearoa to embark on the next stage of a rail revival journey requires building on the great initial step of investing in new regional rail rolling stock for the Lower North Island. To support the investment in rolling stock, we need to see how KiwiRail, the government and regional authorities plan to deliver on the Wellington Rail Programme Business Case, which provides a rail development pathway for the Hutt Valley and Kāpiti lines that supports urban, regional, long-distance and freight rail development in the Lower North Island.
Following the Lower North Island, the obvious next place to look is the Upper North Island. Half of the population of Aotearoa lives north of Taupō and the four Upper North Island regions are projected to have two-thirds of Aotearoa’s population growth in the coming decades. The vast majority of that population and growth is in the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ of Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga.
Opportunities have already been missed to provide fast-growing communities in the North Waikato with access to existing and future rail services. For example in 2005, Pōkeno had a population of just 500. By 2021, that number had increased by 341% to 5,545 with growth continuing unabated. According to 2018 Census data, 666 Pōkeno residents commuted to work in Auckland, a number that has likely significantly increased since then. At present, the first bus from Pōkeno at 6:10am would get you to Britomart Station in Downtown Auckland at 8:46am by connecting to another bus at Pukekohe which connects to the train at Papakura, while Google Maps estimates a car travel time of up to 2 hours and 10 minutes, which is not much better. The Te Huia Hamilton to Auckland train passes through but does not stop in Pōkeno. But if it did, it would take well over an hour off the current public transport travel time.
Figure 2 Pōkeno continues to grow. See brown development area in centre right. Credit: Darren Davis
Similarly, Te Kauwhata’s current population of 2,760 is projected to triple over the next eight years with 1,600 new homes being developed by Winton and Kāinga Ora1. This significant residential population increase is not accompanied by a commensurate increase in nearby employment meaning that most residents are required to commute to areas with substantial employment, such as South Auckland and Hamilton. Currently, Te Kauwhata has just two weekday bus services to Hamilton, taking just under an hour and a half and a single weekday bus service to Pukekohe, taking an hour. Te Huia, if it stopped, would take around an hour and a quarter to Puhinui and 40 minutes to Rotokauri Station in Te Rapa, Hamilton.
While growth is more muted in Tūākau, there is strong support there for the town to be once again served by rail. Tūākau has a population of 5,890 with a higher-than-average growth rate which could see the population almost double by 2031. At the 2018 Census, 1,113 people left Tūākau for work with the vast majority going to Auckland.
Figure 3 Tūākau Rail Support Billboard. Credit: Darren Davis
Ngāruawāhia also presents a good opportunity for a revived station location as one platform still exists at the former station site. The town is the kick-off point for the Te Awa cycleway to Hamilton, Cambridge and beyond and is a key site for Waikato Tainui with the Turangawaewae Marae, Kingitanga Reserve, Turangawaewae House and the Puke-i-aahua Pā site.
As is typical in Aotearoa, these towns have been developed with the usual car-based infrastructure in place as a matter of course but with lagging and very limited public transport provision. But all were railway towns back in the day and in their heyday, there were over 36,000 rail trips a year from Tūākau, 16,000 rail trips a year from Te Kauwhata and 19,000 rail trips a year from Pōkeno.
While there is no trace of the former Pōkeno Railway Station, concept work has been carried out by Waikato District Council about a potential station site and in Te Kauwhata, the station platform and pedestrian access still exists, albeit in a rather rundown state; the Tūākau Station island platform still exists as does one platform at Ngāruawāhia Station.
Figure 4 Te Kauwhata Railway Station. Credit: Darren Davis
While the Te Huia Hamilton to Auckland train had its second-best month ever in March 2023, carrying 7,120 passengers, the fact that its last boarding stop is in Huntly, ninety-three kilometres from Auckland and that it does not pick up passengers anywhere in the Auckland commuter belt, means that it is not achieving its full potential. There is clearly a substantial existing and potential market of residents for this service in each of these communities which are a long way from employment. Serving them would make best use of the committed investment in Te Huia as well as providing sustainable transport choice to fast-growing communities in the North Waikato. We understand there is initial work underway investigating the potential for stations in all three towns.
In all of this, it has to be remembered that the only way for Te Huia to recover its sunk cost in infrastructure is to make use of it to carry people. Having additional station stops on the route where there is considerable population growth would be a good start. Similarly to the existing rolling stock in the Lower North Island, Te Huia makes use of recycled 1970s Mark II carriages from the United Kingdom, previously recycled by Auckland as interim rolling stock until Auckland electrified its rail network in 2014-2015. As such, the current rolling stock is both close to the end of its latest and final life extension and, like the now resolved situation with the Lower North Island rolling stock, needs a sustainable long-term solution that is fit for purpose for a 21st century regional rail operation.
The Lower North Island rolling stock solution provides a template that could be expanded to provide a sustainable long-term solution for securing the long-term future for Te Huia. The extent of electrification in both Auckland and Wellington ends of the North Island Main Trunk Line is nearly identical at 56 kilometres (once Papakura to Pukekohe electrification is completed) and the extent of running on battery power is around 80 kilometres in both cases. And of course, if the electrification gap between Pukekohe and Te Rapa, in north Hamilton, were plugged, then the battery or diesel functionality would support extending the service to Tauranga or elsewhere.
An obvious consideration are the different forms of electrification between the legacy Wellington DC powered suburban network, largely developed from 1938 to 1955 and extended since in stages from Paekākāriki to Waikanae, and the more modern AC electrification of the Hamilton to Palmerston North section of the North Island Main Trunk Line and Auckland metro network. While this is a consideration, there are technologies that enable running on both AC & DC power. An example of this are the French regional trains that run from Marseille along the Côte d'Azur towards Monaco and Italy which run on DC power in Marseille and AC power elsewhere.
So, while it is great to finally see an enduring and sustainable rolling stock solution for the Lower North Island, there are real potential synergies here with creating a regional rail template that can be applied to connecting the Golden Triangle of the Upper North Island. And while this longer-term solution is being sought, there are real opportunities to make best use of the existing investment in Te Huia but adding station stops in fast growing communities in the North Waikato.
This would be a first step in building on the committed investment in Lower North Island rolling stock to start moving Aotearoa towards the sort of connective rail network, supported by feeder bus services, in the state of Victoria that carry over twenty million trips a year.
So what we are calling for is: