By Paul Callister and Robert McLachlan
Each day we read news about the increasing local and global effects of human induced climate change. In Aotearoa New Zealand, we know travel by cars and planes is an important source of emissions. We have adopted a ‘shift, avoid and improve’ framework to analyse pathways for reducing overall transport emissions. So how do we apply this when thinking about trains versus planes?
Three other issues are relevant in any debates about trains versus planes.
One is how we power transport. Electrification of domestic travel is critical. There is a steady stream of reports being published on how best to provide the scarce and valuable renewable electricity to underpin the transport transition.
A second issue is resource use. This affects both the provision of renewable electricity and transport choices. For example, there are debates about the availability of key minerals such as copper and lithium.
A third is the carbon needed in investing in either train or aviation infrastructure. Expanding and building new airports requires major civil engineering works as does upgrading rail infrastructure.
There are many important, and far reaching, discussions taking place this year. For some, public input is being sought. For example, in April this year, the Climate Change Commission released its draft advice to inform the strategic direction of the Government’s second emissions reduction plan, covering Aotearoa New Zealand’s 2026–2030 emissions budget. The Tourism Environment Leadership Group, supported by MBIE, are currently seeking feedback on a draft Tourism Environment Action Plan. One goal in the draft is to ‘leverage tourism to advocate for rapidly decarbonising domestic transport used by visitors.’
At a regional level, Queenstown airport is seeking public feedback on its plans to increase passenger numbers by one third in the next decade.
In Auckland, there has been debate about council ownership of airport shares. But in an increasingly tangled and often contradictory world of growth aspirations versus much needed emission reductions, the airport is embarking on major expansion plans while Auckland council’s own emission reduction plan calls for a 50% reduction in domestic aviation emissions by 2030.
Adding to the discussion, at the end of June is the passenger rail conference being held in Wellington, with the theme “The Future is Rail”.
The decline of inter-regional passenger rail in Aotearoa New Zealand is well documented. In fact, many delegates to the rail conference cannot conveniently get to the conference venue and back home by train. Once, it would have been possible to arrive on the morning of the conference by train from Auckland or Hamilton and leave that evening again by overnight train. Or arrive from Whanganui, New Plymouth or Napier. Now people have to drive, bus or fly.
It is therefore no surprise that we rank 4th in the world for per-capita domestic aviation emissions. On a per capita domestic basis, New Zealanders emit 7 times more aviation emissions than people living in the UK and 9 times that of Germany.
Trains are at the heart of a goal to ‘shift’ domestic inter-regional travel
The global data show clearly the energy and emission benefits of train travel.
But these gains will be only achieved if there are trains available and people use them. Who might we attract onto trains?
There will be a group of people who are currently unable to drive or fly who will have their travel options opened up by the provision of trains. Increasingly, this includes people who wish to reduce their carbon footprints. There are young people without cars, not old enough to drive or perhaps without driver licences. Previous blogs have outlined a range of potential passengers, including those who can use the train as their office or who wish to enjoy some of New Zealand’s cycleways.
But it also includes many people who could be classified as transport disadvantaged due to poverty, where they live, or perhaps physical disabilities.
If we are to reduce emissions, we have to get a significant number of people to shift out of cars and planes. And to do that we need a policy environment that fully supports the shift to trains, including the large investment needed to upgrade the rail network. We do not have this in Aotearoa New Zealand. Instead, the playing field, through subsidies and a raft of other policies, supports the building of roads and the aviation industry.
Such change will not come quickly. While low emission trains are now available on the world market, getting an extensive frequent network up and running in Aotearoa New Zealand will take many decades. But some changes could come quickly, such as the reinstatement of a night train between Auckland and Wellington. Or adding an affordable backpackers carriage on the Northern Explorer. It would have been so much easier if we had started this revival two decades ago. This map shows a scenario of rail services we would now be operating in Aotearoa New Zealand if we had invested in the same way as Victoria.
In our series of train blogs, various rail experts and public transport enthusiasts have set out their visions for reviving passenger rail.
But will the promise of ‘zero emission’ flights derail a shift to trains?
Aviation relies on a goal to ‘improve’
In order to decarbonise, the aviation industry relies almost entirely on promises of future technological breakthroughs. These promises are announced almost weekly.
There are three key promises.
Source: Queenstown airport masterplan
Recently we have had two journal articles published considering the future of aviation. These are:
Callister, P. and McLachlan, R. (2023) Decarbonising Aotearoa New Zealand’s aviation sector: Hard to abate, but even harder to govern. Policy Quarterly, 19(2): 9-18. (online)
Callister, P. and McLachlan, R (2023) Managing Aotearoa New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions from aviation, Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, DOI: 10.1080/03036758.2023.2212174 (open access)
Our conclusions are:
We very much favour on-going research into low emission aviation. But to be sure to reduce emissions we need to now invest in the technologies that will give us certain, long-term reductions in both energy use and emissions. Rail is one.
We cannot rely on the aviation industry on its own to develop the pathway to decarbonise the sector. We need an overall plan. This needs to be led by government and needs to involve all the levers of ‘shift, avoid and improve’.
By Fiona Christeller
Source: Te Huia, https://www.tehuiatrain.co.nz/
Firstly, I’d like to commend the research, work and campaign information being provided by the communities who support regional passenger rail transport in New Zealand. It is a no-brainer that if more people use public transport, cycling and walking instead of cars, they will be contributing to reducing the effects of Climate Change, even in a small way.
I strongly support the campaign objectives set out in Save Our Trains submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry into the future of inter-regional passenger rail in New Zealand Aotearoa. The campaign outlined the need for a national strategy for passenger rail services, followed by a roll-out of a more comprehensive and integrated public transport network.
However, it all sounds like it will take time, …. and be expensive …. and inevitably have adversaries, particularly around cost. I am a baby boomer: I’m partly responsible for the mess the planet is in, and I would like to promote ways to act urgently, …., at an affordable cost!
While I agree with delivering a long-term strategy and developing options to achieve this through a business case process, this blog is to promote a complimentary action plan to get started quicker. Nationally Councils are being encouraged by central Government to trial street changes by reallocating space to more sustainable modes of transport, eg. bike lanes, using low cost, high impact and quicker changes. The consequence is less upfront cost and with the opportunity for adjustment leading to better outcomes, letting user experience and practical issues which present themselves to inform and provide evidence for a plan to implement the long-term strategy.
Here are two such trial ideas which mesh with the objectives of those promoting regional trains, but which could be implemented quickly and would encourage mode-shift using current services:
The Great Journeys trains
These trains are infrequent and expensive, presented as a travel experience and often need to be booked ahead. As a first step to getting more passengers Kiwirail could:
Let’s challenge Kiwirail to double their Great Journeys passenger numbers within 2 years by marketing the service to non-tourists and adding capacity.
If the trial gets locals onto trains, then the case for extending the service to Dunedin, Whangārei, and Tauranga, and adding a night train becomes easier to argue.
The Save Our Trains submission suggested a mixed train option on regional routes, using passenger trains to carry freight. This is a really great solution and is used overseas but requires the introduction of new services (including feasibility, cost analysis etc). I suggest flipping this and building on what is already available.
Instead, in the short term, on some existing freight trains, at particular times, a passenger carriage or two is added. This trial would get people moving, without huge expenditure or a major change to current systems. According to Kiwirail, there are 4,128km of railway lines and 1,350 railway stations around NZ, and there are 900 freight trains per week. Why not use some of them?
Where else in the world can you ride a freight train? except this way:
It would get me, my family and friends and our bikes to destinations around the country without using a car or plane. It could provide a low-cost, high impact, quicker mode shift opportunity.
The real benefit of making change through a trials process means that there is an opportunity to test ideas, tweak and adapt to solve practical issues which arise, get feedback from all parties, and feed into good permanent outcomes. I encourage us all to continue to work towards the vision of a connected, reliable and frequent passenger rail service connecting Aotearoa, but also to initiate change SOONER.
By Paul Callister and Michael van Drogenbroek
Source: Bernard Spragg, Wikipedia
Queenstown Airport has recently released its masterplan. While other sectors of the economy are facing up to the need to decarbonise, Aotearoa New Zealand airports, including Queenstown, are proposing another growth spurt. Yet, at the same time they promise a path to decarbonisation.
There are those who oppose the expansion of the airport. In fact, one Queenstown based organisation, FlightPlan2050, propose closing the airport.
They are part of a wider group that have been working towards the Queenstown area transitioning to a low carbon economy. Their research shows that the model of drawing international tourists from all over the world in our current manner is unsustainable if we are to significantly reduce emissions. Others, including the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment , have come to similar conclusions. FlightPlan2050 suggest:
“Queenstown Tourism’s Carbon Zero by 2030 commitment results from a three-year regenerative tourism consultation among all the industry’s local stakeholders.
Their Discussion paper (May 2023) celebrates that “Queenstown Lakes is primed for district-wide decarbonisation in a way that few places are.” And they identify “adjusting visitor volume [and] visitor origin” as the first two levers of change toward decarbonising their visitor economy. These levers unequivocally target fewer international and increased domestic/regional visitors.
Queenstown airport claims it has listened to and learned from the intense community pushback to its failed expansion plans of 2018. It claims alignment with the tourism sector’s new Travel to a Thriving Future and Destination Management Plan’s Carbon Zero by 2030 commitments.
But its actions speak louder than its rhetoric. The draft Masterplan increases the airport’s international and private jet capacity and ramps up flight numbers.”
Queenstown airport suggest that passenger numbers will increase from 2.4 million in 2023 to 3.2 million by 2032. This is an increase of one third. Helicopter and private jet traffic are also projected to increase.
So what are their decarbonisation plans? They are very vague. They state:
‘Technology is advancing rapidly. In the draft Master Plan, we’re allocating space and resources to support the airlines and general aviation operators to transition to alternative fuel sources such as sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), electricity and hydrogen.
However, the photos in the masterplan look more like air taxis rather than the large jets that bring in people from Australia or Auckland.
FlightPlan2050 are supporters of building Tarras airport. This is despite mounting opposition to this plan, including from the group Informed Leaders. This option has a number of challenges, notwithstanding it is a completely new airport and would put more pressure on the roading network to get visitors through to the Queenstown basin. It would also likely increase emissions rather than reduce them through increased tourism.
But FlightPlan2050 also suggest investigating the development of “a high-speed railway connection between Queenstown and Invercargill to link with Invercargill Airport.”
Is this a fantasy idea or potentially possible? Could Queenstown become like a Swiss village, reached by rail?
Queenstown is one of the few areas of reasonable population, a population that can swell with visitors to over 100,000 at the peak travel season, in New Zealand without a rail link.
Queenstown Airport is now New Zealand’s fourth busiest Airport after Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch with also many international flights a day from Australia. This is a real problem for the essence of Queenstown going forward. What to do?
Queenstown is geographically challenged for transport routes. All three land transport routes into Queenstown have their own unique characteristics and challenges:
Of course, until about 1980 there was a predominantly freight railway line from Invercargill to Kingston at the southern end of Lake Wakatipu. There was also a connecting railway across the Waimea Plains from Gore to Lumsden via Riversdale until 1971 making a more direct rail route from Dunedin to Kingston. Further back still there was the lake Steamer service run by NZ Railways (The Earnslaw) that connected passenger and freight rail services at Kingston to Queenstown via the lake. Some seasonal passenger rail services travelled these routes right up to the 1950’s (Daily rail passenger services having ceased earlier in the 1930’s when the lakeside road between Kingston and Queenstown was opened). The Kingston Flyer historic steam train also plied much of the route from Lumsden to Kingston from 1971 to 1979 as shown in this film “Train for Christmas” from 1975. To this day the rail corridor formation north from Invercargill can still be discerned through the paddocks via Winton, Lumsden and Garston to Kingston. In fact part of it, between Fairlight and Kingston, is still used by the historic Kingston Flyer today. Further still, most of the rail corridor north of Lumsden is also used by the “Around the Mountains” cycle trail.
Map showing former Rail Network in Otago and Southland – see Rail Line North from Invercargill to Kingston and the Lake connection to Queenstown
The Kingston Flyer Today
Of note here is that Invercargill Airport is an internationally designated airport and at over 2,100 metres is the third longest civilian runway in New Zealand (actually longer than Wellington's runway) thanks to Sir Tim Shadbolt, former mayor of Invercargill. It is also suitable for widebody jets under load restriction –It could likely be upgraded further with ease to reduce the load restriction for these bigger jets.
A bigger airport at Invercargill could then be connected by rail to Kingston (140km distant) by investing in modern zero carbon emitting electric fast trains using electricity generated at West Arm (Deep Cove) at Lake Manapouri. And all this without having to raise the lake and dam and hurt the fantail bird. In fact, the train service could be named after that bird much like Te Huia was named after an iconic bird. A connecting fast ferry from Kingston to Queenstown (a further 45km distant) would complete the journey. This upgrade to the Invercargill airport would also create wider benefits for Southland and Invercargill as well.
This would not be superhigh speed rail but fast rail that takes say about 60 minutes from Invercargill to Kingston – a very fast Kingston Flyer - assuming the bandits don’t hold it up as in this video of the Kingston Flyer in the 1970’s recreating the 1870’s.
An electric fast ferry could link to Queenstown from the Kingston train using the oldest, most green and flat transport corridor there is – Lake Wakatipu itself from Kingston to Queenstown. Problem solved and hopefully a ferry wake that should be able to be managed of course.
The cost to rebuild on the old corridor alignment (or close to it with some deviations) into a 160kph 140 kilometre fully electric fast railway (a fairly straight-line route almost due north of Invercargill with no tunnels or very heavy earthworks required) would likely be in the vicinity of about $NZ2 Billion. A further $NZ1 Billion for rolling stock, facilities and stations – say a $NZ3 Billion project all up. A new fast electric ferry with Infrastructure for lake Wakatipu would say add another $200 Million for two ferries plus a further bit for terminals wharfs etc – the project overall probably would be somewhat under $NZ 3.5 Billion – maybe not so bad for potential benefits to the lower south island and less than the $NZ3.9 billion currently proposed upgrade cost for Auckland Airport. Estimate total transit time from Invercargill including transfer time to the ferry could be just under 2 hours – faster than by car or bus. Passenger numbers could also be quite large as many thousands of passengers a day fly into and out of Queenstown – well over 2 Million passengers a year currently. On some days over 6,500 passengers a day use the airport – that’s a lot of train loads of passengers potentially to Queenstown. Connecting passenger rail services to Dunedin from Invercargill could also be a possibility in due course – or even rebuilding the Waimea Plains line to Gore for a faster route from the east.
But what about ‘sustainable aviation fuel’ for the big jets arriving full of tourists in Invercargill? There are three main ways proposed for replacing fossil fuels. One is biofuel, another Power to Fuel (P2F), and while subject to much debate about its feasibility, in the much longer-term hydrogen powered planes are being discussed.
There are many problems with biofuel, so an option is P2F. To simplify the process of making it, an electrolyser produces hydrogen using lots of renewable electricity, carbon is captured using a significant amount of renewable electricity, then the fuel is created using even more renewable electricity. If this is the route for producing SAF, then Invercargill is the perfect place to do this.
To decarbonise our economy we need bright new ideas. This is an example of the kind of opportunity that an investment in rail in New Zealand can create that is sometimes overlooked. Utilising an upgraded Invercargill airport with a surface route railway line to Kingston with a connecting fast ferry on the lake to Queenstown could be one of them.
By James Llewellyn
After many years as a Cinderella of the New Zealand network, there is evidence that inter-regional passenger rail may finally be coming to the ball. Whilst Auckland and Wellington metro networks have significantly improved over recent years, the same cannot be said for the rest of the country. Aside from the lonely flag bearers of Capital Connection and Te Huia, inter-regional passenger rail is limited to iconic – but infrequent – Great Journeys operated primarily for tourists and nostalgia hunters.
Otorohanga is one of the few provincial towns in New Zealand with an inter-regional passenger rail service (of sorts). Photo: James Llewellyn
The recent budget announcement of funding for replacement rolling stock in the lower North Island comes hot on the heels of business cases being commissioned for further development of Te Huia. The Parliamentary enquiry into inter-regional passenger services has generated sufficient momentum to make June’s Future of Rail conference a potentially seminal moment in history. There is a huge opportunity to reach something that has hitherto been missing – an in-principle agreement that inter-regional passenger rail can and should make a significant contribution to enabling safe and environmentally sustainable longer distance travel across the whole country.
The acid test, however, is what comes next. A challenge which has bedevilled the country’s rail network is any kind of long-term development strategy; and this remains a major gap. The current NZ Rail Plan looks ahead only ten years, which is relatively short term in an industry which requires multiple decades of relative certainty around investment levels, project pipelines and development of key technical capabilities. Other than Capital Connection and Te Huia, investment proposals for inter-regional passenger rail are conspicuous by their absence in the NZ Rail Plan.
In defence of the authors of that document, where would they even start? There is no national strategy for transport as a whole, never mind rail. Successive governments – beholden to a three-year election cycle – have failed to take a long-term whole-of-system view and instead focussed either on the blindingly obvious – asset renewals, infill electrification and a few targeted capacity improvements – or transformational investments such as City Rail Link which then spawn the need for further upgrades elsewhere on the network to realise the full benefits.
Work on the Third Main project in Auckland. With a robust planning and delivery framework, it may have been possible to add in a fourth line at the same time. As it is, any additional capacity improvements – essential for a more frequent inter-regional passenger rail service – will have to wait. Photo: James Llewellyn.
Public Transport Authorities (PTAs) outside of Auckland and Wellington have been given precious little encouragement to consider either local or inter-regional passenger rail seriously and have their work cut out to make it a priority. Similarly, as a commercial state-owned enterprise KiwiRail focus on their core business of running freight services. They have enough on their hands to keep the current network operational, especially in the face of historic under-investment in maintenance and successive severe weather events. Rebuilds of damaged rail infrastructure are mounting up.
The current combination of piecemeal improvements and crisis management results from New Zealand having no effective framework for rail planning / investment in long term improvements or understanding the capability of a resilient network to accommodate additional demand. Aside from a multi-modal national transport strategy (which is way beyond the scope of this blog), there are several other key ingredients which are needed if inter-regional passenger rail is to progress much further.
Firstly, forthcoming Regional Spatial Strategies (RSSs) will need to identify and develop significant travel corridors, which provides an opportunity to understand the role that passenger rail could play in meeting future travel demand. An absence of robust origin / destination and forecasting data means that it is all too easy for sceptics to claim that there won’t be enough passengers before they lobby for new roads in the next breath. Being very clear on which markets passenger rail best serves, and full integration with local bus and ferry services, should be linked to locating regenerative development adjacent to stations. Regional planning assessments (RPAs) should take at least a 30-year view and set out the passenger rail services which could credibly deliver mode shift from car and air travel. If every region undertakes an RPA in partnership with its neighbours, a whole-of-system view for an integrated medium and long-distance passenger rail network can be established.
For their part, local councils need to ensure that their future Natural and Built Environment (NBE) plans provide the tools and rules necessary to deliver on the ground. The role of local communities – including iwi – is critical. Rail planning cannot simply be a “take it or else” approach - it must be grounded in the kinds of sustainable and socially cohesive places where people want to live, work, and play in the future. Economic opportunities presented by rail – especially for sustainable residential, employment and commercial development – should be identified and developed locally within an enabling and supportive planning framework.
On the supply side, route capability assessments (RCAs) should consider options for meeting demand identified by planners. These assessments would include both required service frequencies / capacities through new rolling stock, and infrastructure improvements needed to deliver them – including electrification, signalling, linespeed, double-tracking, level crossing removal and accessible stations. It is, of course, essential that passenger rail and freight co-exist in a modern high-performing network.
The RCAs would need to establish whole-of-life costs and benefits, based on critical success factors such as maximum journey times between different towns and cities, as well as seat capacity, resilience, safety, and environmental performance. As current owner of “below track” national rail network assets, KiwiRail should be in a pivotal position to lead this work. Establishment of a joint strategic planning and delivery unit for long term investments - across all layers of government and industry - would enable the brightest minds to focus on what the future system should look like, and how it can be implemented.
Many provincial train stations still exist, waiting for a day when passengers may return. Land around stations could represent a valuable asset for local communities. Photo: James Llewellyn.
Taken together, RPAs and RCAs should aim to establish an integrated and prioritised long-term 30-to-50-year investment programme which could be considered for funding, most likely from a mix of government, passenger, and third-party sources. At present the national rail system as a whole has little to offer the domestic or overseas investor - but this could be very different if the Government, KiwiRail, PTAs, local councils, businesses and key stakeholders work together on delivering system-level change. Furthermore, the current situation – where expensive overseas capability is required to plan and deliver many rail projects – could be addressed through an industry strategy to develop the future workforce in the myriad of required technical skills for building an inter-regional passenger network. A long-term investment programme would give confidence to start this process in the schools and colleges. Businesses and investors would then have opportunities to support local design, production, testing and installation of everything from signalling control software to Overhead Line Equipment (OLE). Developing a New Zealand-based manufacturing capability for rolling stock would also be transformational.
Trains still perform a very popular passenger function, particularly heritage services run by dedicated volunteers. Photo: James Llewellyn.
System change requires more than a failure to think differently, and then complaining that transformation is just too hard. New Zealand is a truly innovative country whose people are more than capable of delivering what is required. With a strong sense of purpose and commitment to long-term planning / delivery, inter-regional passenger rail could play a strong role in a low emission transport system. If we really want it, Cinderella will have truly arrived at the ball.
James Llewellyn is Managing Director of Taith, a specialist public transport consultancy. James has previously worked for the UK Department for Transport, Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency, and Bay of Plenty Regional Council. He currently advises a number of Public Transport Authorities across the country.
By Michael Nicholson
Credit: Suraya Sidhu Singh
In part 1 of this article, I argued that 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. But I recognised that there are of course a number of other things which must happen beforehand, all of which require political will, pragmatism, investment and commitment.
Part 2 delved more into the services we need to bring back and a brief discussion of rail tourism.
In this final article, I dive even deeper into the services we could bring back with a commentary on routes.
Auckland - Hamilton - Palmerston North - Wellington: Auckland to Wellington has been identified as an almost ideal distance/time travelled for night train operation. This route provides convenient departure and arrival times and links four major cities, numerous smaller centres, ski fields and other Central North Island attractions.
It is estimated that that 57% of New Zealand’s population lives along the rail route between Auckland and Wellington and this is New Zealand's busiest travel corridor. Transdev NZ has shown an interest in operating night trains over this route.
Trains could potentially run through the Strand station and be extended to Whangarei, providing a direct link between Wellington and Northland, this would make good use of equipment and negates the need to store trains in Auckland during the day. Maintenance would be undertaken in Wellington every second day.
Night trains would also provide a later evening departure for users of Capital Connection and Te Huia corridors.
New Plymouth - Stratford - Hamilton - Auckland: Night trains could depart later in the evening from both New Plymouth and Auckland, trains could possibly include freight wagons, for mixed train service between New Plymouth - Hamilton - Auckland. Alternatively, could operate modern multiple unit style night trains.
The route between Auckland - Hamilton - Marton - Whanganui - New Plymouth could otherwise be used, this would provide early morning and earlier evening departures for communities between Marton and New Plymouth.
Picton - Christchurch - Dunedin - Invercargill: These trains would connect with Cook Strait ferries, linking Wellington - Blenheim - Christchurch - Dunedin - Invercargill. There might be opportunities for a motorail service over this longer route, where passengers could travel with a motorcar.
Auckland - Hamilton - Palmerston North - Wellington: New Zealand's busiest travel route which could serve many transport starved communities. KiwiRail’s own analysis of Northern Explorer shows there is strong demand for general travel, not just tourism. Trains need to operate daily in each direction, offer reduced prices by providing First Class for tourism and Standard Class, for public transport needs. Feeder buses would help access places like Toupo and Turangi. It is interesting to note that the 'Save Our Trains' petition received significant numbers of signatures from towns like Te Kuiti, Taumarunui, and Marton on the North Island Main Trunk Line. Regional authorities along the Central North Island have been advocating strongly for enhanced passenger rail service in their regions, they have banded-together to commission a high-level feasibility study on regional passenger services for public transport - the 'North Island Regional Passenger Rail Connector' study.
Auckland - Whangarei: Possibility of extending Wellington to Auckland night trains to and from Whangarei. This will utilise night train rolling stock and not require additional equipment. Advantage of direct links between Wellington - Auckland - Whangarei.
Rotorua - Opua: Operating trains between Rotorua and Opua would link these tourism hot-spots. Trains would provide morning southbound departures from Opua, then late morning south departures from Whangarei. They would complement the afternoon departure from Whangarei to Auckland (continuing as the night train to Wellington).
Rotorua would enjoy morning up departures for Hamilton, Auckland and Opua.
In addition, one of the down morning Te Huia services could be extended to Rotorua, giving morning and afternoon coverage between Auckland, Hamilton and Rotorua.
The mothballed section of railway between Putaruru and Rotorua would need to be reactivated.
Auckland - Tauranga: This route was identified by government in the in the 2017 election campaign as a priority. Local community has shown consistent support for passenger rail service to be reintroduced. Tauranga - Hamilton - Auckland is known as the "Golden-Triangle", this is an area of high growth with a steadily increasing population. Tauranga has ever increasing road traffic issues and a genuine regional community desire for modern passenger rail travel options. Advocacy groups 'Making Rail Work' and 'Save Our Trains' have been running a sustained and effective intellectual campaign around reinstating modern passenger rail to Tauranga.
Wellington - Gisborne: Gisborne is an isolated region with limited public transport. Trains would improve connectivity, travel safety and transport resilience. This is also a scenic railway with potential to attract tourism opportunities, alongside improved public transport for the region. The mothballed section of line between Wairoa and Gisborne will need to be reactivated, this will improve freight and passenger transport options in the region. Down trains from Gisborne would provide an early afternoon departure from Napier, with a mid-afternoon departure from Palmerston North to Wellington. Integration with Lower North Island rolling stock rotation and maintenance would seem to make best sense.
Wellington - Napier / Wellington - New Plymouth / New Plymouth - Napier:
Napier and New Plymouth routes could operate as an extension of Lower North Island operations, equipment and operational efficiencies could be made by sharing equipment, maintenance rotations and integrating some trains with Capital Connection services. Using a combination of direct trains and connecting trains (at Palmerston North /or Marton), would increase travel options over these routes. Connecting New Plymouth and Napier trains with Auckland north and south daytime trains (at Palmerston North /or Marton) would also be possible.
Some train running patterns might include:
Christchurch – Timaru – Oamaru – Dunedin – Invercargill: Return of this route has long been advocated by South Island communities and there are established social media groups devoted to this passenger rail route. Good use of equipment could allow for enhanced services, these would also be complemented night trains between Picton and Invercargill.
Day trains could operate:
Hokitika - Westport: A West Coast Link between Hokitika and Westport could connect with trains between Greymouth and Christchurch and could operate for both public transport and tourism. A study was commissioned by the PGF in July 2019, however; this study was limited to purely tourism focused options.
A network of mini-hubs for delivery and pick up for "Small-lots" freight should be developed at all stations as part of the passenger rail network expansion.
New equipment and station upgrades/rebuild can incorporate the infrastructure needed to operate "small-lots" freight, alongside passenger operations.
Freight wagons attached to conventional night trains might be an option for some less time sensitive routes, such as night trains between New Plymouth - Hamilton - Auckland, thus, improving freight movement availability as well as passenger options.
As stated, currently the process for advancing passenger rail which crosses regional boundaries is incredibly convoluted.
Much respect, however, must be afforded to Greater Wellington Regional Council and Horizons Regional Council, for their tireless work and perseverance under almost impossible circumstances - their work has resulted in 18 new four car (72 individual carriages) hybrid trains being approved for purchase, by government in the May 2023 budget. Much respect also to the Waikato Regional Council, which has worked hard to develop Te Huia under incredibly difficult circumstances, such as Covid lockdowns, delays to planned improvements, shoestring budgets, difficult agencies and a general lack of systems to develop cross boarder passenger rail.
Furthermore, it is exciting to see that Central North Island regional authorities are continuing to progress ambitions for Central North Island Connector trains. These trains are planned to link transport starved communities along the North Island Main Trunk railway - providing frequent, quality, accessible, low-emissions, public transport train options.
Palmerston North - Wellington (Capital Connection): Capital Connection trains are currently only used 4 hours each day, Monday to Friday - this an appalling underuse of passenger rail resource. Interim trains of refurbished ex British Rail carriages from the 1970's will become available around July 2023, they are intended to buy time between the current worn out trains being scrapped, and new trains being delivered. These interim trains provide an opportunity to improve service on this corridor immediately, by initiating an off-peak weekday and weekend services.
Modern hybrid trains should arrive in around four to five years and will allow for a much enhanced service, including increased peak, off-peak and weekend services, as well as faster travel times between Palmerston North and Wellington. Infrastructure upgrades are necessary for the implementation of some improvements, mainly additional peak service operation. These infrastructure improvements will likely not be complete by the time our new trains arrive, however, there are some work arounds that can be made to achieve well-timed enhancement to services between Palmerston North and Wellington.
Palmerston North station needs upgrading, perhaps the former cafeteria could become a modern and comfortable waiting room. Dedicated bus connections should meet with all trains at Palmerston North station, these bus connections could be included train tickets and travel to Massy University via the CBD and the local city bus depot.
Night trains to Auckland would provide later travel options for passengers and new services to Napier, New Plymouth and Auckland could all be recognised on Capital Connection timetables, this will highlight rail travel options over the Capital Connection corridor.
Extending services to Whanganui should be planned and could happen immediately for Friday night and weekend service, possibly even weekend services to New Plymouth and Napier. at an early stage all services could be extended to Feilding using interim trains, this would provide service to Feilding, Bunnythorpe, northern end of Palmerston North and a possible connection to the Palmerston North airport. Bunnythorpe is planned for large growth including construction of a huge new rail freight hub, due to commence in the not-too-distant future.
By Michael Nicholson
Credit: Anthony Cross
In part 1 of this vision for bringing back passenger rail , I argued that 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. But I recognised that there are of course a number of other things which must happen beforehand, all of which require political will, pragmatism, investment and commitment.
In this second article, I begin with a discussion of National Network - Service Categories. I end with a comment on rail tourism.
In the final article, I will comment more on routes and possibilities.
It is well recognised that frequency, reliability, and price influence growth in passenger usage. Routes should operate daily and include good on-the-day frequency, it is also important to make connections with other rail services and with other modes to form a joined-up system that extends network reach. Feeder buses are a good way to connect smaller communities to the national passenger rail network.
When investment has been made in new trains, it is important to utilise equipment to maximum advantage. An all-of-network approach allows for improved equipment and staff usage, potentially leading to additional services and new routes - simply by using the assets that we already have more effectively.
The national network can be developed and expanded in a staged and planned way, making investment and development manageable.
A realistic and modern alternative to flying, with a high potential to reduce carbon emissions and. with most infrastructure already in place, services can be implemented relatively quickly. Night trains do not need to travel fast and slot in well with freight trains. Night trains could provide a mixture of accommodation choices to meet all budgets and expectations (sleeper compartments, lay-flat seats and standard economy seating). Trains should be of a high quality and provide good facilities such as a lounge and showers. Night trains are about convenient departure and arrival times, city-centre to city-centre and are a good use of travel time, simply sleep the kilometres away.
Day trains need to operate daily and frequently, at least morning and afternoon departures when possible. Trains need to stop at more stations and connect with other services and other modes. Prices need to be realistic from a public transport perspective, ideally First and Standard Class should be available as this provides a natural split between expectations around comfort and cost.
Longer distance commuter style services operating within a defined corridor, such as Palmerston North to Wellington Capital Connection / Hamilton to Auckland Te Huia. Seating and catering can be more basic and compact on corridor trains to accommodate more passengers. Night trains and Day connectors could be included on corridor timetables, this will highlight expanded travel options over these corridors.
“Small-lots” freight on inter-regional passenger trains would combine the traditional New Zealand regional rail concept of parcels traffic, with modern cargo handling methods as used in the airline industry and an internet-based retail economy. Modern trains will tend to include large commuter style doors for easy passenger accessibility, these doors and the train layout work really well with roll-on roll-off caged small-lots freight delivery. This concept maintains the journey times expected by passengers. Freight delivered by train would be left at a locker within each regional station, this can then be collected by a local agent, for house-hold delivery. The same process can work in reverse, for goods being despatched from regional businesses to larger cities. The mix of fast broadband, and low-to-zero emissions rail connection; for both passengers and small-lots freight, can transform communities, attract new businesses, and support sustainable growth in our cities and regions.
Heavy freight attached to some trains, such as night trains between New Plymouth and Auckland (via Stratford to Okahukura line /or Marton & NIMT), might be worthwhile in some situations, as a way of combining the resources of both passenger and freight, to improve access to some regional areas.
It is important that the national passenger rail network link into other modes and systems, to create a total national public transport system. Regional buses, ferries, suburban train and bus systems, all need to be connected.
Examples of passenger rail networks with good, well organised, through booked and guaranteed connecting feeder bus services can be found in the Australian States of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland.
Utilisation of Equipment - Network Approach
These are brief examples of how equipment might be better utilised on a couple of routes, leading to additional services, new routes and an improved network.
Auckland and Whangarei:
Night trains between Wellington and Auckland could continue to Whangarei, forming a morning service from Auckland northbound (in the reverse southbound). This concept would in effect utilise two train sets to operate four individual services.
Alternative Wellington and Auckland Operation:
Three train sets could operate four train services over a 24-hour period:
This was how train rotations operated between Wellington and Auckland 1991 to 2004, when the last night train ceased operation.
Lower North Island:
Pocket timetable from around 1991, showing all services between Palmerston North and Wellington
Masterton - Wellington (Wairarapa Connection): New trains will allow for increased service over this line, doubling frequency of both weekday and weekend train services. By 2025 upgrades to Wairarapa rail track and signalling infrastructure will be completed and this will make train travel faster than driving between Masterton and Wellington. Ideally some off peak and weekend trains should be extended to Palmerston North and possibly Whanganui, via the North Wairarapa line.
Weekend trains could also be extended to Napier.
Auckland - Hamilton (Te Huia)
New Lower North Island hybrid trains provide an opportunity to re-equip Te Huia with the modern trains. Hybrid trains will allow Te Huia to access Britomart station, using the two terminating platforms at this station. Electrification should be completed between Pukekohe and Hamilton; however, battery power will allow Te Huia to operate over non-electrified tracks in the meantime and provides for future service extensions.
The third main within in Auckland's southern suburban network will allow Te Huia to reduce travel times. Stations need to be provided at Te Kauwhata, Tuakau and Pokeno as soon as possible. The Te Huia corridor could be extended Cambridge (last four km of track needs to be re-laid), also Te Awamutu - Otorohanga - Te Kuiti, and Morrinsville - Tirau - Putaruru - Tokoroa, and Putaruru to Rotorua. New routes and services travelling through the Te Huia corridor should be recognised on Te Huia timetables. Night trains would provide later evening options for passengers travelling to Hamilton.
KiwiRail is developing their high end Scenic Plus Class, this looks set to be superb. Carriages refurbished to a higher specification will shortly be added to the Tranz Alpine, then rolled out to the other two services over time. An onboard chief preparing fresh meals, and additional comforts, are exciting and very appealing for some people. The menu looks exquisite and very tempting.
This style of service is much needed in New Zealand. However, it must sit alongside, and not instead of, public transport by train.