By Paul Callister
Cyclists on this route could arrive at Ohakune by train and finish at Whanganui to catch a train home - if we revitalised our rail network. Image: MBIE
Consultation on the Draft Tourism Environment Action Plan 2023 has just closed. Save Our Trains put in a submission.
As cited in the draft Tourism Strategy, the Decarbonising Transport Action Plan 2022-2025, released in December 2022 notes, “transport is one of our largest sources of emissions and we have a goal to reduce [domestic] transport emission by 41% by 2035. Currently international aviation and shipping emissions are outside these targets. However, others have argued that we need more ambitious transport decarbonisation goals. 1Point5 Project research suggests mitigating the risk of a delay in the decarbonisation of farming requires transport to aim for almost full decarbonisation by 2030. I agree with this assessment.
First, some background about the draft report. The report was overseen by the Tourism Environment Leadership Group. This included industry representatives, unions and, potentially speaking up for the environment, Forest & Bird and the Department of Conservation. Aviation interests were overrepresented. Some land transport interests were also represented, in the form of car hire and campervan hire companies. Missing were the voices of the two lowest emission land transport operators, KiwiRail and InterCity. The ability for trains to reduce emissions – and provide a high quality, enjoyable way to travel - has been set out in several of our blogs.
As further background, the Department of Conservation has a partnership with Air New Zealand. Forest & Bird, at its national conference has a session called “Courageous Leadership in the time of the Climate & Biodiversity Crises”, has a speaker from Air New Zealand but no one representing low emission passenger rail.
There were no sustainable travel experts from academia or climate change on the Tourism Environment Leadership Group. Trains, as the potential backbone of sustainable tourism travel, were on a back foot right from the start.
There is another issue that potentially divides train enthusiasts. That is what overall level of international tourism is sustainable? Some see international tourists as a vital income earner and an important market for domestic train travel. But in a climate emergency, should we be marketing New Zealand to the world, flying people long distances to New Zealand knowing aviation has no realistic short- or medium-term decarbonisation plan? Research carried out with my colleague Robert McLauchlan suggests that we should pause growth and, ideally, cut back levels of international arrivals until the industry can demonstrate that it can substantially cut emissions. Bringing international aviation and shipping into our carbon budgets will bring more focus to this issue.
Whatever the level of tourism, in almost all industrialised countries, these travellers arriving at major airports will have the option of journeying into the nearby city by light or heavy rail. Especially in Europe, a key international tourism destination, travellers then have the option of travelling regionally and inter-regionally by fast and not so fast rail. In New Zealand, most tourists turn to hired cars, camper vans or, the budget conscious, buying a second-hand car to travel around. If we are to reduce emissions this has to change.
Equally, New Zealand families have little ability to use good quality affordable and frequent rail to reach main tourism centres. For example, they can no longer travel to tourist town Rotorua by train. It is impossible to organise a weekend visit to Ruapehu from either Auckland or Wellington by train to go mountain biking. Or a beach holiday at Mt Maunganui by train.
As we well know, Aotearoa New Zealand only retains a mere skeleton long distance passenger rail service. The day train service between Auckland and Wellington is infrequent, expensive and only has limited stops. It is aimed at a small group of high-end tourists and is not affordable for most New Zealand families going on holiday, also an important part of tourism.
Unlike most industrialised countries, there are no night trains operating in New Zealand. These are important tourism services in Europe.
Credit: Richard Young
With the bias in the Tourism Environment Leadership Group, it is not surprising, but nevertheless disappointing, that the draft tourism strategy repeats myths about rail.
On page 44 it states “[c]ompared to other countries, tourism transport between destinations in Aotearoa New Zealand depends on aviation to a greater extent, due to the distances and complex geography between our major cities.”
Save Our Trains member Suraya Sidhu Singh tackles these myths. The myths have also been exposed by Making Rail Work.
There are many examples of countries that have very challenging geography but also have well developed rail systems. An example is Switzerland, a very popular European tourist destination. Others are Japan and Norway. While it has a larger population than New Zealand (just under 9 million people), Switzerland has a fully electrified rail network with 92% of electricity from renewable sources, and just under 800 passenger train stations.
New Zealand has few operating railway stations, many very run down. Wellington station has no heated waiting room, no showers, and no dedicated parents’ room. Given Wellington station caters for the few remaining longer distance passenger services, as well as InterCity coaches, its facilities are substandard and would not be accepted in an airport.
Longer distance passenger trains throughout New Zealand could cater for a range of tourists. This includes those using bikes. Many North Island bike trails begin near current and former stations. But current trains are not well set up to carry bikes. We discuss this on another of our blogs.
Cyclists on the Timber Trail could arrive by train at the currently abandoned Ongarue station. Image: MBIE
Cycle tourism could really increase and improve options for local people at the same time. Ideally, we would make both cycling and walking pleasant with appropriate and safe infrastructure. Together, these would go a long way to creating nicer places. Our countryside, towns, and cities, linked by trains, would become lovely places to visit, if we reduced how much the car dominates them, to make them safe to walk and cycle.
Reviving passenger rail has to be a key strategy of the tourism industry to give it any hope of becoming a truly regenerative model.
By Ross Clark
Credit: New Zealand Parliament
As we rethink the provision of transport, both in infrastructure and in services, we also need to think about whether our transport administration, designed in an earlier time, is capable of delivering what we want it to. In this paper, I go through the structure of our transport administration, explain how it got to where it is, and what we now need, and don't need, to change.
Credit: Richard Young
By Paul Callister
At the Future is Rail conference, in contrast to those enthusiastic about reviving passenger rail National party infrastructure spokesperson Chris Bishop questioned whether New Zealand should invest in rail. For people who cannot drive or fly, he suggested using the existing, seemingly unsubsidised, InterCity bus network. National Party Transport spokesperson Simeon Brown then chirped in to support this view, asking why bring back a passenger train service from Wellington to Napier when InterCity already offers a service.
Public transport supporters generally recognise the role of coaches in providing low emission, low energy, regional and long-distance travel options. Some of us have been campaigning for a long time to get high quality, inter-regional bus services in New Zealand. Not a service that struggles to carry differently abled people, including the elderly who often find it difficult to get up the steep steps. We need: buses with onboard toilets for long trips, like those all around the industrialised world, including even the much-maligned Greyhound; buses that carry bikes like Flixbus in Europe; buses that depart from and arrive at good quality bus depots, not ones like the poor-quality Auckland bus depot or the Taupō interchange where people have to walk a long distance in both rain and shine to unheated toilets.
So, the National Party is now a potential ally. Their help in turning our second-rate system into a top-class service, valued by New Zealand residents and tourists alike, is welcomed.
But first, some myth busting about subsidies.
Let us set aside the complex issue of whether road travel is correctly priced in order to examine costs. Because InterCity coachlines do not have onboard toilets, they generally stop at public toilets. These are not funded by the bus company but are paid for, that is subsidised, by local ratepayers. Bus shelters, or larger bus interchanges, are also generally funded by local authorities.
Many other modes of transport are subsidised by the taxpayer and ratepayer. For example, the upgraded airport at Taupō was funded by both taxpayers and ratepayers. That upgrade had a budget of $9.23 million, funded with $3.36 million allocated by Taupō council, but with a $5 million grant from the Crown’s Provincial Development Unit, and $870,000 from the Ministry of Transport. Kāpiti Coast District Council has given more than $1m of ratepayers’ money to Air Chathams to keep its services running. And, as an indirect form of local transport subsidy, passengers do not pay GST on the domestic legs of international travel.
Grants by government and local authorities have helped build a network of chargers for electric cars. Electric cars currently do not pay road user charges. And there are government grants to develop hydrogen for transport and to investigate synthetic fuels for aviation.
Projects such as the Otaki to Levin Expressway Extension are given the go ahead, despite cost benefit analysis demonstrating this is a poor use of taxpayer funds.
Many of these current subsidies support well off members of society and businesses rather than those who are ‘transport disadvantaged’.
We need a detailed study of subsidies across the whole transport sector to ensure transparency and wise spending to maximise economic, social and environmental -especially emission reduction- outcomes.
I would also support an investigation into the implications of InterCity effectively functioning as a monopoly, with the competition of Mana and Naked Bus no longer operating. Free market economists worry that monopolies lead to excess profits and suppress innovation.
Overall, how do buses stack up against trains?
Some of the good points of coaches are:
But, over long distances, most people would rather travel by train because:
Long distance coaches are an important part of New Zealand’s transport network. Now that the National Party appears to have fallen in love with them, let us hope they will work diligently to ensure that coaches provide the quality of service that they themselves expect at the airports that they pass through to catch their flights.
By Suraya Sidhu Singh
The Inquiry into Passenger Rail long-awaited recommendations, released on 4 July 2023, ask for many reforms. But not enough.
After decades of pleading with successive governments to please not smash up our critical national rail infrastructure, last year’s Inquiry into Inter-Regional Passenger Rail came as a surprise to many rail advocates. But with the impacts of climate change now widely felt and rising costs of living, not a moment too soon.
The Inquiry sought to understand if claims of sensible reasons for New Zealand’s lack of passenger rail stack up, and if not, how do we go from today’s shriveled rail travel options to reviving these once-popular routes?
All change, please
Those who tuned in to the select committee heard a startling array of experts, from economists to engineers to public health specialists (and of course, the armchair type,) illuminate inter-regional rail travel’s benefits – from reduced transport emissions to reduced road accidents to greater mobility for disabled people.
A huge 97 percent of the 1,752 submissions backed expanding affordable, inter-regional passenger rail. It’s rare to see such strong public support for anything.
Inter-regional public transport authority to be established
The report recommends establishing a body responsible for system leadership around all inter-regional public transport, including rail, ferries and coaches. It would identify inter-regional public transport gaps, and work with regional councils and presumably the private sector to fill these.
They’ve certainly identified an obvious problem. Compared with state highways – a co-ordinated network by one central government organisation – inter-regional public transport is piecemeal with no national coordination. It’s even exempt from regional councils’ public transport planning responsibilities, but some still operate it because they think it important.
Strangely, the report doesn’t name KiwiRail among those who will need to work with this body. Hopefully that’s an oversight.
Funding system review
The government is also advised to reconsider funding arrangements for inter-regional passenger rail to better reflect the benefits of these services. The prospect of change here is encouraging.
Funding is another area where State Highways are the Ugly Sisters and rail, Cinderella. State Highways are 100 percent centrally funded while inter-regional public transport must be 50 percent regionally funded. This is a problem because regional councils have very low revenue-raising abilities.
Multiple regional councils would also have to agree any proposed service was a priority and there’s no way to make sure councils contribute fairly, leading to eye-roll results like Auckland Transport contributing no funding to the Auckland to Hamilton train, Te Huia.
Scoping new inter-regional passenger rail services
The report asks the government to scope new Auckland–Wellington, Auckland–Tauranga and Napier–Wellington passenger rail routes. It also suggests looking at extending the Capital Connection train (Wellington–Palmerston North) to Feilding as intact infrastructure would make that straightforward. They say further routes should be scoped, including the South Island, to identify best-value options.
Some submitters pointed to a strong case for sleeper trains, particularly Auckland to Wellington, as overnight journeys in a comfy bed make long travel times less important. Proponents say sleepers must be carefully designed around customer experience – something we’ve failed at in the past.
Credit: Richard Young
KiwiRail survives another apocalypse
The report notes many submitters, including the infrastructure commission, Te Waihanga, pointed to conflicts in KiwiRail’s structure harming rail. It says, “KiwiRail’s commercial mandate means investment decisions are often made based on the economic viability of services, rather than… wider societal costs and benefits… even if a rail service would be worthwhile from a public-value perspective, investment is still unlikely.”
Recent Kaitaki Ferry and track evaluation bungles support this.
Submitters were also concerned that KiwiRail controls rail infrastructure while also running freight and passenger services on it. KiwiRail must in theory allow other operators access, but it’s hard to say if their access conditions are fair when any new operator would reduce their profit.
Meanwhile, everywhere in the world, freight is more profitable than passenger rail, meaning one enterprise running both is heavily incentivised to make passenger play second-fiddle.
Despite having heard of avoidable problems created by KiwiRail’s structure, the committee didn’t recommend change. This is part of a pattern where somehow every well-reasoned criticism of KiwiRail runs off them like water off a duck’s back.
Passenger rail a deflating political football
At the recent Future is Rail conference in Wellington, an overarching theme was the struggle caused by passenger rail being a political football in New Zealand. Given it delivers provable economic, social and environmental benefits, it should tick boxes for all major parties. But both National and ACT included statements disagreeing with the report's recommendations.
At the recent Future is Rail conference in Wellington, National infrastructure spokesperson Chris Bishop said the case for inter-regional passenger rail doesn’t stack up economically. Yet, rail developments funded in recent years have demonstrated strong positive returns on investment, like the lower North Island hybrid trains. The same can’t be said for some motorways green-lit under National.
It’s telling that the message from these parties isn’t that we should only fund infrastructure that returns best on investment, but rather, declaring passenger rail doesn’t stack up, despite what business cases find. Rail proponents cross the political spectrum, so National and ACT would benefit from revisiting their stances by actually looking at the benefit-cost ratios.
It’s hard to say whether the Inquiry into Passenger Rail’s proposals will bring more transport choice for New Zealanders. Nationwide inter-regional public transport co-ordination and a review of its funding are long overdue, but a huge opportunity was missed in failing to see that KiwiRail’s structure absolutely must be changed if we’re to bring back affordable, long-distance passenger rail.
Source: Michael van Drogenbroek's presentation at The Future is Rail conference
By Peter Dowden
It seemed sensible for a delegate to a conference about land-based long-distance passenger transport to attend by land-based long-distance passenger transport. In the past, I could have travelled by train all the way from Ōtepoti Dunedin to Picton or taken a train to Christchurch then caught an overnight ferry to Wellington. Now those options are no longer available.
I took advice from my travelling companion Alex King, a much more seasoned long-distance commuter and bought an Intercity FlexiPass. This pass pre-purchases several "hours" of future coach travel which is then depleted as bookings are made and redeemed. It costs roughly $8 to $10 an hour, cheaper if you buy a larger dollop of travel and more expensive if you buy a smaller amount.
I struggled a bit with the Intercity booking system, as it is geared for medium distance travel. When I searched for "Dunedin to Wellington" it implied they don't go there, so I booked travel with an overnight stay in Christchurch.
I was therefore disappointed to see the connecting service to Picton ready to board soon after my arrival in Christchurch. On inquiry, I discovered that InterCity uses a minimum transfer time between services (quite sensibly, as this avoids a risky rapid transfer) but also a maximum transfer time, so overnight enroute stays are not regarded as providing an acceptable connection. I suppose this depends on your point of view. Happily, I was able to change my return journey to overnighting in Picton.
The journey north was uneventful. Standards of service and comfort and the application of terms and conditions seemed to be consistent throughout, but different drivers' descriptions of travel conditions were perhaps amusing, with one driver in particular implying a draconian interpretation of rules would be applied.
I was surprised how quickly my time on the trip to Christchurch seemed to pass by, given the long lunch break in Timaru and the diversion to Waimate. The following day's journey, though significantly more scenic, seemed to be drearier, but this perception probably arose due to the previous day being spent doing an identical activity.
A particularly noteworthy, and impressive, moment was on leaving Blenheim when the InterCity coach driver assured passengers that although we were running late, the ferry would not depart without us, as Intercity and InterIslander had a friendly arrangement to wait for each other's passengers. This is the sort of "joined-up" travel that many people are calling for, so it is always good to see a clear exemplar of this.
The InterIslander ferry journey was as enjoyable as it can be, when the sea is mild and the ferry is behaving well mechanically. It was intriguing to be driven from Picton's temporary terminal directly by bus into the innards of the ship, as the gangway and passenger terminal were under demolition due to the construction of new terminal facilities for the upcoming new larger ferries. Interestingly, I confirmed that the new terminal will indeed have a gangway and passenger facilities, so this was only temporary, but InterIslander's competitor Bluebridge always embarks passengers over the cargo ramp. Unfortunately, it seems the train station will not be part of the new terminal.
In Wellington there is very poor direction of passengers to the (unsignposted, replaced by an unmarked van) shuttle bus to the station; this is one of the "you are just meant to know" situations that are so harmful to public transport in Aotearoa.
Getting from the station to my family member's house in Wellington was, as always, a pleasure. Only Welingtonians think their city has poor public transport.
My southbound homeward journey was similar, a little more gruelling but more efficient. In full understanding of the available transfer in Christchurch, I was able to travel Picton to Dunedin in one day. But I still needed to get to Picton. There is no early morning ferry to meet the early southbound coach so crossing on the previous night was necessary. This is still preferrable simply because Picton is smaller than Christchurch, so easier to get around.
I don't think a full day's travel from Picton to Dunedin is for everyone but I am glad to say I tried it. It gave Alex and me the opportunity to fully discuss our ideas for improving long-distance transport.
By Paul Callister and Robert McLachlan
Every transport-related conversation should start with the question, ‘how will this give us hope to stay within 1.5 degrees of warming?’. But there remains a big gap in thinking. Motorway and airport expansions are still being promoted despite the clear evidence that they will increase emissions.
The need for rapid and substantial emission reductions was in the background in many of the presentations given at the Future of Rail conference. But it was only Roman Shmakov, representing Generation Zero, who specially asked why long distance and regional passenger rail is absent from the Government’s transport policy documents. These come primarily from the work of the Ministry of Transport, the Ministry of the Environment, and the Climate Change Commission. They include the 2021 Rail Plan, the Emission Reduction Plan and advice to government on how best to reduce emissions.
Robert Pigou, MBIE. Credit: Richard Young
This is despite the overwhelming evidence that trains are substantially lower emissions than planes. In addition, trains’ energy use is substantially lower, an advantage that will continue even if passenger electric planes shift from prototypes to actually flying commercially. Power to fuel as an alternative to fossil fuels would also require huge amounts of renewable electricity, as would the direct use of hydrogen.
Now the Inquiry into the Future of Inter-regional Passenger Rail in New Zealand has released its report. Clearly many submitters saw trains as a key means for reducing emissions and the report acknowledges this.
But the gains will only come about if:
We can rebuild the network. But will people use the trains?
The presentations at the conference presented a wide range of potential train revivals, from linking up the golden triangle of Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga, relinking South Island towns and cities along existing rail tracks, through to more aspirational ideas such as a train/ferry link to Queenstown. There was also recognition of the first/last mile problem to make trains easier to access. Housing intensification around rail hubs was also touched upon creating a potential market to draw upon.
Pre-conference blogs highlighted the untapped markets for train travel, such as the transport-disadvantaged with limited regional travel options and teenagers. The high cost of the current tourist trains, along with their infrequent schedules, makes them impossible for most families.
Source: KiwiRail booking system
But missing from the conference day were many other aspects of the sweeping, systemic changes that the IPCC repeatedly finds are necessary for a safe future.
Models of Growth
There is an emerging debate between traditional economic growth, green growth and degrowth. In the decarbonisation model of Avoid/Shift/Improve, traditional growth relies almost entirely on ‘improve’. It may pay lip service to planetary boundaries but assumes that innovation and productivity will solve the problems. Road building and expansion of airports will stimulate the economy and lift standards of living. Trading schemes, such as the ETS, will solve emission challenges. If there is an impending shortage of particular minerals to support this growth, pricing and science will ensure that we swap to new alternatives. Unfortunately, these views, unsupported by science, are behind the view that in Aotearoa New Zealand long-distance trains are as part of the past, not the future. This was the view of Treasury as it drove restructuring of the economy after 1984. Treasury was not present at the conference.
Green growthers also rely heavily on technological innovation, but focus on both ‘Shift’ and ‘Improve’. For them, new types of trains, planes, and fuels lead the way for long distance mobility. Degrowthers focus primarily on ‘Avoid’ and ‘Shift’, placing a much higher weight on the efficiency of resource and energy use and the social purpose of travel. Trains are a key part of future mobility.
These discussions were not a key part of the conference. Yet if the conventional economic model is doomed to failure, we need to explore the alternatives.
Urban design, roads, and sprawl
Many of the talks at the conference provided a vision of how we can grow our population and housing stock along rail corridors. In fact, the word ‘growth’ – economic and population growth – was heard repeatedly as part of arguments for investment in passenger rail. It was cited as a key reason for getting the improved services in the lower North Island over the line. But growth is a double-edged sword. Taking the Capital Connection as an example, do we really want 150 km of sprawl and strip development from Wellington to Manawatū, even if the old town centres are linked by improved passenger rail? This becomes even more problematic when combined with the present push for continued expansion of the road and motorway network, further encouraging long-distance commuting and sprawl.
These are essential issues, even if they are too much for the humble train to tackle all by itself. There was mention at the conference of the overall car bias of the transport system. But the underlying question – can we achieve a high-quality passenger rail network without addressing car bias – remained unanswered.
By Suraya Sidhu Singh and Laurie Winkless
Credit: Richard Young
The Future is Rail conference was held in Wellington on June 28th. More detailed summaries of individual sessions will be published over the next few weeks. But this is a brief summary of the day, starting with common themes:
Credit: Richard Young
There were also challenges identified which included
Credit: Richard Young