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 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 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’.
The Future Is Rail: Reconnecting Aotearoa 2030 Conference will be held in Wellington on 28 June. The conference aims to get all the key decision makers in one room to envisage the future for regional, inter-regional and long-distance passenger rail in New Zealand.
Conference Chair and former Greater Wellington Regional Councillor, Dr Roger Blakeley says, “the conference provides an opportunity to develop a shared vision for rebuilding passenger rail across New Zealand that encompasses the diverse markets of regional, inter-regional, and long-distance trains. These services can help create a resilient and sustainable future.”
“While there is currently a focus on rebuilding connections within devastated communities, passenger rail is vital in reducing carbon emissions, promoting economic development, and increasing mobility choices for all New Zealanders. Emission reductions brought about by new mobility options in our largest cities are important, but we also need to cater for those living in regional New Zealand,” says Dr Blakeley.
Nationwide passenger rail requires coordination between central government, local government, business, and communities served. The conference on 28 June will include key players in forging a strategy for expanding rail in NZ.
“We are delighted to be able to bring together a rich agenda and an excellent line up of speakers. We hope that this event will mark the beginning of a comprehensive strategy for the future of passenger rail in New Zealand,” says Dr Blakeley.
Dr Roger Blakeley, Conference Chair
021 229 6928
By Paul Callister & Laurie Winkless
The devastating flooding in Tāmaki Makaurau in late January and now the impact of Cyclone Gabrielle should provide a wakeup call that we cannot keep pumping CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
Travel in fossil fuelled cars and planes represent a significant part of our gross domestic emissions in Aotearoa New Zealand. Recently-introduced targets to reduce transport emissions aim to change that. One goal, set out in the 2022 Emission Reduction Plan, is to reduce total projected kilometres travelled by the light fleet by 20 per cent by 2035. This is mainly to be achieved through improved urban form and by providing alternative travel options. While this plan focuses on travel within our largest cities, it is important to also cut travel between centres. Currently in New Zealand, these journeys overwhelmingly happen by road or air. As yet, we’ve seen far less focus on reducing the country’s aviation footprint. But Auckland’s Transport Emission Reduction Plan aims to reduce domestic aviation emissions by half by 2030.
This transition will be a very steep one, considering where we’re starting.
New Zealand stands out internationally in terms of car ownership and use, with one of the highest motor vehicle and car ownership rates per capita in the world. According to data from Waka Kotahi, there were almost 700,000 more vehicles on the road in 2022 than in 2017 – that’s a 14% increase in just five years.
New Zealand also ranks 6th in the world for overall per-capita aviation emissions, at 1 tonne CO2 per person, about 10 times the world average. It ranks 4th for per-capita domestic aviation emissions. on a per capita basis, New Zealanders emit seven times more than people living in the UK and nine times that of Germany. Part of the reason for the difference is their extensive rail networks and our lack of them.
The significant emission and energy benefits of using inter city and regional rail rather than driving or flying are well established. Steel-wheels upon steel-rails provides low friction and therefore low rolling resistance, resulting in reduced energy usage. A fully electrified passenger rail service uses a fraction of the energy needed to drive or fly people over the same distance, while also creating a fraction of the emissions. In relation to freight, the Value of Rail study published in 2016 showed that even diesel-powered rail freight services offer 70 percent fewer emissions compared to heavy road freight transport. Railways also use far less space than roading networks.
Yet, pushing back on this view are those who see rail as old technology. Why invest in rail when we are told electric planes, or planes fuelled by biofuel or hydrogen, are just over the horizon? Perhaps the answer is more widespread adoption of electric cars?
Various studies show that such ‘zero emission’ planes are not yet rolling off production lines. In fact, aside from small demonstrator models, electric passenger planes exist only on the drawing boards of designers. Larger planes suitable for regional connections, and those powered by hydrogen are even further away. The latter comes with the complexities of storing and using hydrogen in large volumes. And while ‘sustainable aviation fuels’ are being used in a very small number of flights, scaling up production of these fuels is proving to be a major challenge. Biofuels not sourced from true waste products, such as forestry offcuts, are especially problematic. Unfortunately, they also currently represent the majority of today's commercially-available biofuels; produced from potential food crops, such as palm oil, or ‘used cooking oil’.
In addition, today’s train technology has advanced far beyond the ‘old fashioned’ ideas held by some critics. In countless countries across the world, rail networks have been powered by electricity for decades – initially via overhead wires, many are now using batteries. Since 2017, the electricity that powers all Dutch trains has been generated from wind power. While the use of hydrogen is subject to much debate, hydrogen trains are already in operation, with new versions in development in China.
Since 2021, KiwiRail has been developing high-level feasibility cases for electrifying the remaining segments of the North Island Main Trunk and East Coast Main Trunk. The vast majority of the North Island rail freight traverses the two mainline routes. These routes provide for freight connectivity between the largest North Island cities of Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga and Wellington and can easily be leveraged for passenger rail operation.
There are significant reasons to support such mode shift in New Zealand. For example, two-thirds of GenZers who say that they “think about their environmental footprint” would consider taking a train instead of a plane to travel. And we’ve seen through submissions to our campaign that tens of thousands of New Zealanders support rail, and see it as an attractive alternative to driving and flying. But without a mix of incentives and disincentives that work for our population, such a shift may not happen. The most effective incentives are often very simple – as our fellow campaigner Suraya Sidhu Singh wrote in The Spinoff, “frequency is one of the biggest drivers of public transport uptake, especially in winning over those who currently drive.”
We cannot use 1990 or even 2000 thinking when considering the role of passenger rail in Aotearoa. Decisions made back then should not be determining how we will live in 2030, 2040 or 2050.
Organisations also have a significant role to play in achieving the required emission reductions. Businesses, including universities, increasingly have to account for their transport emissions. Following the declaration of a climate emergency in November 2020, the government released the cabinet paper Leading the way: Establishing a Carbon Neutral Government Programme (CNGP). The paper states that the government “must show leadership to reduce its own emissions, in order to demonstrate what is possible to other sectors in the New Zealand economy.” The emissions footprints of the main government agencies are due to be published soon. Based on earlier data, it is expected that domestic flying will be a major contributor, and to meet the goals of CNGP, will need to be reduced. The general manager for sustainability for Vector, Prageeth Jayathissa, has ‘walked the talk’ by demonstrating the climate benefits of using the train between Auckland and Wellington.
Transport mode shift similarly requires a mode shift in imagination and vision by the tourist industry and how we ourselves holiday. Kirsty Wild has written how we need to change how work is organised so we can move away from short breaks that often involve flying. And to reduce emissions, we need to holiday more locally.
Living a "1.5 °C" lifestyle – about 2.5 tonnes CO2 a year until 2030 – is challenging. A key element to achieving is adopting low-emission, high energy-efficiency approaches to domestic mobility. As we say, The Future is Rail.
For more on the emission and energy benefits of rail, read Terms of Reference #5 in our submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry on Passenger Rail and Why restoring long distance passenger rail- makes sense in New Zealand for people and the climate.