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 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