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 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
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 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.