By Arnaud Deutsch
Credit: Keith Strode-Penny
The Māori saying ‘Tiro whakamuri, kōkiri whakamua’ translates as ‘We look back and reflect, so that we can move forward’. It’s a proverb true of many facets of life, including in the national conversation around a new regional passenger rail network for Aotearoa New Zealand. WSP technical advisory director Arnaud Deutsch, recently back from presenting on the subject in Melbourne, explains.
In revitalising regional rail, we can look back and take a cue from the Vogel Era of the 1870s. The Government of the day embarked on a massive public works scheme that included laying down a national rail network. Thousands of workers spent years sweating it out with pick, shovel, horse, and cart – building tracks through exceptionally challenging terrain.
Aptly described as the infrastructure that made New Zealand, peak rail hit in the early 1950s when about 100 branch lines and 2,350 stations were operating up and down the country. It was a halcyon time, to be sure.
Provincial populations and flourishing of regional industry marched in lockstep with the growth of rail, but these experienced corresponding drops as road and air travel began to assume transport supremacy. Sadly, by 2020 just three long-distance passenger rail services remained.
We’re a far cry from the golden days of rail, but signs are pointing to a come-back. For decades, demand for regional passenger rail has simmered beneath the surface. Rail continues to have great potential – especially in linking the fast-growing Golden Triangle of Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga, and connecting our cities with provincial and tourist centres.
It’s pleasing to now see regional rail being scrutinised anew, including at Parliamentary Select Committees. Why? Because slowly but surely, society is cottoning on to the fact that road-centric systems are neither fair nor aligned with the country's goal of reducing carbon emissions.
In a recent groundbreaking move, major funding is being injected into a new, environmentally friendly regional rail fleet for Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC). This marks the first significant investment in regional rail in over thirty years and is crucial step in inspiring other regions to follow suit - revitalising regional rail networks for their own communities.
In looking ahead to the rollout of national passenger rail, serious consideration needs to be given to 'connector' trains that service district towns outside our main urban centres. These connector rail services play a pivotal role in enhancing regional connectivity and promoting sustainable transportation.
In the North Island, for instance, establishing a connector between Hamilton and Palmerston North can bridge the gap between the Auckland-Waikato Te Huia service and the upcoming Wellington-Wairarapa/Manawatū service. Such connectors not only reduce the burden on road infrastructure but also offer a more eco-friendly and convenient travel option for residents in these district towns. Moreover, they foster economic growth, encourage tourism, and ultimately create a more integrated and accessible rail network for the benefit of all New Zealanders.
Just as Julius Vogel’s railways were a multigenerational investment, so too is a future network of modern, fast rail that will be a highly efficient way of transporting significant numbers of Kiwis. Reviving regional passenger rail will help reduce our sky-high transport emissions and turn around reduced opportunities in rural areas.
The essence of regional rail is its service to communities. Many rural communities, local councils, and regional councils already have a clear vision of how rail service investment could transform their towns. Thanks to central government backing, the GWRC now has its first financed project, and my earnest hope is that this will spark a much wider movement.
For regional rail to truly advance, it must take precedence over other transport investments. While past hurdles and underinvestment have diverted resources away from regional rail, it's now time to place rail squarely at the heart of our national transport priorities. So, let’s take a leaf from the days of yore and commit to fast, reliable regional rail investments that breathe new economic life into communities, reduce car dependency, and help get us to net zero emissions by 2050.
Credit: Anthony Cross
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 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