By Weston Kirton
After a long campaign, celebrating the inclusion once again of a stop at Taumarunui by the Northern Explorer. Credit: Paul Wheatcroft
Reliable, affordable, public transport solutions are crucial for the wellbeing of rural communities. Unlike urban areas where multiple modes of transportation are readily available, rural areas often have limited or no access to buses, trains, or other forms of public transit. This lack of options can result in significant difficulties for individuals who rely on public transportation as their primary means of travel. Furthermore, the long travel distances characteristic of rural areas poses additional obstacles for those without access to private vehicles.
The tracks are there but the trains are missing in many regions. Credit James Llewellyn
Limited or non-existent public transportation options make it difficult to access employment opportunities, educational institutions, medical facilities, and social services. These challenges not only affect individuals but also impact the overall development and sustainability of these communities. Understanding the importance of reliable public transport in rural areas is crucial to bridging these gaps and fostering inclusive communities.
The trains do stop but are infrequent and expensive. Credit: Paul Wheatcroft
Successive governments have stated their belief that building successful and more resilient regions is the key to building a prosperous nation. This has seen the funding of regional development programmes to identify and unlock the big economic opportunities. A key enabler critical to the realization of these opportunities is the need for the infrastructure to connect people, goods, services, and markets. Reliable public transport is a critical part of this infrastructure that is often overlooked.
Moreover, reliable public transport plays a critical role in sustainable development efforts. By providing viable alternatives to private vehicles, it helps reduce traffic congestion, lower carbon emissions, and mitigate environmental impacts associated with individual car ownership. It also contributes to economic growth by facilitating commuting for work purposes and enabling businesses to reach wider markets.
Good quality, affordable, trains and coaches are important in providing rural public transport networks
The need for reliable public transport in rural areas goes beyond mere convenience; it is a matter of equity and social justice. Accessible transportation ensures that everyone has equal opportunities to participate fully in society regardless of their geographical location. It promotes social cohesion by connecting individuals with essential resources, fostering community engagement, and reducing isolation.
Addressing rural public transport challenges requires innovative solutions that take into account the unique needs and circumstances of rural communities. It involves investing in infrastructure development that improves connectivity while considering cost-effective approaches that optimize resources. Furthermore, enhancing public transportation infrastructure can unlock economic potential by connecting rural communities with urban centers.
Trains carrying bikes in Europe. An ideal way to reach Ohakune to enjoy the many bike trails. Credit: Anthony Cross
By recognizing and addressing the unique challenges faced by rural communities in accessing public transportation, we can work towards creating inclusive solutions that enhance mobility options and improve quality of life for all residents regardless of their geographic location. Government policies and funding play a crucial role in addressing the public transport issues faced by rural communities.
Policymakers need to be working towards creating inclusive transportation systems that benefit all members of society regardless of their geographic location. By implementing comprehensive policies and allocating adequate funding, governments can address public transport issues effectively in rural communities. This not only enhances connectivity but also contributes to economic development, social inclusion, and overall well-being of these regions.
Weston Kirton is the Mayor of Ruapehu District Council
Grace Burnard, Head Girl and Joshua Simons, Head Boy, Ruapehu College and Corbin O'Shannessey, Head Boy, Taumarunui High School who presented at The Future is Rail Conference. Credit: Richard Young.
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.