By Darren Davis & Malcolm McCracken
It’s one month until Budget Day 2023. Read on to hear the critical need for rail investment in the Lower North Island.
This is a sad story of how we still ‘plan’ for growth in Aotearoa. We do so without providing people living in new and growing communities with real transport choice. Even when public transport solutions are available with high benefits, we tend to double down on big roads which make existing issues worse. This makes it nearly impossible for Aotearoa to achieve a zero-carbon future with genuine, inclusive transport choice.
The first part of the tragedy is growth without transport choice. The second part is that even when good transport choices with high benefits are on the table, the choice is to double-down on roading investment and spend the bare minimum on public transport.
The most clear and present example of this Transport Land Use Disintegration is taking place here and now in the Lower North Island where significant growth is taking place in Kāpiti, Horowhenua and the Wairarapa. For example, Horowhenua District Council’s updated growth strategy in 2022 plans for an additional 26,008 additional people by 2040 – a projected 71% increase. Kāpiti District, part of which is beyond the Wellington urban rail network, is projected to increase by 32,000 people over the next 30 years. Wairarapa is also growing, partly due to lifestyle reasons and partly driven by housing affordability challenges in Wellington. For example, medium growth projections indicate that Masterton district’s population will grow from 27,500 in 2020 to 30,549 (+11.1%) by 2031. At the same, the single commuter train from the Manawatū, Horowhenua and northern Kāpiti is at capacity as are the three peak-direction commuter trains from the Wairarapa. Put simply, there is a lot of growth coming, and there is no public transport capacity available for more people to use the train now, let alone any ability to accommodate population growth on public transport.
The second part of the tragedy is about doubling-down on high-cost, low-benefit roading investments when robust public transport business cases that provide effective, affordable solutions with high benefits are ignored.
At least $4 billion is being invested in roading in the Wellington Northern Corridor which serves Kāpiti and Horowhenua. $2.325 billion of this is for already-opened sections of expressway and motorway from Transmission Gully through to Ōtaki and $1.5 billion is budgeted for Ōtaki to North of Levin. Waka Kotahi is also due to pay $125 million a year for the next 30 years under the terms of the Transmission Gully Public Private Partnership. This takes the total roading investment in the Wellington Northern Corridor to over $7 billion. All this investment doubles down on car dependency and a high carbon future, often just to get commuters and holidaymakers to the back of the traffic jam faster. At the same time, the once daily Capital Connection commuter train from Palmerston North to Wellington is on life support and being patched up with refurbished rolling stock from the 1970s to keep it limping along for a few more years. The Wairarapa Line trains are out of capacity and also in urgent need of an upgrade.
The contrast could not be starker along State Highway 1. The gold-plated expressway, 100% funded by central government, at times parallels a single-track rail corridor with a solitary weekday peak-direction commuter train and the three times a week tourist-oriented Northern Explorer service.
In the wake of recent extreme weather events, we often talk about the need for resilience and redundancy in our transport networks, but in reality, this only seems to apply to roads. For example, the Transmission Gully expressway was specifically designed to provide an alternative to the vulnerable Centennial Highway, wedged between the Paekākāriki Escarpment and the Tasman Sea. But the rail line parallel to Centennial Highway still clings precipitously to the escarpment on its steep, slow, single-track descent from Pukerua Bay into Paekākāriki and is subject to regular disruption from increasingly frequent extreme weather events. While car capacity has doubled with Transmission Gully, rail capacity remains severely constrained to serve the fast-growing Kāpiti and Horowhenua districts by the section of single track between North and South Junctions. This also severely impacts on the ability of the Wellington urban rail network to meet growth in the parts of Kāpiti on the Wellington urban network.
While the interim Capital Connection rolling stock, made up of refurbished 1970s Mark II carriages from the UK, will buy a few years’ reprieve, the opportunity cost of this is that it puts off, but doesn’t replace the need for a robust long-term solution to regional rail rolling stock that would provide a template for regional rail networks across Aotearoa.
What makes this situation worse is that there is a robust business case on the table with high benefits which provide a compelling case for passenger rail solutions for the Lower North Island. This is the 2019 Lower North Island Longer-Distance Rolling Stock Business Case.
Lower North Island Longer-Distance Rolling Stock Business Case
This business case was completed at the end of 2019 and made a compelling case for the existing Wairarapa Line and Capital Connection rolling stock to be replaced within the limited lifespan of the current fleet by 2025. It proposed its replacement with 15 four-carriage dual mode trains able to run on electricity within the Wellington electrified network. It noted that both the Capital Connection and peak Wairarapa Line trains were at capacity and urgently required additional services, as well as new or much improved non-peak services and a doubling of weekend services on the Wairarapa Line and new weekend service on the Manawatū Line.
The business case had a benefit cost ratio of 1.5 to 3.1, compared to the very low benefit-cost ratio (BCR) of 0.22-0.37 for Ōtaki to North of Levin Expressway, originally estimated to cost $817 million. At its new cost of $1.5 billion, this BCR will most likely have slipped further. Construction cost inflation means that the Ōtaki to North of Levin Expressway project is once again being rescoped to fit within budget.
The benefit of the recommended investment is not limited to regional rail. The infrastructure investment would benefit freight and Kiwirail Great Journeys train services, without those services picking up any of the cost. The business case did include significant investment in Wairarapa Line infrastructure to enable more frequent service. However, much of this investment is now underway as part of a separate Wairarapa Line upgrade programme, which means that the benefit of the new rolling stock is even higher, given that much of the infrastructure cost is already covered. In an irony, that is frequently repeated in New Zealand public transport planning, the Wairarapa Line infrastructure improvements enable, but don’t provide for, improved rail services to use the improved infrastructure. If a future decision were taken for electrification of the Manawatū or Wairarapa lines, investment in dual mode sets is not a sunk cost as it would enable those services to be extended further beyond any future electrification, for example to Whanganui.
Despite this compelling case for investment, the 2022 budget bid for this rolling stock was refused while investment continued in the Ōtaki to North of Levin expressway, whose costs vastly exceed its benefits, continued. The failure of this bid took everyone, most particularly the Greater Wellington and Horizons regional councils, by surprise, given its high benefits, support for transport choice in growth areas and its role as effective climate change action. The two regional councils have resubmitted the proposal in the 2023 budget, to be made public on 18th May.
Instead, Government decided to implement an interim solution for the ageing Capital Connection fleet with the refurbishment of 1970s era ex- British Rail Mark 11 carriages which have been quietly rusting in Taumarunui since Auckland electrified its rail network in 2015, making these carriages redundant.
While this may provide a stop gap solution for the Capital Connection trains for a few years, it means that a more extensive refurbishment of the existing Wairarapa Line rolling stock will be required to enable them to operate until 2032. This would be avoided if they are replaced by the bi-mode trains proposed in this business case as well as making much earlier use of the much-higher service frequency enabled by the already committed Wairarapa Line infrastructure investment.
It also kicks for touch the urgently needed longer-term regional rail rolling stock solution, which could provide a template for similar regional rail solutions in the Upper North Island and Canterbury.
Given that there is at least a four-year time frame from funding commitment to new rolling stock being in operation, a decision is required now in order to have the new rolling stock running for 2028.
Put simply, our ask is that:
So, if you believe that passenger rail has a crucial role to play in securing sustainable, inclusive, carbon-friendly mobility for Aotearoa, the time to act is now.