By Paul Callister
In an article about lowering emissions for long distance domestic business travel, Peter Griffin wrote.
‘If you are regularly travelling between Auckland and Wellington, Vector’s Prageeth Jayathissa has some advice for you: block out a day in your calendar and do some ‘focus’ work while you take the train.
That might seem excessive, given that the Northern Explorer train journey takes nearly 11 hours and there are only 3 southbound and 3 northbound services a week. But Jayathissa, the general manager of sustainability at the Auckland-based lines company has made the trip has decided to make the trip his regular means of travel to Wellington.’
“Flights to Wellington are my largest source of carbon emissions. Now that our intercity [tourist] train is running again, I gave it a go…”
In our series of blogs we have explored how train travel creates just a fraction of the emissions of flights. But as Jayathissa points out, there are not regular train trips between Auckland and Wellington, a route where Ross Clark has estimated that there are 2.6 million passengers flying each year. Add in the other key sectors on the main trunk rail line and there are over 3 million people flying along this corridor each year. It is difficult to estimate how many are flying for business reasons, but the number is likely to be significant.
Nearly 11 hours on a train might seem a long time, although people regularly catch far longer international flights. But the time palls into insignificance when compared with a train trip a UK based climate scientist took. Kevin Anderson stresses that we need to quickly and dramatically reduce our emissions.
Anderson has been giving these warnings for a long time. In order to reduce his own carbon footprint, he takes trains to conferences and other events. In the mid 2000s he took a train trip from the UK to China travelling a total of 20 days. Writing about this experience, he notes:
“So what of the work you can do while travelling? I had planned and expected my many hours of mildly enforced confinement to provide a good working environment. But I wasn’t prepared for what turned out to be the most productive period of my academic career, particularly on the return journey. During the outward trip, I read a range of papers and managed to write another on shipping and climate change.”
“From a productivity perspective, the 20-day train journey easily trumped the two-day flight. Counter-intuitive perhaps, but I remain convinced that a carefully planned train journey not only delivers lower emissions by an order of magnitude, but facilitates the process of research in a way that universities and daily life simply can’t match. Add to that the ‘slower’ ethos that such journeys engender, and I think there may be early signs of making a meaningful transition to a low-carbon future – or at least a bridging ethos – while we wait for the panacea of low-carbon technologies to become the norm.”
So how easy is it to work on the Northern Explorer? Climate scientist and policy advisor, Dr Christina Hood, tested this out in March travelling from Kapiti to Auckland for the recent Environmental Defence Society conference. Christina had heard stories of no power plugs in the carriages to charge laptops so tweeted:
Finding out that three pin plugs had been removed from passenger carriages, Christina tweeted an additional question and received a reply from KiwiRail.
KiwiRail then added a tweet that confirmed these trains are for tourists not everyday New Zealanders, including those travelling for business.
On the actual trip Christina continued tweeting including.
But there is now a partial good news story to report. Perhaps as a result of the publicity generated by Christina Hood’s tweets, on the more recent trip by Prageeth Jayathissa the on-board staff made sure he had a good working space.
This was a good fix for Prageeth. But it should be what all business travellers expect.
In arguing for a revival of long distance passenger rail, we contend that trains should cater for everyone, not just tourists. They should: facilitate mobility among younger people who do not own cars or cannot drive; allow families to travel for holidays and visit friends and relatives, support cycling holidays, and be well set up to create a ‘hot desk’ environment for business travellers.
The Northern Explorer does not have on-board Wi-Fi and even for the user with their own data there are still many areas without good coverage. This is a well-recognised problem for trains passing through remote areas, but is solvable with new technology.
Making the Northern Explorer more business friendly is important. This includes running daily services.
But, for the business community, the ideal would be for night trains to be re-instated between Auckland and Wellington. This initiative could be led by the public service as they work to reduce their travel emissions. Such a train would still need to cater for those business travellers wishing to undertake late night or early morning work.
The Future is Rail in Aotearoa New Zealand will only come about with a bold vision that leads to the provision of safe, affordable and low-emission travel options for all New Zealanders, not just for wealthy tourists.