By Lindsey Horne
Credit: Dries Buytaert
Approaching the Easter weekend or any kind of long journey with small children often means car seats, snacks, wishing for an extra iPad, pre-planning sanity stops along the way, a lot of deep breaths as you’re stuck behind traffic or on a more serious note, hopes and prayers for a safe journey during one of the most notorious times on New Zealand roads.
Alternatively, it means extremely costly flights with toddlers in tow, making your way to the airport, and then from the airport to your destination, with more and more emissions ticking over when recent climate related weather events are staring us in the face.
As part of the parliamentary enquiry into inter-regional passenger rail, Women in Urbanism sent out a simple survey to New Zealanders, asking them to share their stories of what long distance trains meant to them. They received over 330 stories from over 130 New Zealanders.
The findings showed support from a wide range of New Zealanders, with diversity across age, gender and regional spread. In particular, long distance trains did seem to strike a chord with caregivers travelling with young children. This makes sense when we dig into the key themes of why travelling by train with toddlers is so appealing.
Motor vehicle crashes are one of the leading causes of deaths for children under 14 and in 2019 after the Easter Weekend and ANZAC day long weekends, 19 children were killed on our roads in car crashes. It makes sense that when travelling with precious cargo, that you want to keep them safe and avoid time on the roads this time of year.
“Trains have saved me years of stress from driving on busy, dangerous highways, getting tired and feeling unsafe on the roads.”
18-24 Female, Canterbury
“No one was exhausted by the experience of the train travel, no stress of driving, parking, security, driver fatigue and safety.”
70-74 Male, Auckland
“I always enjoyed the train much more than the car journey, which was often nauseating and scary.”
30-34 Female, Wellington
QUALITY TIME OVER TRAFFIC
No driving involved, so caregivers and their children can spend that time relaxing, playing games, people watching, window gazing and arrive far less strung out than a long drive or a journey to and from the airport with a jam-packed flight in between.
“We took our daughter on a train trip, who was 8yo at the time. For her it was a wonderful trip, somewhere she could move between carriages and also enjoy the open-air viewing area.
Food was very expensive, but great to have it available. Having toilet access throughout was also amazing. Having recently made the same journey by car, I gazed jealously at the train as it glided (glid?) by. Sure the car was cheaper for our family - now numbering 5 - but it is also a squeeze, with carefully planned rest stops and frequent arguments.”
45-49 Female, Canterbury
ACCESS TO TOILETS ON THE GO
A big selling point for trains with toddlers is access to toilets and changing areas while you’re on the move. No side of the road pull-overs or trying to time a trip to the toilet around a delayed flight.
“When our child was born in 2007 I would take the train with him to Hamilton and be collected by my parents (a one and a half hour drive from Tauranga). It was a more comfortable journey than the bus, I could change his nappies in the little toilet (not ideal but fine), and we could move around if he needed a change of scene. The journey was part of the adventure (but long 10 hours to Tauranga). I could pay attention to him in a way I couldn't if I was driving.”
50-54 Female, Wellington
ACCESS TO FOOD ON THE GO
A hungry toddler…watch out. Having a dining cart on the train and being allowed to bring snacks on board is another benefit to travel by train. You can avoid the petrol station packaged food and opt for barista coffee and meals on board, or have a dignified lunch at a table as you watch the world roll by with your little ones.
“We travelled Auckland - Wellington - Auckland. It meant we could travel as a family with young babies (at the time). Walk up and down. Look out windows etc, without some air hostess telling us to sit down or to stop loitering around the toilets. So much easier to feed the children too.”
45-49 Female, Auckland
ABILITY TO GET UP AND WALK AROUND
Having a toddler strapped into a car seat for hours on end is not fun for anyone. Being able to walk around, go to the viewing carriage, walk to the dining cart can result in a vast decrease in screaming and whining.
“My husband and I have four children and they were just 2, 4, 6 & 7 yrs old at the time. As you can imagine, this is a handful to manage during a long distance car-ride.
Therefore, all the children and I got tickets for the train from Auckland to Wellington. My husband dropped us at the Station before 7am, then he drove to Wellington that day in our overstuffed car, while the kids and I travelled in blissful comfort on the train! My little ones loved being able to explore the carriages - playing happily with other travelling children, and visiting the Observation Car and little cafe. I spent time in enjoyable conversation with our fellow passengers, and loved everything about the train and our trip. We had a fun (and scenic!) stretch of our legs in National Park en route, bought lunch at the cafe there, then off again to arrive in Wellington by 7pm.
We even hosted my youngest child’s 4th birthday on a train! Trains are fabulous. Let’s have more of them.”
45-49 Female, Wellington
Kiwirail Great Journeys is offering $25 tickets for kids on their services over Easter…but there’s a catch
Yes, it’s true - $25 tickets for children under 14, which is excellent and actually speaks to how a national passenger service should be affordable all year round and for all ages. However, there is no Northern Explorer service that runs on the actual Easter weekend, only the days before and after the Easter break.
In addition, there are only three train routes, so if you’re not on Auckland to Wellington; Christchurch to Picton or Christchurch to Greymouth routes then you’re out of luck. And while that $25 child ticket is looking mighty affordable, it’s $229 for parents - each, one way. That’s $1,016 for a return trip for two parents and two kids.
What that tells us is that despite having a few long distance trains, they’re not frequent, they don’t go to enough key destinations and they’re unaffordable.
New Zealanders want alternative, affordable options to driving and flying and trains are an obvious opportunity
The recent parliamentary enquiry into inter-regional passenger rail saw more than 1700 submissions, the vast majority in favour of long distance passenger rail, alongside Save Our Trains’ petition which has almost 11,000 signatures in favour of more train options across Aotearoa. In particular, long distance passenger trains need to be affordable - so that families can afford to use them, all year round not just over Easter with cheaper tickets, we need to have more frequent services on our existing lines and broaden our network to reach more locations.
This is possible for Aotearoa. Up until 2001 we had a passenger service running from Tauranga to Auckland, the Christchurch to Invercargill Southerner service closed up shop in 2002 and many countries with similar sized populations and population distribution are showing us that it’s possible to run long distance trains in smaller countries, such as Finland, Ireland, Croatia and Argentina.
What’s good for the kiddies is good for everyone
New Zealanders are making it clear that they want more transport options like passenger rail and the opportunity to invest is now. The benefits of travelling by train aren’t just for toddlers and their caregivers. Having access to toilets, the ability to walk around and have a relaxing journey, and having a safe journey are benefits for all New Zealanders.