By Peter Dowden
It seemed sensible for a delegate to a conference about land-based long-distance passenger transport to attend by land-based long-distance passenger transport. In the past, I could have travelled by train all the way from Ōtepoti Dunedin to Picton or taken a train to Christchurch then caught an overnight ferry to Wellington. Now those options are no longer available.
I took advice from my travelling companion Alex King, a much more seasoned long-distance commuter and bought an Intercity FlexiPass. This pass pre-purchases several "hours" of future coach travel which is then depleted as bookings are made and redeemed. It costs roughly $8 to $10 an hour, cheaper if you buy a larger dollop of travel and more expensive if you buy a smaller amount.
I struggled a bit with the Intercity booking system, as it is geared for medium distance travel. When I searched for "Dunedin to Wellington" it implied they don't go there, so I booked travel with an overnight stay in Christchurch.
I was therefore disappointed to see the connecting service to Picton ready to board soon after my arrival in Christchurch. On inquiry, I discovered that InterCity uses a minimum transfer time between services (quite sensibly, as this avoids a risky rapid transfer) but also a maximum transfer time, so overnight enroute stays are not regarded as providing an acceptable connection. I suppose this depends on your point of view. Happily, I was able to change my return journey to overnighting in Picton.
The journey north was uneventful. Standards of service and comfort and the application of terms and conditions seemed to be consistent throughout, but different drivers' descriptions of travel conditions were perhaps amusing, with one driver in particular implying a draconian interpretation of rules would be applied.
I was surprised how quickly my time on the trip to Christchurch seemed to pass by, given the long lunch break in Timaru and the diversion to Waimate. The following day's journey, though significantly more scenic, seemed to be drearier, but this perception probably arose due to the previous day being spent doing an identical activity.
A particularly noteworthy, and impressive, moment was on leaving Blenheim when the InterCity coach driver assured passengers that although we were running late, the ferry would not depart without us, as Intercity and InterIslander had a friendly arrangement to wait for each other's passengers. This is the sort of "joined-up" travel that many people are calling for, so it is always good to see a clear exemplar of this.
The InterIslander ferry journey was as enjoyable as it can be, when the sea is mild and the ferry is behaving well mechanically. It was intriguing to be driven from Picton's temporary terminal directly by bus into the innards of the ship, as the gangway and passenger terminal were under demolition due to the construction of new terminal facilities for the upcoming new larger ferries. Interestingly, I confirmed that the new terminal will indeed have a gangway and passenger facilities, so this was only temporary, but InterIslander's competitor Bluebridge always embarks passengers over the cargo ramp. Unfortunately, it seems the train station will not be part of the new terminal.
In Wellington there is very poor direction of passengers to the (unsignposted, replaced by an unmarked van) shuttle bus to the station; this is one of the "you are just meant to know" situations that are so harmful to public transport in Aotearoa.
Getting from the station to my family member's house in Wellington was, as always, a pleasure. Only Welingtonians think their city has poor public transport.
My southbound homeward journey was similar, a little more gruelling but more efficient. In full understanding of the available transfer in Christchurch, I was able to travel Picton to Dunedin in one day. But I still needed to get to Picton. There is no early morning ferry to meet the early southbound coach so crossing on the previous night was necessary. This is still preferrable simply because Picton is smaller than Christchurch, so easier to get around.
I don't think a full day's travel from Picton to Dunedin is for everyone but I am glad to say I tried it. It gave Alex and me the opportunity to fully discuss our ideas for improving long-distance transport.