By Paul Callister
Yesterday I travelled between Palmerston North and Papakura on the Northern Explorer. As an urban nerd, I notice lots of small things about transport options. There is no safe cycleway into the Palmerston North station and, if walking from town as we did, no marked crossing over the very busy Tremaine Avenue. The station building is also run down, with the former tea rooms now a childcare centre. Part of the station was closed due to raising the platform to cope with the newly refurbished Capital Connection which will start services soon.
On the bright side, the Northern Explorer train was on time arriving in Palmerston North (although half an hour late getting into Papakura) and the crew were helpful and friendly. The weather was fine and the views are always amazing.
While enjoying the scenery, I would have also liked to work on the train. But the lack of wifi and, for much of the route, mobile coverage makes working difficult. These days, working life generally requires being attached to the internet. I cover the difficulties of working on trains in an earlier blog. Also, lack of mobile coverage means that passengers have to pay cash for food and drinks in many places along the route, thus initially catching out cashless passengers. But they get around this by running a tab which you can pay when there is coverage.
Three pin laptop charging plugs are only available in the dining car. It is OK to work there if people do not want the seats to eat meals but it is not permitted to spend substantial time in the dining car.
It seems random whether seats in the main carriages have a table to work on. Mine did, which was great, but choice of a table did not appear to be an option when booking.
In the carriages there are plugs between seats for attaching headphones to listen to a recorded message about points of interest along the way. But the USB charging plugs are at ground level under the tables. This makes it a truly gymnastic exercise to charge a phone.
The Rubbish Trip have talked about the single use plastics on the train. There is so much waste generated. But they did encourage people to reuse their coffee cups and a small attempt at sustainability is their wooden knives and fork.
In the middle of the day we passed slowly through Taumarunui. but the train did not stop as it seemed no one was requesting to get on and off. The town is a low-income area so the train will be unaffordable to many residents. But as we passed by there was an InterCity bus parked by the station for their lunch break. Budget conscious travellers along the same route as the railway are forced to use buses, without the on-board cafes, baby changing facilities and on-board toilets that trains provide.
The lack of wifi and laptop chargers on the train are all small, solvable issues. More importantly, the Northern Explorer runs infrequently and is expensive, while also remaining the only long-distance train in the North Island.