By Michael Nicholson
Credit: Suraya Sidhu Singh
In part 1 of this article, I argued that reinstating national passenger rail is logical, it really should be as simple as purchasing a fleet of new trains and progressively upgrading or building new stations. But I recognised that there are of course a number of other things which must happen beforehand, all of which require political will, pragmatism, investment and commitment.
Part 2 delved more into the services we need to bring back and a brief discussion of rail tourism.
In this final article, I dive even deeper into the services we could bring back with a commentary on routes.
Auckland - Hamilton - Palmerston North - Wellington: Auckland to Wellington has been identified as an almost ideal distance/time travelled for night train operation. This route provides convenient departure and arrival times and links four major cities, numerous smaller centres, ski fields and other Central North Island attractions.
It is estimated that that 57% of New Zealand’s population lives along the rail route between Auckland and Wellington and this is New Zealand's busiest travel corridor. Transdev NZ has shown an interest in operating night trains over this route.
Trains could potentially run through the Strand station and be extended to Whangarei, providing a direct link between Wellington and Northland, this would make good use of equipment and negates the need to store trains in Auckland during the day. Maintenance would be undertaken in Wellington every second day.
Night trains would also provide a later evening departure for users of Capital Connection and Te Huia corridors.
New Plymouth - Stratford - Hamilton - Auckland: Night trains could depart later in the evening from both New Plymouth and Auckland, trains could possibly include freight wagons, for mixed train service between New Plymouth - Hamilton - Auckland. Alternatively, could operate modern multiple unit style night trains.
The route between Auckland - Hamilton - Marton - Whanganui - New Plymouth could otherwise be used, this would provide early morning and earlier evening departures for communities between Marton and New Plymouth.
Picton - Christchurch - Dunedin - Invercargill: These trains would connect with Cook Strait ferries, linking Wellington - Blenheim - Christchurch - Dunedin - Invercargill. There might be opportunities for a motorail service over this longer route, where passengers could travel with a motorcar.
Auckland - Hamilton - Palmerston North - Wellington: New Zealand's busiest travel route which could serve many transport starved communities. KiwiRail’s own analysis of Northern Explorer shows there is strong demand for general travel, not just tourism. Trains need to operate daily in each direction, offer reduced prices by providing First Class for tourism and Standard Class, for public transport needs. Feeder buses would help access places like Toupo and Turangi. It is interesting to note that the 'Save Our Trains' petition received significant numbers of signatures from towns like Te Kuiti, Taumarunui, and Marton on the North Island Main Trunk Line. Regional authorities along the Central North Island have been advocating strongly for enhanced passenger rail service in their regions, they have banded-together to commission a high-level feasibility study on regional passenger services for public transport - the 'North Island Regional Passenger Rail Connector' study.
Auckland - Whangarei: Possibility of extending Wellington to Auckland night trains to and from Whangarei. This will utilise night train rolling stock and not require additional equipment. Advantage of direct links between Wellington - Auckland - Whangarei.
Rotorua - Opua: Operating trains between Rotorua and Opua would link these tourism hot-spots. Trains would provide morning southbound departures from Opua, then late morning south departures from Whangarei. They would complement the afternoon departure from Whangarei to Auckland (continuing as the night train to Wellington).
Rotorua would enjoy morning up departures for Hamilton, Auckland and Opua.
In addition, one of the down morning Te Huia services could be extended to Rotorua, giving morning and afternoon coverage between Auckland, Hamilton and Rotorua.
The mothballed section of railway between Putaruru and Rotorua would need to be reactivated.
Auckland - Tauranga: This route was identified by government in the in the 2017 election campaign as a priority. Local community has shown consistent support for passenger rail service to be reintroduced. Tauranga - Hamilton - Auckland is known as the "Golden-Triangle", this is an area of high growth with a steadily increasing population. Tauranga has ever increasing road traffic issues and a genuine regional community desire for modern passenger rail travel options. Advocacy groups 'Making Rail Work' and 'Save Our Trains' have been running a sustained and effective intellectual campaign around reinstating modern passenger rail to Tauranga.
Wellington - Gisborne: Gisborne is an isolated region with limited public transport. Trains would improve connectivity, travel safety and transport resilience. This is also a scenic railway with potential to attract tourism opportunities, alongside improved public transport for the region. The mothballed section of line between Wairoa and Gisborne will need to be reactivated, this will improve freight and passenger transport options in the region. Down trains from Gisborne would provide an early afternoon departure from Napier, with a mid-afternoon departure from Palmerston North to Wellington. Integration with Lower North Island rolling stock rotation and maintenance would seem to make best sense.
Wellington - Napier / Wellington - New Plymouth / New Plymouth - Napier:
Napier and New Plymouth routes could operate as an extension of Lower North Island operations, equipment and operational efficiencies could be made by sharing equipment, maintenance rotations and integrating some trains with Capital Connection services. Using a combination of direct trains and connecting trains (at Palmerston North /or Marton), would increase travel options over these routes. Connecting New Plymouth and Napier trains with Auckland north and south daytime trains (at Palmerston North /or Marton) would also be possible.
Some train running patterns might include:
Christchurch – Timaru – Oamaru – Dunedin – Invercargill: Return of this route has long been advocated by South Island communities and there are established social media groups devoted to this passenger rail route. Good use of equipment could allow for enhanced services, these would also be complemented night trains between Picton and Invercargill.
Day trains could operate:
Hokitika - Westport: A West Coast Link between Hokitika and Westport could connect with trains between Greymouth and Christchurch and could operate for both public transport and tourism. A study was commissioned by the PGF in July 2019, however; this study was limited to purely tourism focused options.
A network of mini-hubs for delivery and pick up for "Small-lots" freight should be developed at all stations as part of the passenger rail network expansion.
New equipment and station upgrades/rebuild can incorporate the infrastructure needed to operate "small-lots" freight, alongside passenger operations.
Freight wagons attached to conventional night trains might be an option for some less time sensitive routes, such as night trains between New Plymouth - Hamilton - Auckland, thus, improving freight movement availability as well as passenger options.
As stated, currently the process for advancing passenger rail which crosses regional boundaries is incredibly convoluted.
Much respect, however, must be afforded to Greater Wellington Regional Council and Horizons Regional Council, for their tireless work and perseverance under almost impossible circumstances - their work has resulted in 18 new four car (72 individual carriages) hybrid trains being approved for purchase, by government in the May 2023 budget. Much respect also to the Waikato Regional Council, which has worked hard to develop Te Huia under incredibly difficult circumstances, such as Covid lockdowns, delays to planned improvements, shoestring budgets, difficult agencies and a general lack of systems to develop cross boarder passenger rail.
Furthermore, it is exciting to see that Central North Island regional authorities are continuing to progress ambitions for Central North Island Connector trains. These trains are planned to link transport starved communities along the North Island Main Trunk railway - providing frequent, quality, accessible, low-emissions, public transport train options.
Palmerston North - Wellington (Capital Connection): Capital Connection trains are currently only used 4 hours each day, Monday to Friday - this an appalling underuse of passenger rail resource. Interim trains of refurbished ex British Rail carriages from the 1970's will become available around July 2023, they are intended to buy time between the current worn out trains being scrapped, and new trains being delivered. These interim trains provide an opportunity to improve service on this corridor immediately, by initiating an off-peak weekday and weekend services.
Modern hybrid trains should arrive in around four to five years and will allow for a much enhanced service, including increased peak, off-peak and weekend services, as well as faster travel times between Palmerston North and Wellington. Infrastructure upgrades are necessary for the implementation of some improvements, mainly additional peak service operation. These infrastructure improvements will likely not be complete by the time our new trains arrive, however, there are some work arounds that can be made to achieve well-timed enhancement to services between Palmerston North and Wellington.
Palmerston North station needs upgrading, perhaps the former cafeteria could become a modern and comfortable waiting room. Dedicated bus connections should meet with all trains at Palmerston North station, these bus connections could be included train tickets and travel to Massy University via the CBD and the local city bus depot.
Night trains to Auckland would provide later travel options for passengers and new services to Napier, New Plymouth and Auckland could all be recognised on Capital Connection timetables, this will highlight rail travel options over the Capital Connection corridor.
Extending services to Whanganui should be planned and could happen immediately for Friday night and weekend service, possibly even weekend services to New Plymouth and Napier. at an early stage all services could be extended to Feilding using interim trains, this would provide service to Feilding, Bunnythorpe, northern end of Palmerston North and a possible connection to the Palmerston North airport. Bunnythorpe is planned for large growth including construction of a huge new rail freight hub, due to commence in the not-too-distant future.