A public meeting held in support of the train service attracted 200 people (Photos: Supplied)
A public meeting held in support of the train service attracted 200 people (Photos: Supplied)

OPINIONSocietyMay 8, 2024

Why we’re fighting to save Te Huia, the Hamilton-Auckland train

A public meeting held in support of the train service attracted 200 people (Photos: Supplied)
A public meeting held in support of the train service attracted 200 people (Photos: Supplied)

With funding set to be scrapped for the Hamilton-Auckland commuter train, Te Huia enthusiast Georgie Dansey argues for it to be thrown a lifeline.

It’s 5.45am and the chain of my crappy old bike falls off slugging up the one hill in Hamilton. I contemplate yeeting the bike into the bushes and calling an Uber, but instead take a breath, power-walk to the top and coast down to Frankton station to officially cross off a momentous first – my first train trip to Auckland! Two years later and I’m standing in front of 200 people, hosting a public meeting to save Te Huia and writing impassioned articles with as many train puns in them as possible. 

Before this story gets totally derailed, let me back up the train a little bit and explain. My wife (who’s always been a bit off the rails) grew up in Wellington, taking public transport everywhere, and is constantly hassling me to stop always driving my car. So the night before a morning meeting in Auckland, when I was setting an alarm for 5am to get up for my three-hour date with the traffic over the Bombays, she said, “Why don’t you just catch the train? There’s a cafe on board. And wifi – you can do emails. Or take a nap.”

To be honest, she had me at nap. As someone whose motto is “work smarter, not harder”, the idea of napping during my commute just made sense.

On board Te Huia (Photo: Alex Braae)

Cut to the chain and the hill and the station in the dark morning. I locked my bike up and hopped on board. It was… quite nice! I sat at a little table and read some emails and bought my ticket from a train person (conductor? Steward? Sir Topham Hatt?). After doing an hour of work I wandered down to the train cafe and got a cup of tea. I may have had a short nap. We arrived at 8.30, I walked to my meeting (15 minutes) and at the end of the day, I trained back home again. More emails, more tea. Couldn’t confirm, but likely more nap. Safe to say I was completely sold.

Trains definitely aren’t anything new. Up until 2004 a Wellington-Auckland train ran daily – some of the older engines around may even remember the fancy overnight trains with sleeper cars running this route right up until 1987. In other countries, catching a train between cities is very, very normal. So what’s going on in New Zealand? 

Train use (and public transport patronage in general) has been in a decline here from the 1950s onwards, due to successive governments choosing to shift transport funding to roading projects. A subsidy for long-distance passenger trains was removed in 1989, which basically wiped out rail overnight, but as part of a wider picture, trams (light rail) were removed in Auckland in the 1950s, passenger rail in Dunedin abolished in 1982 (that train station though! *chef’s kiss*), and trolleybuses in Wellington finally bit the dust in 2017. 

Platform 1 at Dunedin Railway Station (Photo: Getty Images)

Despite terrible policy settings and a weirdly pessimistic public discourse, the benefits of a low-carbon, time-efficient way to get around the motu persisted – and in a small victory for public transport aficionados, Te Huia opened in 2021 with central and regional funding on a five-year trial basis. Obviously 2021 was not exactly the best time to be operating in the “travelling from place to place” business, but after a rocky pandemicky start, patronage on Te Huia is not just growing but exceeding expectations. Additional travel times were added earlier this year to keep up with the demand. So if Te Huia is doing OK – in fact better than expected – what’s all the fuss about? The current government came into power with a mantra of road cones (fewer), speed limits (higher) and all things roads, roads, roads. Even though the Te Huia funding is a drop in the transport bucket, it seems to be more about the optics of cancelling “woke” trains to focus on potholes and parking.

A common theme for outraged rightwing commentators seems to be how much public transport costs, but as Hamilton city councillor Louise Hutt pointed out, it would take 400 years of running Te Huia for it to cost as much as the newly completed Waikato Expressway. (Just for a bit of context, the first Pākehā arrived in NZ around 200 years ago.) To make matters worse, the Waikato Expressway is just one of many expensive and terrible-value-for-money roading projects around the motu – currently Waka Kotahi is embroiled in a legal battle due to the epic fail of the badly built $1.25 billion-and-counting Transmission Gully expressway out of Wellington. 

Te Huia does, however, have downsides. The speed issue, for one. It beats the traffic at peak times, but at two-and-and-a-half hours to Auckland… I’m no engineer, but surely we could go a little faster? Plus the fact that both Frankton and The Strand stations are a bit out of the way, adding on some travel time. But the cup of tea and a nap are definitely worth a bit of hassle, better than sitting at those interminable roadworks at Takanini that have been there since before I was born.

We can’t magic wand an electrified fleet of zooming trains, we have to start with what we have and build. It’s like that saying: the best time to plant a tree was 10 years ago, but the second best time is now. The current focus of our campaign is allowing Te Huia to finish its five-year trial, but there are plenty of other ways we can be supporting the wider kaupapa. Half of Aotearoa’s population lives in the “golden triangle” between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga; what a perfect place to get high-frequency, cost-effective electrified passenger trains off the ground! Add in twin cost-of-living and climate crises, and Air NZ recently hiking up the cost for a plane ticket (again), it’s perfect timing. Te Huia, and other public transport infrastructure, builds transport resilience, reduces congestion, reduces road accidents, gives alternative options for travel and caters to our disabled communities and those without access to a car. 

So – back on track. Let’s fight to keep Te Huia. Sure, it’s not perfect, but it’s a start, and I believe in standing up for the New Zealand I want to see in the future. At our public meeting last week we were blown away by the more than 200 people from all kinds of different communities who came along to show their support. I encourage you to get involved, or check out your area for local groups – there’s not just rail but other grassroots public transport projects too fighting climate change and income inequalities. It can be as simple as turning up at a meeting and cheering on a speaker trying to push back against the status quo. 

Keep going!