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Maps: supplied, Design: Tina Tiller
Maps: supplied, Design: Tina Tiller

OPINIONSocietyMay 10, 2023

Regional rail: What is, what was and what could be

Maps: supplied, Design: Tina Tiller
Maps: supplied, Design: Tina Tiller

Regional rail options in 2023 are few and far between. But it wasn’t always like this, writes Emma Maguire.

I spent the first 18 years of my life living in Gisborne, a city where you can walk from one side to the other in 40 minutes. I didn’t know a single person who ever rode the bus. All I knew of trains was riding the steam train WA165 out of the city – to Muriwai or Beach Loop – and then taking the bus to Wellington or Auckland.

My mum talks about taking the train from Gisborne to Wellington when she was younger, and ever since I first heard that that was possible, I’ve dreamed of a world where I could too.

I’m obsessed with trains. I don’t so much care about the specifics of them – how they work and whatnot – but rather the possibility they represent. 

One day, one day I might be able to travel back to Tairāwhiti without cramming myself into a tiny Intercity bus seat for 11 hours, or feeling a stranger’s thigh pressed sensually (and sweatily) against my own in the godawful baby plane that is the de Havilland Q300 twin-prop as it rattles its way up the East Coast. 

The answer to that is: TRAIN!

But it’s not coming anytime soon. 

Wellington, where I now live, has four major train lines, spanning out across the wider city. These trains run… very infrequently and are solely bus-replaced on public holidays and often on weekends. 

Auckland has one train that makes it out to Hamilton, the Capital Connection runs once a day from Wellington to Palmerston North, Great Journeys of NZ has three tourist trains that run Auckland-Wellington, Picton-Christchurch and Christchurch-Greymouth, and Dunedin has a handful of fairly sporadic tourist trains.

And that’s… it. 

From Auckland Transport’s hot mess of line repairs, to Kiwirail’s recent faux-pas with its Rail Inspection Car, to the pricing of long distance travel via any of Kiwirail’s regional services – the state of rail infrastructure in this country is horrendous, and it is absurd we have let it decay to this point.

In 2023, there are six long-distance train services running in New Zealand (and I use “long distance” lightly): the Capital Connection, the Wairarapa Connection, the Northern Explorer, the Coastal Pacific, the TranzAlpine and the Te Huia. The vast majority of those services don’t even run every day of the week. 

This is what we’ve done, and it is a travesty.

a map of Aotearoa showing the six train lines, four in the North Island and two in the South
The current regional rail lines in Aotearoa (Map: Emma Maguire)

The UK might be on fire right now but at least it has trains that run. Brighton and Glasgow are about the same distance apart as Auckland and Wellington (give or take 80km), and you can make that trip — via train — in just over six hours.

If you were to do the same in Aotearoa, you’d be on the Northern Explorer train for 11 hours. Just think – you too could spend $200+ of your hard earned money to travel one way, in a scenic carriage with no wifi, over-glossy seats and a distinct vibe of: this train was built for tourists. 

High-speed rail is our future. It’s renewable, it’s able to carry many, many more people than a bus or a car or a plane could, it’s on the ground, it allows for multiple stops across long distances, and for god’s sake, there’s cafes and toilets. It’s the ideal mode of transport, but no one in this country wants to make the effort to invest in it in any meaningful way.

Why? Maybe all the powers that be are in the pocket of Big Airplane, or maybe no one wants to make the effort. 

But the fact remains, it didn’t used to be like this.

As a part of research for historian André Brett’s book Can’t Get There from Here – tracking Aotearoa passenger rail since 1920 – designer Sam van der Weerden mapped out the full extent of passenger rail in Aotearoa. While those maps don’t necessarily represent lines that were all active at the same time, they do show the sheer breadth of the plausible rail network in our country. 

Map of historic regional rail lines (Map: Sam van der Weerden)

The map is expansive. It covers most of the land, weaving out across the islands like the blood vessels of our country. If there were tiny lines added in to serve the lower West Coast, and around Taupō, it would be comprehensive. It’s a much more wide and balanced set of routes than the absolute mediocre shitshow we have these days.

Most of these lines are unused now. Overgrown, covered in weeds, existing solely for the backgrounds of dystopic student films and indie album covers.

Imagine what New Zealand could be with quality, high-speed, long distance rail. You could get on a train in Wellington after work one day and get to Auckland before the night was out. You could train to the provinces, do work and virtual meetings on your journey from Dunedin to Christchurch, take the sleeper train home from your Northland music festival.

Commuting into the cities from the provinces would become more viable. You could bolster tourism in the regions or travel home to your small town for the weekends.

It would be worth it. It would be viable. It would reconnect New Zealand in a way that just isn’t possible with planes.

But no one wants to take that risk.

Certain pundits complain these days that rail isn’t “a possibility”. That the “time has passed”. That “it’s too expensive”. And to that I say: if we’d made changes 30 years ago we wouldn’t be having this discussion. If we’d maintained our lines and services throughout the advent of the car, we wouldn’t be starting from scratch now. 

The sooner we start, the sooner it’s fixed. 

We can whinge all we like about how much it is going to cost, about how much time it’s all going to take forever and ever and every new election cycle, or we can start getting shit done now before we all turn to dust. 

One day I hope to be able to train to Whanganui, to train home to Gisborne, to pop down to Dunedin by ferry and train for the weekend.

And I really hope it’s still while I’m young enough to enjoy it.

Keep going!