A comprehensive regional rail network is aspirational, writes Donald Love, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best option for New Zealand.
The topic of regional public transport is receiving a lot of commentary including nostalgic wishes and challenges on why can’t we have passenger rail, as well as the very public disruptive campaign of Restore Passenger Rail.
In my view there is a lot of emotion, especially when coupled with climate change concerns, and some of the benefits claimed are not realistic in terms of emissions reductions or achievable timeframes. I responded at length on my blog, Inter-Region Travel Options in NZ, but there are some key things to consider when discussing regional travel.
State of rail
There is consensus that the rail system has been run down and asset-stripped, as mentioned in ‘Just how hopeless is KiwiRail?’ Long distance passenger rail is relying on old rolling stock pulled by diesel locomotives from an earlier era. One upgrade has finally been announced, with funding for new passenger trains being celebrated by Greater Wellington and Horizons. Hopefully these will come in just in time to replace the worn out 1970s equipment.
Environmental groups like Restore Passenger Rail acknowledge that diesel locomotives are needed due to the relatively small amount of railway electrification in New Zealand and make claims about how diesel trains have less emissions than driving a car. But the touted CO2 benefits require good passenger loading. The Te Huia train from Auckland to Hamilton, often cited as an example, is so marginal that it is likely many cars travelling the same route have lower CO2 emissions, especially with the number of EVs on the road today.
A surprise on emissions is the high level of particulates from these older 2-stroke diesel locomotive engines, which produce probably 20-40x the emissions of a modern diesel. These result in health impacts from exposure to human-made air pollution.
Some say that provided we start now, and solutions arrive after the number of years typically taken to deploy new rail solutions, they would be happy. Others, such as climate change protestors, want solutions operating within the next two or three years. Using the Lower North Island upgrade example, it typically takes around five years from time of order, after planning is complete, before carriages are on the rails. No amount of “political will” or protest action is going to deliver much faster.
Groups such as Save Our Trains have a measured approach where target dates of 2030 are mentioned. Their work may well deliver increased services but the extent of the network covered and frequency of services may not be very high and those wanting to ride the rails on new services before 2030 may be disappointed.
If we already had a well-maintained rail network it would be easier, but we don’t. Comparisons with other countries which retained functioning passenger networks don’t apply. Of course, with enough money and political will, changes are possible but I’m sorry to say a lot is needed. The Te Huia example is often cited, saying it only cost $98m across five years, which is only 5% of the expressway cost. The reality is that, while the money was also spent on a transport hub that Hamilton buses also use, the Te Huia train is only carrying about 0.6% of the people carried on the expressway and the Te Huia Train Viability Report suggests the subsidy from the government is around $120 per passenger.
Current fossil-fuelled aviation is convenient but also the worst emission story. Travelling between the North and South Island is dramatically quicker than train and ferry. Environmental groups may say that aviation has no future but I would say that electrified aviation for short-to-medium distances may come through as a disruptive option.
Improvements to battery energy density continue and CATL, the world’s largest battery maker, announcing an ultra energy-dense battery that will soon power electric passenger planes suggests electric aviation may not be far away.
What about buses?
Buses are the lowest emission form of long distance public transport available in New Zealand today, according to the Toitu Travel Emissions Calculator. Buses have route diversity and are easier to schedule than trains. There is some criticism that they are uncomfortable and rest stops can be poor quality, which is given as a reason why we need trains. I’m sorry to tell you, the trains won’t be here for a long time. With some investment in high quality, long distance coaches and the surrounding infrastructure, they are a very viable solution. When we consider social equity, a level of subsidy on the fares should be possible for a fraction of the cost of rail.
How quickly technology changes
We have seen how the number of EVs on New Zealand roads has grown in the last 10 years to a wide range of models as private cars, rentals or car share. Passenger EV buses are already common in Wellington for suburban use and models are becoming available for longer distance.
This graphic shows how, over increasingly short periods, technology change can occur:
When we consider how little rail has changed in over a century, and that projects are measured in many years, we must ask whether technology disruption may render some options obsolete. A passenger train may require a large subsidy to continue running due to low patronage if, say, an aircraft option with low emissions over the same (or probably more direct) route or low cost EV bus was available.
For those who believe that urgent action to reduce emissions is required, then personal choice can make a big difference. For regional travel modes available today, this would include; not flying; using EVs (private, car share or rental); long distance bus; or simply more people in an efficient petrol car.
For others who are prepared to wait for the comfort of a long distance train, I believe your options may be quite limited.