Britomart Train Station, Auckland (Getty Images)

Shrink time, not space: How trains could revitalise the regions

High speed rail links between cities could play a massive role in revitalising regional New Zealand, says a visiting transport infrastructure expert. Professor Andrew McNaughton spoke to Alex Braae.

Imagine commuting from Hamilton to Auckland, and it only taking an hour to get there. 

It’s a vision of how the right transport infrastructure, based around trains in particular, could reshape how people get around the country, and where they can live to do that.

It’s not just that trains could help bring the cities themselves closer together, says Professor Andrew McNaughton, a globally recognised expert in high speed rail. The benefits of such an investment could also turn the fortunes of small towns that run alongside the tracks around.

Professor McNaughton has recently been working in New South Wales. Before that, he has consulted in the Czech Republic, and spent decades working in transport infrastructure engineering in the UK.

He’ll be making the keynote speech at the upcoming Building Nations conference being run by Infrastructure NZ, to talk about the role transport plays in revitalising regional economies, and “spreading the social benefits of having thriving regional cities not getting left behind.” Professor McNaughton spoke to The Spinoff ahead of the conference.

So tell me about some of the things you’ll be talking about at Building Nations.

I don’t talk about trains and technical stuff. What I talk about is how you shrink time.

That’s an idea that has come up a few times in your other talks – talking about time rather than speed. Could you unpack what you mean by that?

I call it the geography of time, for want of a better strapline. Here’s what I’m doing in Australia: What investment in better transport would make a difference to the regional cities of New South Wales, and their connectivity? I know that’s a horrible word, connectivity. But it basically says people are in places ultimately because of jobs, so how do you attract jobs to a place? Business will go where there’s good connectivity.

So what does connectivity mean to you then?

It’s not just about the chief executive going to see his mates for coffee. It’s a sense of isolation, and it’s not about kilometres. You measure in time: How long does it take me to commute? How long does it take me to meet the people I want to sign a contract with? How long does it take me to get to where the financiers and corporate types I’ll need from time to time? Can I attract people with the right skills, and why would they ever come to this city?

But people’s choices of where to live are also influenced by other factors right?

Well, yes, they might have great lifestyles. You can get more for your money, and get a great house and kids can play in the backyard. But actually, it’s a bloody long way from anywhere. So what I’m doing in New South Wales is thinking about places like Wollongong and Newcastle, [places] out west like Bathurst. It’s not about the Chinese-style, high speed trains whizzing across the face of the earth. This just says, you know what, the area south of Wollongong, just 100kms away from Sydney, is depopulating. New industry won’t go there, because it’s three hours from Sydney.

When it comes to depopulation, and thinking about the case of regional New Zealand, does our relative lack of population make this more difficult to support this sort of infrastructure?

You have to think more cleverly, and be more selective. You’re not going to be able to justify a transport infrastructure investment for every 20,000 person town in the country. But you can look very carefully at where you can make a difference. So it’s not a one size fits all, and if you’ve got a 20,000 person city that’s 400 kilometres from Auckland –

Something like Gisborne, for example –

Then what sort of infrastructure does it need? It probably needs a decent regional airport, and to not have fares that are beyond the reach of all but a plutocrat. What is the right solution? What is good enough? If it won’t make any difference, don’t waste the money.

So in terms of picking out modes of transport then, why rail, as opposed to massive investments in the roads?

If you’ve got a critical mass of people, [rail] is very efficient. It’s very economically efficient. It’s not one person each in a two-ton tin box. It’s a high capacity system. And if you can line it up so it has multiple uses – and this is more relevant in a country like New Zealand – then it’s not just about end-to-end travel. Rail is efficient from a people-moving capacity, and a freight-moving capacity. It’s low energy, and for the 21st century, it’s green. I don’t buy the electrification of road transport as a reality, except in deep cities, because you’ve got to have a huge investment in battery technology to go long distances, and you look at what goes into a battery, and what needs to be mined to make them.

What can rail offer in terms of economic development along the route of the line?

Well, do we decide that, say, the area on a line becomes rezoned as a ‘technology corridor?’ It gives the opportunity to grow small places in between cities that would have never justified their own link, but because they’re on the route they get lucky.

What is the optimal time for a commute in your view?

It works really well if we can put cities within an hour of each other. When people ask if it’s high speed, or fast, and this is another strapline of mine – it’s as fast as it needs to be, to get people within a certain time distance. So start with two cities, and say they need to be an hour apart. And we need to get real about it too. If it’s Wellington and Auckland, an hour apart is an aeroplane.

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I’m not coming to New Zealand to sell snake oil, I’m coming to New Zealand to show what has been achieved in other places around the world, with population densities not to dissimilar to your own. But also, recognising the realities of New Zealand means there will only be certain places where this makes a difference.

The big question then: how?

If you want to make a difference, you line up the whole of government. You say, where are we going to put our science parks, to provide the jobs of tomorrow? And they drive off universities, so where are we going to encourage campuses to grow? And not just wherever the vice-chancellor thinks there’s a great golf course. Are we going to line up land-use planning and rezoning? Does the local authority want to grow, or is it a nice rural place that says actually, we don’t want that. You can’t force that on people if they don’t want it. But if you’re looking at new industries, people need to be able to connect with each other.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.


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