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Illustration: Tina Tiller
Illustration: Tina Tiller

OPINIONSocietyOctober 28, 2022

Ten popular myths about passenger rail in New Zealand

Illustration: Tina Tiller
Illustration: Tina Tiller

There’s a long list of reasons why a passenger rail network wouldn’t work in Aotearoa. Here’s why they’re all rubbish.

Restore Passenger Rail protests around New Zealand in recent weeks have received a lot of news coverage and caused a fair bit of frustration. As public transport activism goes, I’m no abseiler or supergluer. I’m involved with Save Our Trains – we do things like write petitions and submissions, and profile long-lost railway stations. I had feared Restore Passenger Rail might bring our call to expand passenger rail into disrepute, but I probably needn’t have worried. Despite the road rage at protest sites, over 85% of RNZ listeners in a text poll said they support the protesters.

Restore Passenger Rail wants to see Aotearoa’s passenger rail restored to its year 2000 extent, meaning bringing back train travel from Auckland to Tauranga, Wellington to Napier and Christchurch to Invercargill, and turning KiwiRail’s expensive tourist traps (Auckland to Wellington, Picton to Christchurch and Christchurch to Greymouth) into affordable services for everyone. (The term “passenger rail” means affordable inter-regional rail, not commuter or high-price tourist services.)

The goal? To reduce emissions by providing an attractive alternative to driving while improving mobility for those who can’t or don’t drive. Sounds laudable, but if you talk it over with friends or colleagues, expect to hear a laundry list of popular myths about why New Zealand just can’t have nice things.

1. Our population is too small for passenger rail

Many countries with similar population to New Zealand use passenger rail extensively – Ireland, Denmark, Croatia, Norway. Population isn’t the main factor in public transport success – for example, many rural bus services across the motu are a hit, like Taranaki’s packed Te Hāwera-New Plymouth Connector and Otago’s popular Palmerston-Dunedin bus (“the best value for money bus trip in New Zealand”).

2. Our population density is too low for passenger rail (or, we’re too ‘spread out’)

Many countries with lower population density than Aotearoa use passenger rail extensively, like Norway, Finland and Argentina.

3. We can’t afford passenger rail

By per-capita GDP, New Zealand is among the 30 wealthiest countries. But many less wealthy countries have significantly more extensive passenger rail, like Chile, Spain and South Korea, all with lower per person GDP than us.

This myth also assumes passenger rail is more expensive than alternatives like widening roads, but it’s usually much cheaper. Passenger rail between Hamilton and Auckland, Te Huia, cost $98 million including operating costs for five years, while the Waikato Expressway, a widened road along the same route, has so far cost over $2 billion. In other words, Te Huia cost 5% of its road equivalent.

Te Huia, the Hamilton-Auckland commuter train. (Photo: Waikato Regional Council)

4. Buses can do everything trains can do, and more

Buses are unsung heroes, doing the heavy lifting of efficient public transport worldwide, while glamorous rail gets all the hearts and flowers. And that’s partly why it’s so important. Research repeatedly finds trains have a considerably greater pull than buses – people are much more likely to use a train than a bus at the same cost and journey time.

Rail also has greater capacity relative to emissions, is more disability-accessible and offers an alternative route when accidents, slips or roadworks block roads.

5. New Zealand has earthquakes so we can’t have passenger rail

China, Indonesia and Japan would like a word.

6. It’s too hilly here for passenger rail

New Zealand is not one of the world’s most mountainous countries, but Switzerland, Chile and China think you’re funny.

7. We have ‘narrow gauge’ rail, which will always be too slow for passengers

‘Gauge’ is the distance between rails. It’s different in every country. New Zealand has one of the narrower ‘gauges’. True high-speed rail (over 250 kph) needs wide gauge.

But modern narrow gauge trains can travel up to 160 kilometres per hour where the track is straight and in good condition, making it much faster than driving. What limits train speeds most in New Zealand today isn’t gauge or windiness, but the track’s poor state of repair. Our crumbling railway tracks have lower speed limits than they did 50 years ago.

Other things slowing trains include inconsistent electrification, older trains and lack of double-tracking – all fixable.

While everyone loves a fast train, speed isn’t the most important factor in getting people on board. Capital Connection, Wairarapa Connection and Te Huia are all slower than driving the same route and all achieve good passenger numbers. Yes, even Te Huia! Affordable fares, frequent services and reliability matter more. For longer journeys, comfort is crucial – think quiet coaches, sleeper cabins for overnight journeys, buffet carriages and children’s play areas.

There’s much scope for speeding up our passenger rail, but first: Affordable, usable services.

The Palmerston North-Wellington Capital Connection at Wellington Station (Photo: J Chaung/KiwiRail)

8. We love our cars too much

It’s true Aotearoa has one of the highest car ownership rates, but the mistake is thinking car ownership rate determines public transport use. Among the biggest car-owning nations are also some big public transport-using nations – like Poland, Finland and Luxembourg.

This myth is especially frustrating because many policymakers believe it without question. Try discussing how to improve public transport and they’ll say, “But the real problem is how do we get people to own fewer cars?” No, it isn’t.

9. Passenger rail stopped because people stopped wanting to use it

When authorities say they cancelled a service because no one used it, it’s usually only half the story. It’s easy to repel passengers – make services unreliable, infrequent or unaffordable. André Brett’s 2021 book about the history of passenger rail in New Zealand, Can’t Get There From Here, shows how service cancellations came after years of ticket price rises, underinvestment and reduced frequency.

Passenger rail doesn’t have to be perfect for people to use it – Capital and Wairarapa Connection are often replaced by buses and still achieve good passenger numbers. But this can’t continue – passengers need to see services improve. That’s why the government must urgently fund new hybrid trains so these services can be more reliable and frequent.

10. Driving produces fewer emissions than diesel trains

Electrified rail is obviously far better, but diesel passenger trains are still lower-emissions than driving even when only a third full. Te Huia, at 236 passengers daily average in September 2022, is over the 200 daily passengers Te Huia needs to break even on emissions.

So what are the real reasons?

I wish there was a short answer, but I’ll give you a couple of key reasons that I think the little islands with world-envied passenger rail became a catalogue of rail-fail.

Let’s compare how we organise and fund state highways with its public transport equivalent – inter-regional public transport, including passenger rail.

A central government department, Waka Kotahi, runs and funds state highways – simple. Only a national body can make sure the highways are consistent and connected, and only a national body can afford to fund them. Local government doesn’t have access to the same funds, collecting just 8% of the revenue central government can access. State highways are not run for profit.

What about inter-regional public transport? Strap in – it’s about to get ridiculously complex.

KiwiRail owns and operates our railways. As a state-owned enterprise they must do their best to profit from all operations. Since affordable passenger rail isn’t a huge money-spinner anywhere in the world, KiwiRail only runs exclusive, high-price tourist trains and freight services. Affordable rail like Capital Connection and Te Huia happen because regional councils pay KiwiRail to run these services. KiwiRail adds a margin of course, because they’re a corporation. (Typical corporate mark-ups are double cost price.)

That inter-regional services happen at all is a miracle because inter-regional public transport is legally excluded from needing to be considered or funded by regional councils.

But imagine a regional council wanted to fund passenger rail across their regional boundary (even though as previously explained, they won’t have the money.) They must get the regional council it crosses into to fund part of the service, and Waka Kotahi to contribute another part. Imagine trying to get all the councils along the Auckland-Tauranga route (Auckland, Waikato and Bay of Plenty) to play nicely. No surprises these ideas usually end up in the too-hard basket.

Here’s another way failure is baked into public transport in New Zealand.

There’s only one way to run efficient, well-patronised public transport: provide services passengers want to use. Obvious, right? But according to our legislation, passengers are not among those who have a right to be consulted (but KiwiRail is) and have their views considered (but private sector contractors are), in planning public transport. So if you ever thought, this public transport doesn’t seem designed for people to actually use, bingo.

The government’s inquiry into passenger rail’s future closed last Friday. I hope they’ll see past any anger at what has been glued to and hung above motorways in recent weeks and notice the grotty mess of inter-regional public transport that needs fixing. We need one national organisation that organises, funds and operates all inter-regional public transport, including rail, and stop profitting from it. 

And yet, the biggest passenger rail myth is that it’s so stuffed up that we can’t fix it. That’s untrue, but time is running out. We nearly lost all our passenger rail – time to bring it back.

Keep going!