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The BulletinJuly 7, 2023

Could intercity rail really make a comeback?

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An Auckland-Wellington sleeper service is among the initiatives being mooted – but it’ll have to overcome some major roadblocks first, writes Catherine McGregor in this excerpt from The Bulletin, The Spinoff’s morning news round-up. To receive The Bulletin in full each weekday, sign up here.

Think New Zealand, but just a touch more European

As your currently Europe-based Bulletin writer, I’m spending a lot more time than usual thinking about trains. And not just the fabulously efficient Athens Metro, where it costs just $2.10 to get anywhere in the city. Later this month I need to be in Nuremberg, Germany, and while I have little choice but to fly – Athens to Nuremberg would take around two days by train – it works out cheaper to land 157km away in Munich and complete the last leg of the journey by rail. When there are departures from the airport every half hour, why not take the scenic route? Now back to NZ, where a German-style rail network will forever remain a pipe dream but a basic inter-region train service has real potential – at least according to a new parliamentary select committee report. After poring over 1750 submissions, the committee this week recommended feasibility studies on restarting a proper Auckland-Wellington passenger service, new routes connecting Auckland to Tauranga and Wellington to Napier, and extending the Capital Connection to Fielding. There were no recommendations for the South Island, whose main trunk line was once home to a thriving passenger service. RIP The Southerner, forever in this mainlander’s heart.

Many reasons for caution

Under the current set-up, regional councils are responsible for all the heavy lifting on bringing rail services to their area. The committee says that given the proposed services will link multiple regions, a central government agency should take on the job. Transport planner Darren Davis lays out the reasons it’s such a necessary change on his Substack Adventures in Transitland. National’s transport spokesperson Simeon Brown disagrees, while singling out Te Huia, the Hamilton-Auckland service which still only recovers around 14% of its costs through fares, as an example of the challenges inter-regional rail will face. Another reality check comes from EV advocate Donald Love in a thought-provoking piece for The Spinoff. While the emissions-lowering benefits of a modern, fully-networked rail service are huge, the low level of electrification on the NZ network means we could be stuck with carbon-spewing diesel locomotives for many years to come. Given how quickly EV technology is advancing, we’re better off focusing our efforts (and funds) on the transport options that cut our emissions now, not many years in the future, he says.

Busting the myths about rail in Aotearoa

If you’ve an interest in the future of regional rail in New Zealand, Suraya Sidhu Singh is a name you should know. The Taranaki-based writer, rail lover and Save Our Trains spokesperson argues it’s morally indefensible for KiwiRail to allow our long-distance passenger network to be turned into a luxury for tourists. “The role of the state owned enterprise is simply to make as much money as possible from rail – its potential to save lives apparently doesn’t count,” she writes on The Spinoff, pointing to NZ’s high road toll as reason enough for people to be encouraged out of their cars and onto trains. Again for The Spinoff, she’s compiled a great list of reasons why people think passenger rail won’t work here – and why she believes they’re all rubbish. Our population is too small. Our hills are too high. Our tracks are too slow – she has data-backed rebuttals for all of them. Following the release of the select committee report this week, Save Our Trains was in a celebratory mood. “On the journey to inter regional passenger rail, we are at the equivalent of Paraparaumu on the journey to Auckland,” they tweeted, “but at least we’ve left Wellington Station!”

Meanwhile rail for Christchurch gets one step closer

As Darren Davis notes on his most recent Substack post, Christchurch is the largest city in Australasia not to have any rail-based urban transit. That could all change if the Greater Christchurch Partnership’s plan for a rapid transit network is approved by Waka Kotahi this month. I’ll let the transport blog Greater Auckland, which has an excellent overview of the project, summarise what’s proposed: ​​”An on-street corridor ultimately running between Belfast in the North and Hornby in the west. The full route is around 22 km in length with 21 stations and would use either light rail or high-capacity articulated buses.” After years of bickering over Auckland light rail, could Ōtautahi come from the rear and get there first?

Keep going!