OPINION: As an incorrigible train-spotter, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on the tracks. Whenever I’ve been in Europe or East Asia, I’ve always preferred to travel by metro or inter-city train, given their precision, comfort, speed and reliability, only made possible by their high population densities.
I’m a particular sucker for scenic trains. Pre-pandemic, I’d ticked off a bucket-list of legendary rail experiences, from the Rocky Mountaineer, Glacier Express and Orient Express to The Ghan, Blue Train and Eastern Orient Express.
Here in Canterbury, we’ve got some scenic rail gems, from the glitter of the TranzAlpine and Coastal Pacific, which pleasingly will continue operating through the winter months, to the pint-sized treat of the Weka Pass Railway.
My family and I finally took a ride on that heritage-wreathed charmer last weekend. It’s been doing a brisk trade on the 140-year-old railway line between Glenmark and Waikari and will continue operating throughout the year, staffed by a passionate team of charming volunteers. It’s a must-do.
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I wish I could write as joyfully about the imminent launch of New Zealand’s new commuter rail service connecting Waikato with Auckland, but it looks to destined to be a donkey. Officially named Te Huia, $98 million has been shelled out on getting the service to the start line.
You may recall when this commuter service’s inception was confirmed 18 months ago, it was swiftly nicknamed the “Tron Express”. Yet there’s nothing express at all about this rattler on the rails. The “Tron Con” may well be a more fitting sobriquet.
Not only will this commuter train have multi-stops between Hamilton and Auckland, but the journey time is a total turn-off – 88 minutes just to reach Papakura from Hamilton, where you’ll have to change trains before enduring another hour on the rails, wandering your way to Auckland’s CBD.
So, for the prospective Hamilton commuter, you’re facing a two and half hour train ride to reach Auckland’s Britomart station. Five long hours trapped in a train, for your daily rail commute, to and from home. Does anyone, aside from the starry-eyed public transport advocates, seriously think that stacks up as a sexy proposition to ditch the car for a carriage?
Two and half hours of rail motion, sway and shunting, is a sure-fire recipe for feeling decidedly jaded and addled, on arrival to work. I’d be needing a lie-down.
On Thursday, PM Jacinda Ardern trilled that “Te Huia has the potential to replace up to 73,000 return car trips annually, helping to ease congestion”. That sounds like an impressively big number, but the truth is that the service can only carry a maximum of 300 return travellers daily.
If you consider the tens of thousands of vehicle movements between the Waikato and Auckland every day, it vividly reinforces how inconsequential it is to potentially remove 300 vehicles from the daily commuter run.
Former Labour MP Sue Moroney conceded to Stuff that she’s disappointed that the service isn’t more direct. She’s right. Rapid rail needs to be high-speed and hassle-free. You don’t win commuters over by offering them a second-rate, half-baked and supremely underwhelming start-up service. Do it right, or don’t do it at all.
Ideally, this service would emulate the brilliance of European-style high-speed services. But slashing the journey time to 69 minutes would require a new standard gauge corridor, with an estimated price tag of over $14 billion.
Clearly, that’s cost prohibitive, underscoring the brute reality of commuter rail’s limitations in New Zealand due to our comparatively low population density. Ditto for all the misty-eyed talk of commuter rail to Rolleston and Rangiora.
Unsurprisingly, when Selwyn Mayor, Sam Broughton, discussed mass rapid transport options with the Weekend Press, he championed rapid bus services – not trains.
Unlike commuter rail, I’m all aboard a modal-shift for freight. The more trucks we can get off our highways the better, particularly when you consider that over the next 20 years, the volume of national freight is projected to grow by 55 per cent.
Rail already hauls 12 per cent of our freight, including 26 per cent of all exports to ports.
Getting more freight onto the rails is a far more compelling bang-for-buck proposition.