I Support Inter-Regional Passenger Rail
I am very supportive - impatient even - for the return of inter-regional passenger travel. It is almost like New Zealand has regressed to a poorer place, illserved by our institutions because not enough focus has been placed on this transport mode. Everywhere around the world passenger rail is a keystone in the development of a country - and renewed vigor in places as diverse as North Africa, the UK, Indonesia, and China show that other countries consider long distance passenger rail an important nation building exercise.
I am fully supportive of the proposal that we should extend passenger rail services across New Zealand for some understandable reasons.
Reinstitute What We Had
1) New Zealand was built on rail - both passenger and freight - so most towns and cities lie on a railway line. Once we too consider rail a requirement to build our nation. The basis of a nation connected by rail exists already. Unlike many new infrastructure projects there is no need for a costly land purchase process.
2) Early in my life, travelling by rail long distance was, for a short time, a very real option - it was relaxing, easy, equitable, and safe. I recall using the railcar to travel the length of the South Island, and tramping trips that used the West Coast line as the way to exit the mountains.
There is little practical reason long distance passenger rail could not be implemented, not just in a limted part of the country - but as a programme nationwide. The rails are there, we used to do it.
Why should we enable it again?
3) It is safer. Japan has a much reduced rate of car accident death compared to New Zealand as there is so little need for long distance travel. Most car accidents involving multiple victims are those travelling long distances, they're tired, it's night with poor weather conditions, the roads are not designed for 100km/h - and cars are old. If travelling by train long distance was comfortable, convenient, and cost effective this would supplant long distance road travel.
4) It enables cheaper EVs within cities. Why get a car with huge range that is big, expensive, and heavy just for those times when a long trip is required? Take a passenger train for those trips. Long distance trains are part of the EV transition when the occasional need for a big battery is removed.
5) Long distance train journeys replaces aeroplane flights - it is hard, but not impossible, to make electric planes - Sounds Air intend to do just that for their small aircraft - this is not yet an option for larger planes. With the South and North Islands travel by train would be very possible. A one hour flight is really a 3 or 4 hour flight once taking into account city centre to airport, then boarding time, the flight, and then the corresponding airport to city trip. This compares well with a city centre to city centre train ride - especially if higher speeds are possible with better tracks, tilting trains, and electric operation.
Supporting New Zealand Industry
6) Long distance rail would also create a home market for Electric Railcars and so also support New Zealand innovators such as the recently announced Miro Rail project. This could be a fantastic export earner as the world transitions to electric trains and rail cars.
Let's subsidise the good not the harmful activities
We subsidise long distance road transport. We subsidise long distance plane transport - both are damaging to the climate, and to society. We need to rebalance and return to the foundation that connected our country until the 1960s.
KiwiRail’s freight network needs to integrate with long distance passenger rail. In the US there is an unfortunate conflict - so this needs to be designed out of the system as the future of freight is also rail.
Scheduled passenger rail must thus fit into the scheduled KiwiRail freight network. Resistance by KiwiRail to passenger trains, or prioritising freight over passengers, is solely due to poor time management and planning on the part of KiwiRail.
Some sections of the network can readily be double or triple tracked - especially close to the cities. Other routes can have well planned sidings for freight to be 'sidelined' for priority passenger rail.
As some routes become popular then dedicated tracks can be planned for along the same route - a third main for freight.
A national programme of purchases of rolling stock would be important to upgrade services to make them reliable, safe, and comfortable. A priority should be on trains that are multi-mode - with electric, battery electric, and generator electric able to be used where circumstances allow or require.
Intra and Inter-Regional Passenger Rail needs to be coordinated and funded
Inter-regional rail will also need to integrate with intra-regional and local trains. And rather than be points of conflict they can serve each other. One would feed into the other to ensure smooth transitions between local centres and regional centres.
When people travel by car it is a door to door service. So the integration of last mile transportation is vital. This means that stations must be central to the cities - not stuck on the fringe like Addington. They must interconnect with other local public transit like local rail services, suburban light rail and trams, or with regular public bus connections. Travelling in even the remotest parts of Japan or China I have enjoyed easy last mile connections wherever I needed to go.
But long distance trains should also easily and cheaply allow passengers to take their bikes with them. This is a low cost and easy measure to allow travellers to complete their travels even where public transit is infrequent such as small towns, or tourist destinations... or where the end point is a trail head for a bike adventure.
Emissions are always brought up when considering long distance trains.
In New Zealand it is likely that the main mode that trains would displace is car travel - and in a future of EVs that low emissions goal might be served by battery electric cars. But cars have a high embedded carbon cost, and they still pollute with brake and tyre wear. So even a diesel electric train replacing a long distance EV would be worthwhile - especially as EV buyers might be tempted to purchase a smaller, lighter, cheaper EV with less range when they could rely on trains for the big trips.
It is in replacing flight that trains would make a bigger impact. To reduce the carbon intensity (and $ cost) of flights I travel by bus within the South Island - but would ditch the bus for a train in a heart beat should the option exist. I do travel by car - but as South Island trips are long and tiring I prefer to read a book, listen to music, and would much rather do so on the train. I used the Coastal Pacific on occassion - as did my elderly relatives. Trains need to return as a viable option.
Already I am curtailing my flights because of the carbon emissions - by encouraging long distance train travel again a renewed network would encourage inter-regional travel once again. Certainly I would travel a lot more with my young family when I didn't have a 5 hour drive to worry about.
Safe, inexpensive, convenient train travel is freedom from carbon emissions and means permission to travel widely. Enabling this would be the best way to manage transportation within our country.
Yes the high population areas should be considered a priority.
But Christchurch is New Zealand's second largest city, and is growing fast.
Canterbury once had a large regional train network linking the main centres - all on standard gauge. Canterbury is flat and so is ideal for high speed long distance travel that could extend a intra-regional network to a inter-regional network - and very very easily exceed car travel times. Journeys that are uneconomic for flights would be the focus: -
a) Blenheim <> Christchurch
b) Christchurch <> West Coast
c) Dunedin <> Invercargill
They all become very feasible. The same is true of connections from Taranaki to Wellington. My mother told the story of travelling by steam train from Wellington to Stratford as a 15 year old, on her own, to visit her grandmother. Trains are freeing, enabling, and exhilarating ways to travel.
Inter-regional trains are not just for the Golden Triangle of Auckland <> Hamilton <> Tauranga - but for the rest of New Zealand as well. They are ways to create super-regions better interconnected to their neighbouring provinces.
It's the Modern World - Build Modern Capacity
If we are serious about developing a modern, successful nation then we need to build out an Inter-Regional Long Distance Passenger network. Norway and Finland are comparable in size, density, and wealth - they have better inter-regional passenger networks. It astounds me that in the 21st Century we even need to think and argue about this.
Next Steps and Recommendations
I consider the following to be best steps forward to developing long distance rail within New Zealand.
1) Remove all level crossings on State Highway 1. Both networks need to be safe - that we sittl have these is incomprehensible to me.
2) Fund Miro Rail to develop a demostrator battery electric rail car with this as a potential basis for fast frequent Inter-Regional rail.
3) Reinstitute the pre-covid services
- Picton <> Christchurch
- Auckland <> Wellington
4) Pre-fund higher frequencies for Te Huia & Capitla Connection - especially on weekends
5) Reinstitute frequent and regular battery electric rail car routes: -
- Dunedin <> Christchurch
- Christchurch <> Picton
- Wellington <> Taranaki
- West Coast <> Christchurch
- Hawkes Bay <> Wellington
6) Reinstitute daily overnight sleeper trains
- Wellington <> Auckland
7) Implement a progressive development of Te Huia throughout the Golden Triangle so that ultimately there are trains or rail cars every 20 minutes from Hamilton.
8) Acknowledge that fast frequent small trains or railcars are more convenient and more likely to be successful than slow, large, infrequent diesel electric trains.
9) Investigate the technology for tilt-trains to increase speeds - and focus on removing all level crossings so that safety is prioritised.
10)Ideally we need driverless trains, or remotely operated trains, to remove the manpower constraints that currently reduce capacity on bus networks.
11) Make a plan now for the next 30 years to progressively roll out the network so that capacity is built within New Zealand. A single big-bang is not cost effective and has built in failure modes. Be ambitious but considered.
12) Don't listen to naysayers - we had a long distance rail network - we can reinstitute it once more. It is a nation building exercise that we can no longer delay or get sidetracked from.