All the political parties say regional development is A Good Thing. But which of them has much of an idea how to make it happen? Simon Wilson for The Spinoff suggests they take a good look at a brand new proposal for Regional Rapid Rail.
Morrinsville has never known so much attention. Between a semi-automatic weapon callout and its status as the politically useful hometown of the leader of the opposition, the prosperous Waikato agricultural hub has had weeks in the news. Now there's a proposal which would see workers able to commute to Auckland from Hamilton, Tauranga and other towns on a new regional rapid rail link - with Morrinsville at its heart.
To be perfectly honest, Morrinsville is not really at the heart of this new proposal. But the schematic map (see below) puts it there anyway, right in the middle, which you'd have to say indicates the creators of the map have a very good sense of political tactics, or a very bad one, depending on who wins the election.
Regional Rapid Rail (RRR) is the latest invention of Greater Auckland, in particular of its researchers/planning visionaries Harriet Gale and Nicolas Reid. It's a three-stage proposal to establish fast and frequent rail links through the region, but its purpose is not simply to give us more trains. RRR is proposed as a platform for regional economic development. The Green Party has signalled its support and others may follow - the same group came up with the Congestion Free Network, which is now essentially Labour policy.
Regional Rapid Rail in brief
Stage 1, which could be implemented very quickly, involves railcars running between Hamilton and Auckland five times a day each way, with a single daily return service to Tauranga as well.
This stage is merely "proof of concept". It uses existing lines and trains, with eight new stations, as a cheap and easy way of re-establishing the rail service. It would cost only $9.6 million to set up, but would require an operating subsidy of $1.95 million a year. Passenger capacity is 370,000 annually.
Stage 2 involves a $400 million spend on new higher-speed trains, new stations and track. Te Kuiti to Hamilton in one hour, with the trains running every hour, all day, seven days a week. Huntly to Britomart in one hour, with the trains running every 15 minutes in peak time. Tauranga to Britomart too.
This stage would cost just under $400 million to set up, and would return a small operating profit: around $6 million a year. Passenger capacity 3.5 million annually.
Stage 3 expands the concept into a full Waikato regional service, with spurs to Cambridge and Rotorua providing an hourly service from those towns, along with the hourly services from Te Kuiti and Tauranga. That would mean trains through the north Waikato, running both ways every 15 minutes, all day every day. Hamilton to Auckland in one hour 15 minutes; Tauranga to Auckland in two hours five minutes.
Suddenly, the prospect of living in Huntly or Te Kauwhata or Ngāruawāhia, and working in Auckland, becomes realistic.
Suddenly, the prospect of running a business in the Waikato and being easily connected to the cities of the region also looks a lot more attractive. Populations will grow and businesses can invest locally, knowing their town has a future.
This is not just about commuter trains, either: the proposal is fully compatible with existing freight services and will allow considerable expansion of rail's freight capacity throughout the Waikato, Bay of Plenty and King Country.
Stage 3 will cost $1.45 billion to build and should return an operating profit of $13.4 million. Passenger capacity per year is 6.9 million.
Stage 1: Remember the Silver Fern?
There are three Silver Fern dual diesel-electric railcars and all are available for service. They're not very fast - two-and-a-half hours Hamilton to Britomart - and they carry only 96 people at a time. The trains would run as far as Ōtāhuhu, with passengers transferring to existing lines to complete the journey right into Auckland. The service would lose money, though not a lot.
The reason this stage even exists, say Greater Auckland's Gale and Reid, is because it's easy and it establishes an intention to grow. It would, says Nicolas Reid, give Waikato local authorities "the confidence to plan and to start changing land use patterns".
There would be new platforms at five towns including Pokeno and whole new stations at Te Rapa, Waharoa and the Tauranga Waterfront.
Stage 1 would last only five years, and if it shows promise the next stage could be started well within that period.
Stage 2: Riding the tilting trains
A regional rail service has to be fast and frequent. The solution is not to lay completely new cambered tracks for high-speed rail, but to introduce trains that tilt. It's not so strange: they're in use in Queensland now, where the gauge is the same as here, and they can travel at 160km/h.
The trains are dual diesel-electric and can carry 300 people in four cars per unit, or 600 if run as a double unit. The seats will swivel, so groups of four people can face each other. GA proposes a fleet of 17 trains, costing $200 million, with another $200 million spent on network upgrades. Most of the service would use the existing track, but a new section of straight double-tracked line would be laid from Mercer to past Rangiriri, skirting the Whangamarino swamp and speeding up travel times.
There would be three lines. The King Country Line, with an hourly service both ways on the main trunk line, would revitalise the towns of Te Kuiti, Waitomo, Otorohanga and Te Awamutu. The Bay of Plenty Line would connect Morrinsville and Waharoa to the world.
Both those lines would run through Hamilton and the north Waikato, meaning a train each way every half hour, all the way to Britomart. And the third line, the Waikato Line, would supplement them with a peak-time, weekday service between Hamilton and Auckland, bringing the frequency down to 15 minutes.
That means the service through Hamilton and the north Waikato towns would essentially be timetable free: you turn up to the station and the next train will be along shortly. As an all-day service, this is better than Aucklanders currently get from the existing city network, which is already good enough that patronage is exploding - up 20% so far this year.
Hamilton would need a new railway station in or very near the city centre. One option is to put it by rugby's Waikato Stadium, which is only a few blocks from downtown. Another is to reinstate the old underground station. That's right, Hamilton has a short stretch of underground railway and the station could be pressed back into service. It will need enlarging and refurbishing, but it's easily doable. Where is it? Underneath Kmart on Bryce Street.
With this kind of rail frequency, there's a lot of work to do on "grade separation": replacing dangerous level crossings with bridges and tunnels so vehicles never get in the way of trains. But that's also very doable, and Stage 2 could be complete at the same time as Auckland's City Rail Link, thus providing full connectivity with the rest of the city's rail network.
Stage 3: The four-line railway
And this is it, the big idea (see first map). Faster travel times, more frequent trains and more towns on the network.
On the King Country Line, Te Kuiti to Hamilton in 43 minutes and to Britomart inside two hours. Tauranga to Hamilton on the Bay of Plenty Line in under an hour and to Britomart in just over two hours. That line extends to Te Puke, providing a 17 minute ride into Tauranga.
A new Geyserland Line from Rotorua, running through the south Waikato towns of Tirau and Putāruru for a two-and-a-half-hour journey to Britomart. And the Waikato Line extends to Cambridge: the trip to Hamilton will take 18 minutes, from Cambridge to Britomart, 91 minutes.
Each of the four lines line would have an hourly service, each way all day, with trains every half hour in peak times. Hamilton and the north Waikato towns retain that timetable-free frequency.
There's some serious money to be spent on stage 3: all up, close to $1.5 billion. A tunnel is proposed, to run straight through the Bombay Hills and cutting the Hamilton to Britomart time down by 20 minutes, to just one hour 10 minutes. What's called "European standard signalling" would also be introduced: this programs the trains to go fast when it's safe to do so and slower at other times (the Auckland network uses this system already). There would be 32 new dual diesel-electric tilting trains.
Why do this?
Why spend all that money? Especially now we've got the Waikato Expressway. But that road won't transform the connectedness of the region. It won't take pressure off the roads or give commuters, shoppers, tourists and others the chance to travel quickly, reliably and comfortably, all over the Waikato, Bay of Plenty, King Country, the bottom end of greater Auckland and up to the big city.
Regional Rapid Rail won't happen on its own. It needs a new authority. Auckland Council's development agency Panuku is the model: owned by citizens and answerable to elected officials, but with its own board and operating at a remove from the machinations of the various councils it would be involved with.
Which points to another benefit of Regional Rapid Rail, if it's run well. Take the town of Pokeno, which has grown quickly in the last few years. "Pokeno is the worst kind of town," says Nicolas Reid. It has no town centre and despite the dairy export plant there are almost no jobs. There's a little strip mall, which Gale says is "the worst kind of shopping experience". She points out that the streets loop around and don't interconnect, so it's impossible to walk efficiently from one place to another.
You're just meant to drive away in the morning, hope you don't get stuck in too much traffic, and drive home at night. Reid: "It's unbelievable we're still even building towns like that."
A railway will provide the small towns of the Waikato with the chance to reinvent themselves, strengthening their centres, enabling retail and other small business development and bringing people back onto the streets. A development agency is the mechanism to ensure this happens.
Right now, Regional Rapid Rail is a glimmer in the eye of the transport and urban planning boffins at Greater Auckland. But hey, look, there's Morrinsville! Has it got a future or what?
Every political party says it's committed to regional development. This proposal could sit at the heart of it.
- This story first appeared in The Spinoff and has been republished with permission