Drive on for Waikato rail link to Britomart

By Mathew Dearnaley

Moves are stirring in the Waikato to hitch a potential new commuter train service to the Auckland rail fleet.

The Waikato Regional Land Transport Committee yesterday received a consultants' report suggesting a train from Hamilton in the morning and back at night could plug into the Pukekohe express service to Britomart.

Despite the death knell facing the Overlander trains between Auckland and Wellington, consultant Richard Paling said there seemed to be a "railway renaissance" afoot in various regions.

He suggested a train catering for growing numbers of commuters from Hamilton could be the first of a series of resurrected regional rail services.

The Waikato Connection was scrapped in 2001 when former rail operator Tranz Rail decided its average load of 129 passengers, most of whom boarded at Pukehohe or Papakura, was not enough to sustain the service without a subsidy.

Mr Paling and co-consultant Ross Rutherford, whose study was commissioned by Hamilton City Council and the Environment Waikato regional council, estimated a new service would attract about 90 inter-regional passengers in each direction daily, growing 5 per cent a year.

That would be out of 700 people recorded in the 2001 census as commuting daily to Auckland from Hamilton, Huntly, Ngaruawahia or Te Kauwhata.

Noting that the Pukekohe express was the "rump" of the old Waikato service, Mr Paling said a resurrected arrangement involving the Auckland Regional Transport Authority would make it relatively simple to carry passengers to Britomart.

Given that it would service commuters from Pukekohe and Papakura as well, and Auckland would benefit from fewer Waikato motorists on its roads, the consultants have proposed a cost-sharing arrangement with the transport authority. They have suggested the authority pay for $8.2 million of new rolling stock, likely to cost $12.6 million, as the Silver Fern through Pukekohe would have to be replaced after 2009.

Annual revenue of about $1 million from a one-way fare of $30 would fall short of $2.3 million in operating costs, about 40 per cent of which could come from Auckland and the rest from the Waikato region, with subsidies from Land Transport NZ.

The consultants estimate a cost of $11.7 million to the Waikato would be made up by $9.3 million in road-user and $2.4 million in public-transport benefits over 10 years.

Although that meant an economically marginal operation, Mr Paling said the key element was its role in re-establishing regional rail services.

Land Transport regional manager Rosalie Orr warned the Government would be nervous about setting a precedent by subsidising one mode of inter-regional transport without doing the same for others.

"It is highly unlikely central Government will be putting any money into this," she said.

The discussion wound up after Environment Waikato and Hamilton City representatives said they had yet to discuss a response to the report.

Hamilton City transport chairman Dave Macpherson told the Herald a service could begin on more modest costings using refurbished rolling stock and existing stations rather than new facilities his city was already negotiating with property owners.

He noted Auckland Regional Council's support for an eventual extension of rapid transit services to the Waikato and believed it might prove difficult for the Government to resist regional rail aspirations.

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