The first of the carriages for the new Te Huia passenger rail service from Waikato to Auckland arrived in Hamilton on Saturday, signalling an exciting milestone for the project.
A blessing of the carriages, which have been under refurbishment since March last year, was held at KiwiRail's Hutt workshop last month with iwi from Wellington and Waikato-Tainui.
The four carriages left Wellington early on Saturday morning and received a karakia from Te Ha o te Whenua o Kirikiriroa as they pulled into the station at Frankton later that day.
"This is the future of public transport and the completion of the first four carriages is a significant milestone for this project," Waikato regional councillor and chair of the rail governance working group Hugh Vercoe said.
The arrival of the carriages would enable staff training to get underway "so we're ready to go when the service kicks off, which is likely to be early next year," Vercoe said.
"Waikato Regional Council has been working on this project with Hamilton city and Waikato district councils, KiwiRail, Auckland Transport and Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency for some time now, with support from the Government.
"Te Huia will deliver travel time reliability for those regular commuters who would otherwise have to trek the congested State Highway 1 without any certainty on their arrival time.
"They'll be able to use this time productively, taking advantage of travelling in a work-friendly environment with free, high-quality WiFi for the complete journey. Even better, this stress-free travel will also lower the commuter's exposure to vehicle crash risk."
Hamilton city councillor Ewan Wilson said having a high-quality passenger rail service from Waikato to Auckland was exciting for the city.
"Given the current climate, having a connection between the two cities is critical in supporting the local and regional economy."
The construction of the Rotokauri Station, which also includes a significant public bus hub and park and ride facility, has been delayed because of the impact of Auckland's Covid-19 alert level 3 restrictions on supply, but improvement works to Huntly Station are on schedule.
"Having the carriages completed and in the Waikato is an exciting step towards the district welcoming the train to our neck of the woods in a few months," Waikato district councillor Eugene Patterson said.
Because of Covid-19 restrictions, Saturday's train arrival was not a public event.
An opportunity to board the train will be available at public open days to be held closer to the service's launch.
A decision on the Te Huia service launch date is expected to be confirmed in the coming weeks, after news from KiwiRail a temporary speed restriction in Auckland while the track work is undertaken would add half an hour each way to the proposed journey for Te Huia travellers.