With a worldwide resurgence in rail travel, should more of us be swapping our cars for carriages? By Sally Blundell.
The nor-wester blew. The bunting fluttered. The guard signalled. At 2.02pm on December 1, 1863, a small green locomotive chuffed out of Christchurch's colonial railway station on the country's first regular train service bound for Heathcote 6.8km down the line. "I venture to prophesy," declared wildly proud provincial superintendent William Sefton Moorhouse, "that at no distant date we shall be able to breakfast at Christchurch and dine at Timaru."
His dream was realised. By the end of the 1870s – thanks to Premier Julius Vogel's grand public-works programme – about 2000km of rail, more than half of the existing 3700km network, stitched together the country's towns and regions.
More than a century later, Auckland Mayor Dove-Myer Robinson laid out his plan for a mass rapid-transit system for the city. "Statements such as 'Auckland can't afford it', or 'It will cost too much'," he wrote in 1975, "indicate how little many people know of the benefits of the proposed bus and railway plan … or how necessary and urgent it is."
His dream was sidelined. After months of discussion, including an "inane debate" about track gauge, writes André Brett in his new book, Can't Get There from Here, "Robbie's Rapid Rail" plan was quietly shelved.
By the end of the 1980s, expresses still ran the length of the North and South Island main trunk lines, but only three trains operated beyond Wellington and Auckland. Suburban trains in Christchurch and Dunedin were gone and the mixed passenger and goods services that once carried people and products across regional New Zealand had been lost to a protracted process of deregulation, corporatisation and privatisation.
"It was such an incremental process over such a lengthy period of time," says Brett, who will be taking up a role as a lecturer in history at Curtin University in Perth in 2022, "that the general public did not realise what they were losing until they lost it."
New Zealand's adventure in railway privatisation ended on July 1, 2008, when the Government paid Toll Holdings $690 million for its rail and ferry operations and renationalised them under state-owned enterprise KiwiRail.
Now, as the planned $4.4 billion City Rail Link – a dusted-off plan first mooted in 1923 – is bored beneath Auckland, and as Cabinet prepares to discuss a $14.6 billion tunnelled light rail system from Auckland's CBD to the airport, Transdev, which runs suburban services in greater Wellington and Auckland, has put its hand up to run an overnight passenger train between Auckland and Wellington.
"What is the value for the taxpayer putting all this money into the asset if we only get better freight?" says Transdev's New Zealand managing director, Greg Pollock. "I'm not knocking freight; it is a really important part of the rail task, but there is nothing stopping us from running passenger trains between freight trains. We have to stop thinking of rail as either a freight service or a passenger service. It is a strategic asset and if we run it well, all of those services – tourist services, historic services, freight and passenger rail – can co-exist and really leverage the money that we have invested in rail. Buses will probably always form the backbone of public transport systems, but on a really congested corridor, they simply cannot provide the capacity that heavy rail or light rail can provide."
And a 10-hour overnight journey between Auckland and Wellington is a "sweet spot" for a sleeper train. "Time to unwind, have a meal, pop your PJs on, have a good sleep, then wake up, have a shower and then breakfast."
Pollock grew up in the Hutt Valley, Brett on the Kāpiti Coast. Both took for granted a passenger-rail network that once spread around the country. But outside Wellington and Auckland, passenger rail barely exists today. Where it does, the figures are grim. Five months after the launch of the new Te Huia Hamilton-Auckland service, funded largely by the Government and run by KiwiRail, passenger numbers were tracking at 49 per cent below business-case projections, feeding into a $2.7 million loss between April and October (weekend demand, however, was more than four times projections).
In his book (the title is taken from an REM song), Brett charts a century of bad decisions, poor administration and car-centric policies that pushed passenger rail beyond the scope of government budgets and commuter expectations.
Cars v trains
As early as the 1920s, the recently formed New Zealand Railways Road Services – set up as a branch of the New Zealand Railways Department (NZR) to augment rail – began replacing still-viable train services. Beginning in North Otago, then Hawke's Bay, bus routes spread around the country. A post-World War II combination of coal shortages, better roads and more affordable cars redirected further funding and passenger services from rail to road.
NZR, Brett writes, was in a bind. "Many people owned cars because railways services were inadequate, and railways services were inadequate because many people owned cars."
By the 1950s, automobility was "emblematic of personal autonomy". Motorways were a symbol of the future.
"Almost every major passenger rail decision taken from the 1950s had negative implications," he says. "Politicians failed to invest in rail until it was too late, then used specious language of inevitability to justify cancellations."
Proposals to run the new railcars on previously closed routes were rejected on the basis that patronage would come largely at the expense of road services – a rationale, Brett says, never applied in reverse.
In 1964, a new road tunnel between Christchurch and Lyttelton marked the beginning of the end for the rail passenger service. As Lyttelton MP Harry Lake told Parliament, ferry passengers arriving in Lyttelton from Wellington would be able to take taxis to Christchurch and forgo "those wretched railway carriages".
"Governments on both sides of politics were committed to the idea that New Zealand's railways had to be run on narrow business lines to be efficient," Brett says. "Both Labour and National baulked at applying commercial principles to the road network, which received substantial public funding for maintenance and upgrades."
Tourism offered a lifeline to threatened services. In 1971, NZR inaugurated the Kingston Flyer in Southland as "a nostalgic link with steam traction". Dismissing passenger rail as a mere emotional attachment became a bad habit that ultimately wasted a valuable resource, Brett says.
In 1987, Greymouth trains were transformed into the world-famous TranzAlpine. The Christchurch-Picton Coastal Pacific followed, then the Wellington-Napier Bay Express.
By this time, Wellington was the only city to have a suburban network in better shape than before. Why? The capital had electric trains, favourable topography and a centrally located railway station visible from Parliament. As Brett says, "never discount the benefits of proximity to power".
Auckland's rail network got a boost in the early 1990s when Cityrail Auckland negotiated the purchase of 19 diesel units from Australia. Within a decade, patronage had more than doubled. Britomart Transport Centre's opening in 2003 ushered in a passenger rail boom for a network now catering to about 20 million passengers a year.
Today, according to the Westpac Economic Bulletin, rail carries about 16 million tonnes of freight each year, about 6 per cent of New Zealand's total freight load. KiwiRail owns the rail network; it also runs the Interislander ferries; the TranzAlpine, Coastal Pacific and Northern Explorer tourist trains; the Capital Connection between Wellington and Palmerston North and the new Te Huia service. Suburban passenger services in Wellington and Auckland are run by Transdev and, as of next year, Singapore-Australia joint venture Auckland One Rail, respectively.
Coalition of the willing
If it can work in Wellington and Auckland, says Nick Lovett, a former transport planner at Christchurch City Council and now at Access Planning in Vancouver, it can work in Christchurch, Dunedin and Nelson.
"Lots of Kiwis go to Europe and ride the Tube to go to work or get their groceries – then they come back here and it is like a kind of fantasy land, something that can't happen here. But we can design it and make it how we want – it is totally possible. Legislators can legislate. They can create new agencies, dissolve old ones, give them new mandates, appoint new heads of departments, appropriate new funding, raise new revenue."
He points to Toronto's rail network, once largely used for freight. From the 1960s, billions of dollars were spent upgrading and buying back corridors from freight companies, increasing patronage year on year. "The same thing can happen in New Zealand, but it needs a bit more of a coalition of the willing from people at the top."
Recent changes to our transport legislation suggest a coalition of sorts. In 2021, the Government announced new track charges to be paid by rail users. These will be added to the National Land Transport Fund (NLTF), a ring-fenced sum made up of road-user charges and fuel excise duty and administered by Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency for the maintenance of, and improvements to, land transport. In return, KiwiRail will be funded directly through the NLTF, rather than having to go to the Ministry of Transport on an annual basis "begging for scraps", as Transport Minister Michael Wood put it.
"We are trying to develop an integrated national land transport network so we can plan and fund our different modes in a consistent and equitable way," he says. "Whether we are talking about commuters or freight, we do need that integration."
Of the $24.3 billion of transport funding allocated under the 2021-24 National Land Transport Programme (NLTP),just over $1.2 billion will go towards shifting freight from road to rail and improving the rail network (a further $30 million has been allocated to improving coastal shipping). Compared with the $10.85 billion going to state highways and local roads, this doesn't seem a lot, but Nick Leggett, chief executive of the road freight lobby group Ia Ara Aotearoa Transporting New Zealand (formerly the Road Transport Forum), says the idea of allocating road-user charges to other modes of transport is tantamount to highway robbery, especially when there has been a "pretty significant reduction" in roading quality and maintenance investment over the past few years.
"Rail is an important but small carrier of freight in New Zealand, but at the end of the day, 93 per cent of freight is carried on the back of a truck and 6 per cent on rail. How many billions of dollars do you want to spend to get a one, two or three per cent modal shift between road and rail?"
With our freight load looking to climb an expected 40 per cent to nearly 400 million tonnes by 2052/53, road transport, he says, is the only horse to back. Does rail have a role? Yes. Could it have a bigger role? Yes.
The goal to improve freight passage on the so-called Golden Triangle linking Auckland, Waikato and Bay of Plenty, is sound, he says, but the reopening of the Napier-to-Wairoa line to support forestry? "How many people are going to use it to shift logs when trucks are more effective? Rail is really good for distance and bulk low-value products and commodities that are not time-dependent, but the most effective and efficient way to move freight is on the back of a truck."
People do get passionate about putting more freight on rail. "It is Thomas the Tank Engine that we all love – but for freight in a long, thin country, with not a lot of existing networks, it is not going to be the major carrier of our current or future freight task. We can't afford to compromise our economic productivity on a wing and a prayer by backing rail."
Others argue we are compromising our environmental record by not backing rail. According to the OECD, road transport in New Zealand accounts for 39 per cent of our carbon-dioxide emissions "The low friction of steel wheels on steel rails," says Brett, "means that trains are the most energy-efficient way to move people and goods, far outperforming rubber tyres on asphalt."
Already, once car-friendly cities around the world are turning to rail to ease congestion, reduce road accidents and cut emissions. The problem of covering the first and final kilometre between stations and warehouses or shops is being met by zero-emission electric trucks and bikes. In Ireland, the UK and Europe, international courier DHL is operating cargo bikes for final-mile deliveries.
But truck transport's environmental performance is improving, says Leggett. He points to hydrogen-powered trucks and ongoing research into biofuels. New eCanter light electric trucks made by Mitsubishi Fuso were launched in July and high-productivity motor vehicles (HPMVs) – basically bigger trucks requiring fewer trucks on the road – have been in use for more than a decade. "Battery-powered 50-tonne trucks are not a thing yet, and are unlikely to be in the immediate term, but electric trucks for around-town deliveries are happening."
Leggett does back calls for more metro passenger rail, both to lower emissions and to free up roads for more urgent movement, "which includes freight".
Beyond the borders of Auckland and the greater Wellington region, however, NLTP expenditure on passenger rail peters out. Apart from ongoing investment in existing inter-regional services, it barely gets a look-in.
The New Zealand Rail Plan, which feeds into the NLTP, acknowledges the increasing desire for inter-regional services and passenger rail "in other fast-growing cities", but it pushes out to the 2030s any notion of meeting this desire, says Brett. He accuses those responsible for our transport networks of a singular "path dependence". KiwiRail is largely a freight operator; Waka Kotahi, he says, is historically a road agency, "and its funding allocations continue to reflect this".
Minister Wood says the immediate focus has been on bringing a rundown railway network back to a safe and reliable state that "will give us the platform to be able to expand, whether it is in freight or commuter rail". But the much-touted modal shift from road to rail is not straightforward.
Freight does tend to be profitable – and as a state-owned enterprise, KiwiRail is expected to deliver a commercial return (the Government, says Wood, will be examining whether it has this entity structure right). But at present, to establish a new inter-regional passenger service, regional councils have to put up a business case for such an investment (under most inter-regional services, Waka Kotahi covers about half the required costs; the rest is split between paying passengers and councils). Even then, it is up to Waka Kotahi to decide whether the service fits in with the Government Policy Statement on Land Transport.
"Because passenger rail is generally loss-making and therefore requires subsidies, there are usually many factors that have to come together before any new passenger service begins," says KiwiRail's chief corporate affairs officer, Usman Pervaiz. "It's a complex process, so business-case development, planning and funding and local/central government support are all required before you reach the point of a rail operator bidding or choosing to physically run the service. The exception would be a rail operator believing that a service would be commercially viable in its own right. However, in this era of cheap flights and high levels of private-car ownership, there is usually insufficient patronage on trains for stand-alone services to be financially viable."
Very little public transport turns a profit. Lovett, the land transport planner, points to the New York City subway system, one of the most extensive and heavily used networks in the Western world. "It doesn't return a profit. Things like social equity, land use, environmental degradation, employment, social cohesion – these are square pegs in the round hole of a business case."
A recent Ernst & Young report, "The Value of Rail in New Zealand", commissioned by the Ministry of Transport, totted up the direct and indirect benefits of rail, including reductions in road congestion, greenhouse-gas emissions, air pollution and fuel expenditure, to give an overall value of $1.7-$2.1 billion a year.
Rail is also a recognised driver of urban growth. In justifying the proposed $14.6 billion for the Auckland Light Rail project – "Are they planning on using solid gold tracks?" says Matt Lowrie, editor of transport blog Greater Auckland – Wood says the corridor will shape 19-24 per cent of Auckland's urban growth. That's about 66,000 new houses.
Lovett says there'll always be discussions about which spine or which corridor you go down and which technology you chose – a heavy rail corridor or light rail corridor, trams or a streetcar type of technology. "But public-transport-oriented development along a linear corridor is an effective and efficient way of growing development."
After the earthquakes of 2011, the Christchurch City Council was keen to include some of these benefits in the city rebuild. Its draft plan included the phased delivery of a network of passenger rail routes across the region, but in the Government's 2012 Christchurch Central Recovery Plan, and later transport supplement, rail barely gets a look-in.
"The opportunity the earthquakes offered the city in terms of having a fully integrated public transport system was never taken advantage of," says Mayor Lianne Dalziel. Now, as part of the Greater Christchurch Partnership, the council is looking at options for a mass rapid transit system running between Rangiora and Rolleston via the city.
"We need to link transport and urban development together. We also need the ability to move large numbers of people at peak times, which gets them to and from close to where they live to close to where they work. The current rate of single-occupancy vehicle use is unsustainable."
A tram-train solution to Christchurch's road dependency is on Brett's wish list, alongside a bimodal train operating on Wellington's electrified network and on battery or diesel power beyond the wires to connect Wellington with Palmerston North or Marton or Napier; a "Winelander" connecting vineyards in the Wairarapa, Hawke's Bay and Gisborne; a daily service between Christchurch and Invercargill; tram-trains from Tauranga, New Zealand's most car-dependent city, into Mt Maunganui; and a fully electrified North Island Main Trunk (with storage battery options on other lines). These would all be part of an integrated system of ferries, buses, cycleways and light rail.
"No single mode is going to be right for everyone," says Brett. "Roads are not for everyone. I cannot drive. There are a lot of people who cannot physically drive or who prefer not to drive. And if people are commuting to work by train or cycling to university, people who need to drive to do their work aren't being stuck in traffic jams – it works out better for everyone."
Brett debunks the many myths around expanding our rail network. Our narrow-track gauge is not so bad – speeds of 160-200km/h are still attainable with some upgrades – and new tilting technologies can improve speeds on more rugged terrain.
Different forms of electrification are not a problem, as trains that operate on multiple electric systems are commonplace overseas.
To the assertion that New Zealand's population is too small and dispersed, Brett points to Norway as a comparable example. Admittedly, it is a wealthy country with a large tax take, but it also has rough topography and a dispersed population. In the 1980s, it had a rundown rail service. Today, it has a modern, efficient rail network, mostly electric powered or switchable to storage batteries between major cities.
And cost? Brett points to the astonishing ambition of the 1870s, when half the existing network was built. "Where we have built in car dependency, we can build it out. In the 1950s and 60s, in Auckland, Wellington and Dunedin, we obliterated entire suburbs to push motorways through. We were prepared to cause massive change to communities. The option to provide better mobility can still be made, but probably won't be so destructive as forcing through those huge motorways. Railways and tramways are the spines of 21st-century transport. Let's build them."
Can't Get There from Here: New Zealand passenger rail since 1920, by André Brett, with maps by Sam van der Weerden (OUP, $65)