Public transport advocate Anthonie Tonnon wants to see more buses linking Whanganui passengers to stops on the Capital Connection rail service, which currently runs between Palmerston North and Wellington.
“It would be fastest and most affordable if buses were used in the first instance,” he said.
“Longer bus routes able to offer services across the Horizons region could be inclusive of the smaller towns that don’t have the populations to warrant a separate service.”
Tonnon, who is the Whanganui representative on Horizons Regional Council’s passenger transport committee, presented his proposal to members last week, and was urging people who want to have a say to complete the Connect the Dots survey which opened on August 1 and closes on Monday, September 11.
People can also have a say through the council’s Long Term Plan pre-engagement, which closes on September 17.
While there is a considerable public interest in bringing a passenger rail service to Whanganui and Tonnon supports that, he said the reality was that it could take up to a decade.
In the meantime, the Government has supported a $828 million investment in a new fleet of hybrid electric passenger trains for the lower North Island, and the Capital Connection service currently runs between Palmerston North and Wellington and back once a day on weekdays.
Tonnon said the commitment presents a couple of “easy wins” for rail.
“We will have four trains a day from Wellington to Palmerston North by the end of the decade, and both National and Labour support the trains we are procuring for that,” he said.
“But we could actually run the Capital Connection twice a day in the near future, as we have the new carriages now to make this possible. If there was a second service, it would be easier for Whanganui people to transfer to it by bus.”
Tonnon said Horizons had completed a feasibility study for a train from Palmerston North to Hamilton, which would be fully electric when the line is activated.
“This could be done most easily if we joined the procurement for the Lower North Island rolling stock. I have suggested we start this service by bus in the interim, but the potential is there to phase it to rail.”
Horizons’ vision for its 10-year transport plan is to enable more people to move around the towns and cities of the region using public transport rather than private vehicles. Horizons regional councillor and chairman of the passenger transport committee, Sam Ferguson, said rail is an essential part of the vision.
“Along with connecting people, public transport improves road safety and helps reduce carbon emissions from our communities, both of which are important priorities.
“Transport is a key issue in our country, and the decisions we make now will have an impact for decades to come.”
A Parliamentary select committee released its report on the inquiry into the future of inter-regional passenger rail in New Zealand in July.
The committee received 1,752 written submissions, with 97 per cent of respondents expressing support for new inter-regional passenger rail services.
A main recommendation of the report was for the Government to clearly identify a transport-sector agency “to provide system leadership and guidance specifically for inter-regional public transport”.
The Government’s response to the review is due on September 27.
The recommendation was supported by Labour and Green Party representatives on the committee, while Act disagreed with the proposal to create a new bureaucracy to guide inter-regional public transport.
National expressed the view that any proposed inter-regional passenger rail service should be launched and operated by regional councils and sufficient economic analysis would be needed to support the proposed services.
Select committee member and National transport spokesman, Simeon Brown, addressed the topic during a public meeting in Whanganui last week.
“I know there is a big push around that, but we don’t necessarily see the numbers stacking up,” he said.
“My view is that it’s based on nostalgia rather than common sense.”
National’s Whanganui candidate Carl Bates said the party’s transport priority is to invest in more efficient and safe roads that will help us rebuild the economy, including a $500m pothole repair fund.
“Public transport planning is usually a matter for councils, and we need to make sure projects stack up economically,” said Bates.
“I’m happy to hear more from our community about public transport and would advocate for those needs if elected.”
Whanganui MP and Labour Party candidate Steph Lewis said the high-frequency bus service Te Ngaru The Tide, introduced by Horizons in February this year, was very popular with constituents.
“It’s made a huge difference to people’s ability to get around in Whanganui,” she said.
“There are a lack of options for people wanting to use public transport to travel to other parts of the electorate or beyond, though, and that is something I want to advocate for.”
Lewis said increasing the regional rail network is a sensible, long-term goal.
“We do need to move more freight off the roads to lower the constant cost of repairs, and the opening of the Palmerston North freight hub in June has been a great step towards lowering those costs, as well as lowering emissions and improving road safety.
“And increased rail passenger services would have a big impact on reducing those concerns as well.”
Other Whanganui Election 2023 candidates were contacted.
Horizons consultation surveys are available on the council’s website at: https://haveyoursay.horizons.govt.nz/.
Liz Wylie is a multimedia journalist for the Whanganui Chronicle. She joined the editorial team in 2014 and regularly covers stories from Whanganui and the wider region. She also writes features and profile stories.