A Parliamentary select committee has told the Government it should investigate restarting proper passenger services between Auckland and Wellington.
The recommendation, from Parliament’s transport and infrastructure select committee, came after an investigation into restarting proper regional passenger rail in New Zealand.
It came alongside recommendations for scoping studies into other routes like Auckland to Tauranga, Napier to Wellington and extending the Capital Connection between Wellington and Palmerston North to finish at Feilding.
The committee did not recommend looking at South Island routes, but said “further investigation” was warranted.
National and Act delivered minority reports, both saying the Government should focus on improving the performance of existing rail services, including commuter rail services that run in Wellington and Auckland, before forging ahead with regional rail.
Act’s report said the report had “no economic analysis to support it”.
With the Government focusing on bread-and-butter issues, it seems unlikely that regional rail proposals will advance this election cycle.
Committee chairman Shanan Halbert told the Herald the inquiry “demonstrated how much public support there is for inter-regional passenger rail”.
“Compared to other transport projects and projects that I’ve seen in my time, this is this has the most public support,” he said.
“People often look back to the good old days when inter-regional passenger rail was a thing and a common way of getting around the family and work and the like, so the recommendation is very clear to the minister in this report, which asked him to investigate and look at the costings and the investment required to get some of the inter-regional passenger rail priorities off the ground,” Halbert said.
He had not had a chance to speak to Transport Minister David Parker about the report yet.
But significant upgrades were needed to lines before new services could open.
The report said there was significant support for Auckland-to-Tauranga trains, but Tauranga City Council warned the region’s rail network “would need substantial upgrading before it could reasonably support passenger rail”.
The Ministry of Transport agreed, although it suggested extending the existing Hamilton-Auckland Te Huia service to Tauranga.
But even this was fraught, requiring a new railway station in Tauranga and upgrades to the Kaimai Tunnel’s ventilation and fire safety systems.
The report also cast doubt on the feasibility of the timings of the service, saying to expand upon the existing Hamilton-Auckland service, trains would need to leave Tauranga at 5.15am.
There were fewer technical objections to operating a service from Wellington to Auckland. KiwiRail already operates the Northern Explorer train between the two cities, but this was for tourists, not ordinary passengers.
National transport spokesman Simeon Brown said his party was not “opposed to the idea of regional passenger rail, but needs to be really robustly analysed”.
He said National’s position was to look first at the other “commercial opportunities” that existed to take people between cities, like regional buses.
Brown said with bus services already in place, he could not see a reason for adding train services.
“There’ll be quite limited numbers of people who would actually want to use those services even if they were put in place,” Brown said.
Green Party transport spokesperson Julie Anne Genter said the report made clear there was a “huge appetite across the country for change in how we invest in passenger rail services”.
“The recommendations are a great first step to rebuilding rail and ensuring we can make further progress on revitalising and reconnecting our towns and cities in a climate-friendly and resilient way,” she said.
“Aotearoa once had frequent, affordable bus and train services right around the country, even to rural areas. There’s no reason we can’t have that connectivity for our communities again,” she said.
Thomas Coughlan is Deputy Political Editor and covers politics from Parliament. He has worked for the Herald since 2021 and has worked in the press gallery since 2018.