Hamilton-based freelance journalist Michael Pulman was recently invited aboard the highly anticipated Hamilton-Auckland commuter train Te Huia for one of its test runs. He gives it top marks for accessibility and comfort and hopes the service will be well used. He filed this report for Waikato News.
Riding on board Te Huia isn't only a joy from start to finish, it's also one of the most easily accessible public transport options in New Zealand.
As a disabled journalist, I've been lucky enough to experience a lot of different public transport offerings across the North Island over the course of my seven-year career.
Some offerings really hit the mark, while others are poorly designed afterthoughts at best.
The Waikato region, in my experience, leads the way for accessible public transport and has set the benchmark for some time thanks to solid collaboration between the local disability community and key stakeholders. The upcoming Te Huia train just adds to that.
The three-carriage train offers two spaces for wheelchair users, both in the café car. The carriage is fitted with two hoists and these are almost identical to what you'd find in any mobility van.
Once at the platform, the train assistant lowers the hoist and the wheelchair user can drive directly on and be lifted into the carriage.
Once inside, there is a large turning area with plenty of room to manoeuvre wheelchairs of all sizes, including big electric wheelchairs, with the specific seating options found midway through the carriage on each side of the aisle near the café.
Both areas have tables for easy placing of a laptop or phone that can be charged via USB power sockets, and, in terms of assistance onboard, a red assistance call button that is also accessible for visually impaired travel, thanks to its incorporation of Braille and raised lettering, is next to the table.
Guide dogs will be permitted to board and the Waikato Regional Council is encouraging the same identification practices that are in place on the bus network.
The bathroom is advertised as accessible, and, while it is quite roomy, don't expect to see anything like a "Changing Spaces" set-up here. There is a grab rail on the wall next to the toilet and users who are able to self-transfer will find this handy, but, for the more high-needs user, this bathroom doesn't quite hit the mark so be sure to keep that in mind prior to the 98-minute journey.
Comfort is the big winner here. Compared to the Waikato's bus network, where travel can often be an uncomfortable experience thanks to little space inside, a slippery floor during the wet winter months, and far too many access points that present challenges to safely getting on and off, travel on board Te Huia is an absolute breeze.
Not once did I feel like my wheelchair wasn't stable when the train was moving, and perhaps the best thing about the overall experience, it encouraged me to get on public transport, whereas so often the idea of getting on a bus (particularly in winter) results in an eyeroll.
Mobility users with the Accessibility Concession will be able to travel for free from Hamilton to Papakura. A separate AT Hop Card and concession will be required from Auckland Transport to travel for free within the Auckland region.
There are a couple of key caveats that slightly take away from everything that Te Huia does well.
Mobility scooters are not permitted due to their weight, and there are only two dedicated wheelchair spots, meaning users requiring these features will have to book in advance.
Te Huia is set to launch to the public on April 6.
• Waikato Regional Council says it will be monitoring use once the service begins next week and will be looking to increase capacity for wheelchair users aboard Te Huia as demand grows – Editor