Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Kingi Tuheitia Potatau Te Wherowhero VII, and other VIPs are this afternoon taking a ride on the Waikato's new Te Huia passenger rail service, officially launching a new era in public transport for the region.
The first Hamilton to Auckland service for paying passengers will be on Tuesday April 6.
From then the regular Monday to Friday, Te Huia commuter service will depart Frankton at 5.46am and 6.28am, stopping at Rotokauri and Huntly. The return service will depart from Papakura at 4.42pm and 6.25pm. Bee Card fares are $12.20 from Hamilton and $7.80 from Huntly. Cash fares are available.
For the first few months, Te Huia will operate on select Saturdays only, starting with 17 April due to limited availability of the rail track as a result of Auckland rail project and Metro maintenance work.
The weekday service will get passengers to Papakura in time for the start of the work day.
At Papakura, Waikato passengers may join the AT Metro Southern Line electric rail service to travel into Auckland. Passengers transferring to the AT Metro service will need to pay a separate fare from Papakura with an AT HOP card or buy a paper ticket for the Auckland Transport Metro network.
Total travel time from Hamilton to Britomart in Auckland is expected to be 140 minutes.
Today's formalities at the new Rotokauri Transport Hub in Hamilton, will be followed by a blessing of the Raahui Pookeka station in Huntly.
Other dignitaries checking out the new train today include Transport Minister Michael Wood, Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta, MPs and opposition party members, regional, city and district councillors, local mana whenua, KiwiRail leadership and other guests.
Members of the public will be able to get a sneak peek of the Te Huia train at three open days this weekend. It will be parked up at the stations as follows:
• Saturday, 27 March: 10am-12pm, Raahui Pookeka, Huntly.
• Saturday, 27 March: 2pm-4pm, Frankton.
• Sunday, 28 March: 12pm-2pm, Rotokauri transport hub.
You will be able to jump on the train to have a look around and find out about the service, as well as get a Bee Card and AT HOP card sorted.
Waikato Regional Council Chair Russ Rimmington said the train will be a crucial connection between the two major centres of Hamilton and Auckland for up to 300 people each weekday.
"It will help to make roads safer, give people the stress-free travel and reliability they need between Waikato and Auckland, and the opportunity to either work or relax between destinations," he said
He said the service is a triumph of collaboration. "We have worked closely with our council partners, as well as Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency and KiwiRail to deliver a comfortable ride at the right times, with all the bells and whistles passengers want – free wifi, USB and power points for charging devices, and a café bar".
Rimmington acknowledged the vision of central government to enable development along the Hamilton-Auckland growth corridor and a connection between New Zealand's job hubs.
Hamilton Mayor Paula Southgate said the service was a "great start" and would provide a solid foundation on which passenger rail between the cities could expand and improve.
"The key now is making sure people are encouraged to jump on board and use it. Working people will see it as a mobile office, where they can get to and from Auckland safely and comfortably while they work. And it's a brilliant option for families who will be able to relax and really enjoy the ride."
Waikato District Council's rail governance working group representative, Cr Eugene Patterson, said Te Huia will "change the face of public transport in the region. We are thrilled to see this service become a reality and look forward to seeing people using our station Raahui Pookeka, in Huntly."
Waikato District Council Mayor Allan Sanson said: "We have big plans for the future of the station, including an improvement to our park and ride facility and the relocation of the original railway station, which currently sits at Lake Puketirini, back to the new rail platform.
"Here it will get a new lease of life as an art museum that will proudly showcase our region's rich history through carvings by local iwi and art by local schools.
Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency's rail governance working group representative, Steve Mutton, said his organisation was also excited about the launch.
"We've worked alongside our partners to ensure the funding was in place for this, including the creation of the Rotokauri Transport Hub and upgrades to Frankton, Huntly and Papakura stations."
Total funding for the five-year project is $98 million – $85.8 million is coming from central government via Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency, with local government contributing the remaining $12.2 million.
Of this, about $68.7 million has been used to purchase and modify the rolling stock for the service, as well as to reinstate a maintenance facility at Te Rapa, construct a new modern transport hub at Rotokauri and upgrade the existing Huntly and Frankton stations, and other capital works.
KiwiRail Group Chief Executive Greg Miller congratulated its council partners on the upcoming start of the Te Huia service.
"It's taken courage, commitment and a large investment by the councils and central government, and also a great deal of work by KiwiRail, to realise the vision of a passenger service between Hamilton and Auckland," Mr Miller said.
"It's exciting that it's now so close and all of KiwiRail joins me in wishing the service well, and encouraging the public to leave their cars at home and to take the train instead.
"As New Zealanders show increasing concern about greenhouse gas emissions from transport, rail is able to provide a more sustainable option in connecting New Zealand and New Zealanders."