The development of a national public transport system for New Zealand has always been something I think could be pursued as a national-level economic development project, with the aim of improving connections and access between regional areas and our larger cities. This could facilitate economic and social well-being in the regions, which have struggled with a loss of people, skills, business, and essential services over the last few decades. My view has always been that this should be a holistic, multi-modal approach, with the aim being to provide affordable links between regions and major cities, with incremental improvements to infrastructure along targeted transport corridors to enable faster, more reliable services.
Last week the Greens announced a $9 billion plan to develop regional commuter rapid rail as a post-covid economic stimulus centred on each of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, extending to regional towns and cities. Now, this is simply their policy at this stage, but the plan as described would see significant staged upgrades to existing rail lines. This is an interesting proposal, and is deserving of a bit of a deeper dive. First, let’s look at the detail of what they are proposing.
What is being proposed – in a nutshell
As mentioned, the plan centres on developing regional rail networks around hubs in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. The term “rapid rail” has been used in the media and in the Greens own media release, which has unfortunately given an impression to some that the proposal is for TGV-style high speed rail, which is woefully incorrect. Instead, what is proposed is improvements to the existing rail network over a staged period of time to allow faster and more consistent speeds, similar to what is achievable on other rail networks of the same track gauge*.
A hangover of decades of under-investment in New Zealand’s rail network is that speeds are generally low, and many sections of track have semi-permanent speed restrictions due to poor conditions of the infrastructure. Additionally, many sections of track have poor alignments and tight curvature, and historically the investment has not been made to incrementally iron out these kinks as should have occurred. Beyond all the hyperbole, the Greens are essentially advocating giving rail the shot in the arms it hasn’t had in 60 odd years.
Where will these trains connect to?
From Auckland, the proposal is to link the “Golden Triangle” of Hamilton and Tauranga, and eventually the “Greater Golden Triangle” that includes Whangarei. What kind of services these would be, including frequency, is not immediately obvious, but it seems to be channeling the regional rapid rail proposal developed by Greater Auckland a few years ago. Nevertheless, the proposal builds on the process already begun with the Hamilton to Auckland commuter train to be known as Te Huia. This service is a relatively cheap and basic pilot project, so what the Greens are effectively doing is seeking government commitment to the subsequent stages of the pilot, and providing a pathway to a more absolute vision.
From Wellington, the proposal is to provide regional services to Palmerston North, and Masterton, and eventually Whanganui. So, essentially, this is building off of what already exists. Unlike the rest of the country, Wellington largely retained its local rail services, including those to Masterton and a single service from Palmerston North. The regional council is currently seeking improvements to the regional rail services, including track upgrades and a new fleet of 17 bi-mode trains that would run off the existing overhead and switch to diesel (or another energy source) beyond its coverage. This would allow faster, more reliable times, and greater frequencies. Timing on this investment is uncertain, so essentially the Green’s plan is to give it a shot in the arm, and potentially supersize it. Extending services to Whanganui is a logical next step. At less than 200km from Wellington, there are a lot of potential benefits there by improving connections.
Finally, it is also proposed to link Christchurch along its core north-south development corridor, as far north as Rangiora, and as far south as Ashburton, which could eventually be extended to Timaru. Christchurch is the odd one out when it comes to rail in New Zealand. While Wellington bucked the trend, and Auckland clung on for dear life, passenger rail in Christchurch has suffered a decline that exacerbates the general decline across New Zealand. The last, barely held together, local rail services were unceremoniously discontinued in 1976, and since then the infrastructure has been pulled apart bit by bit as it was reconfigured for a largely freight only operation, save for the two remaining long distance trains mainly retained for tourist dollars, that operate out of a small station in Addington. Historically, growth in Christchurch was evenly distributed in a 10km radius, unsuited to a strategic development along the existing rail lines (or – more accurately – no thought was given to this). However, recent growth in the last 20 years is largely concentrated along a north-south corridor roughly parallel to the railway lines. Places like Rangiora and Rolleston have grown from a few thousand people to small cities of 20,000**. While alternative MRT arrangements might be better suited to serving the needs of the inner portions of the north-south spine within Christchurch itself, as those outer areas grow the potential to utilise the rail corridors to connect them to the city is going begging. There are some issues with the rail infrastructure, but if the funding is there to fix that, those issues are largely moot. Ashburton is a growing regional hub, while Timaru makes a logical extension. Interestingly, the Road Transport Forum is promoting a four-lane motorway in direct contrast to this specific proposal.
It’s important to note that Greens transport spokesperson, and Associate Minister of Transport, Julie Anne Genter, has stated that this is a starting point, based on routes that serve where most people live. Dunedin has come up in conversation, and I think better connections between it and Christchurch would be a real boost for the southern city. Indeed, given that Christchurch and Dunedin are only around 360km apart, a targeted investment into developing a “southern corridor” could be a really good South Island focused project, although that’s a whole other conversation. Likewise, Hastings and Napier, and even New Plymouth could benefit from such connections to Wellington, and perhaps also Rotorua to Auckland. My point is that there are logical stepping stones beyond what is proposed here, but you have to start somewhere. I would also suggest that what the Greens are proposing is already pretty ambitious by New Zealand standards.
When is this supposed to happen?
The project would be rolled out in two stages:
- A major programme of work to electrify the rail lines between these centres
- Targeted improvements to the existing track to allow travel speeds to increase up to 110km/h.
- Building new higher-speed track to support “tilt-trains” capable of achieving speeds of 160km/h
- By-passes to create faster, more direct routes (e.g. around Whangamarino wetland north of Hamilton).
I think it is ambitious to jump right to electrification. Genter stated that Stage One could be completed in the next 3-5 years. While electrification might not necessarily mean building overhead wires, as battery technology and hybrid trains have come a long way, given the timing of getting the current, low-tech Hamilton to Auckland service up and running, I’m dubious of such claims. I do understand that there is a difference between individual, unconnected projects being progressed in the current environment versus a step-change in government policy, it’s just that realistically there might be a more basic stage before this one to get things up and running and make it more palatable to the public.
What kind of services would be provided?
From what I have read, the proposal is is to roughly follow what has gone before in Wellington, and what is soon to be introduced between Hamilton and Auckland; starting with peak hour services, and building up to more frequent services as improvements are made. Given the condition of rail throughout much of the country, this makes sense, and an incremental approach is good because commuting and travel behaviours along these distances are currently skewed towards the car. Genter talked about building up to two hour frequencies between Christchurch and Ashburton over time as travel times are reduced, for example. However, my guess is that not all routes will be the same, and some might become more frequent along certain portions. This might be more pertinent to Christchurch, which has no existing commuter rail, than to Auckland and Wellington, which do. In that case, regional rail might serve a double function there (I wouldn’t really call Rangiora “regional” in the same way that Palmerston North is to Wellington, for example).
Is it a good idea?
Ostensibly, yes. However, I do have a few issues, largely related to the messaging of the proposal and the implied implementation. Care should be given to the way it is communicated. Messaging has largely revolved around an ultimate vision. Vision is good, but some thought has to be given to how that will come across to laypeople. The first stage of connecting the regions and utilising rail to do so by making targeted improvements to bring it into the twenty first century is a good, and compelling one. I think that would connect with a far greater number of people, especially those outside the Greens bread and butter supporters. I also think presenting it as a more holistic, integrated rail and bus regional public transport network would have helped in this regard to, because it could potentially extend the reach of regional public transport networks, and therefore extend the appeal. It also just sounds more practical, and distracts from fanciful misinterpretations of what “rapid rail” is. In terms of implementation, I think there is some low-hanging fruit that could have been presented as a kind of Stage 1A, focused around getting the ball rolling and setting expectations appropriately.
In terms of the wider issues this project addresses, as Genter pointed out, the response ‘to the last economic crisis was to build $12 billion of motorways and expressways, and the end result of that was to double-down on urban sprawl and car dependence, and compromise road safety through decreased local road budgets. Ambitious projects are needed, and such projects really need to fit into the kinds of outcomes New Zealand is after, which it appears, at a glance, to do. There is a wider conversation that this brings up around connections between cities and regions, economic impact, immigration and population growth and distribution that cuts across multiple policy areas. the relationship between infrastructure, economic growth, and town planning is complex, yet tangible. When the Roads of National Significance was done, it didn’t do any of this, which mad it an extremely short-sighted and poor policy. This same mistake should not be repeated here either.
Can it be done?
Yes. From a transport-only perspective, I think it would benefit from being widened into a conversation about regional and national public transport networks, which includes modes other than rail, and includes discussion of developing a framework to fund capital and operational expenditure. Beyond transport, this is the kind of project that would fit into a nation-building narrative that seeps through to the bones. How we live and where is a conversation we prepare ready to have. A policy such as the one the Greens have presented is a core plank of that. Ambitious, yes, but with a few tweaks, not impracticable.
A little history…
Interestingly, New Zealand kind of had a national public transport network – of sorts – until the late 1980s. This was the combined network of trains and buses run by the New Zealand Railways. By that stage, however, it was pretty rundown, and the New Zealand Railways and New Zealand Railways Road Services had a history of poor integration and linked-up strategic thinking (i.e. buses often competed with trains rather than complimenting them). Eventually, it all disappeared with the loss of subsidies and the corporatisation and splitting up of the various parts of New Zealand Rail prior to everything being sold off. The remnants of both survive today in the form of “Great Journeys of New Zealand” (the renationalised scenic rail journeys and Interislander ferry) and Intercity, the privately owned remnant of the road services division. It’s a shame this was all squandered, but that was the mantra at the time, I guess.
* New Zealand uses “Cape” or “Narrow” gauge tracks, which limit top-end speeds. Regardless, in Queensland Australia a tilt train can give 160km/h service speeds, while the slightly narrower “Metre” gauge tracks of Malaysia have higher speed services that operate at up to 140km/h. Commuter rail in Perth, a Cape gauge system, can run at speeds of up to 130km/h.
** I think it is important to address the elephant in the room here. What is going to happen to population growth post-Covid? I think at this stage, we simply don’t know. There seems to be a lot of belief that this will put an end to mass migration in the long-term, but I think the answer is a lot more complicated. First, we don’t know what policy on this will be from New Zealand’s perspective, and there have been no signs as of yet, other than speculation due to current and perceived travel restrictions. Second, we don’t know what the impact will be on people themselves in terms of the desire to migrate. The trend could, at this stage, go one way or the other, either prompting . The one thing I will point out, however, is that for a country like New Zealand, it will be critical to attract the right skills in a very short space of time; a space of time it is going to be impossible to develop them largely from within. This will pose massive challenges on two fronts; first, the need to attract talent in a time of uncertain travel and border operations, and; second, the competition with other countries as they ramp up their own, larger, stimulus packages. So my point is that a) I doubt international migration will take anything other than a temporary dip, and b) the opposite to a downward trend could easily happen over the short to medium term as policy is enacted to target people with the skills needed. I think long-term, current population trends are likely to at least remain roughly the same as they have been.