Road to rail: Can NZ get back on track with trains?

Wilson Longhurst
Source: 1News

Young people growing up in Aotearoa today likely don’t know how connected New Zealanders used to be by passenger train.

A KiwiRail passenger service travels between Auckland and Wellington.

Rail used to be the predominant means of getting around, and our country once had a world-leading network.

“Almost any town of consequence and many villages of insignificance were linked by rail,” historian André Brett, a lecturer at Australia’s Curtin University told 1News.

The climate crisis means the pressure has never been greater on countries worldwide to act on their transport emissions, pushing passenger trains back into the fore.

Lost lines

As late as 2002, services operated between Auckland and Hamilton, Tauranga and Rotorua, Wellington and Napier, as well as Christchurch and Invercargill.

20 years later just a handful remain and New Zealand is one of the most car-dependent countries in the world.

Passenger routes that operated during NZ's rail heyday.
NZ's passenger network in 2022.

“The fundamental problem is to remember a time when New Zealand railways was a premier form of transport that was efficient and popular, you now have to be basically 100 years old,” Brett says.

Brett's new book Can't Get There from Here outlines the rise and the demise of passenger rail in Aotearoa, finishing with his hopes for the future.

“You could go overseas and see it all the time, but then people come back to New Zealand and their only familiarity – if they're Gen X or older – it's with decrepit rural trains that are on their last legs.”

Many of the lines that used to run passengers are still transporting freight, and Brett believes several services across the country could reopen without too much hassle.

For example, he questions why there’s no rail link between Christchurch and Dunedin.

“The two main centres of the South Island do not have a train despite the fact that even using decrepit rundown rolling stock, in 2002, the timetable between Christchurch and Oamaru was the same speed as driving non-stop, despite the fact the train had to stop.”

Getting back on track?

Connecting much of the country by rail was a Labour policy at the 2017 election, and by the Greens in 2020, so far just the Te Huia service linking Auckland and Hamilton has been delivered.

Transport minister Michael Wood says reopening lines after a period of “managed decline” is on the horizon, with government investment of more than $7 billion initially focusing on “bread and butter” issues.

“Making sure that lines are well maintained, making sure that there's sufficient ballast in place, making sure that lines are safe to run at an appropriate speed, replacing bridges and tunnels that maybe have been there for 100 years, and we have to do that bread and butter first sometimes, before we can make the improvements that we want to get to,” he said.

Transport is New Zealand's second-biggest contributor to climate change.

The government will release its first Emissions Reduction Plan in May, based off advice from the Climate Change Commission which has recommended transport emissions be cut by 13 percent by 2030, and 41 percent by 2035.

A draft of the plan says "the scale of change to achieve these reductions and complete decarbonisation cannot be overstated", but Minster of Transport Michael Wood argues priority needs to be given to "bang for buck" investment.

"We do need to prioritise what's going to give us the best benefit in terms of decarbonisation and the best benefit in terms of delivering good benefits to New Zealanders who want to travel," he said.

Emeritus professor of sustainability at Massey University Ralph Sims, who has been a lead author on transport for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, says rail has a lot to offer.

"It could take hundreds of cars off the road and that's the key thing because roads are getting more congested, but every car is producing a lot of carbon dioxide, around 50 kilograms for a 300 kilometre journey, just in that time, whereas a train would be a fifth of that," he said.

"New Zealand is one of the highest car owners per capita in the world, it's also got one of the highest greenhouse gas emissions per capita in the world, particularly OECD countries and therefore there's a good reason why we need to reduce our personal emissions here, our carbon footprint, and getting out of the car is a key way of doing that."

Both Sims and Brett hope a better connected New Zealand isn't far away.

"[We need a] meaningful national plan for suburban and regional rail that's integrated with other forms of public and active transport so that we can respond to the climate crisis, we can have greater economic efficiency, we can have a society where you can actually get around and everything is accessible," Brett said.

"We are now in such a situation where people can't imagine alternatives and when the limited passenger services that we have, because there's such a lack of investment in them, they're still so slow and such old rolling stock that people aren't persuaded that these offerings would be better," he added.

Wood said the government would outline its intentions with the Emissions Reduction Plan, and said business case work is underway to extend the Wellington line to Levin with "proposals on the table" to create a service between Auckland and Wellington.

A step backward?

KiwiRail's recent announcement to pause its Great Journeys services between Auckland and Wellington and Picton and Christchurch has sparked an uproar among advocacy groups that the government is heading in the wrong direction with rail.

The TranzAlpine between Greymouth and Christchurch is still running.

KiwiRail says it'll change the once same-day services to instead offer "multi-day experiences" catering to tourists.

Save Our Trains, a group of concerned train enthusiasts, is calling for an overhaul of New Zealand's passenger rail network.

"We're sympathetic with Covid, it has made it difficult, but in Europe right through the pandemic they were introducing night trains, they were introducing trains all over the place so we're the only place in the world getting rid of trains, other places are bringing them back," Paul Callister from the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University told Breakfast.

He's a member of Save Our Trains, which has launched a petition signed by almost 7000 people calling for the government and KiwiRail to act.

The Transport Minister says the services haven't been cancelled.

"I continue to engage regularly with KiwiRail and I've made it clear to the chair and the executive team that I do want to see us make progress in this area so that more Kiwis have the opportunity to travel by train to get to where they need to," Wood said.

KiwiRail's expected to launch its "new vision" for the Great Journeys in July.