Last train standing

Published date16 February 2022
Publication titleWest Coast Messenger, The
A key driver has been achieving transport emission reductions. Despite the on-going pandemic, considerable investment has been going into long distance passenger rail. This includes the revival of many night train services

By contrast, 2021 in this country marked the end of the Northern Explorer passenger train service that linked Auckland and Wellington.

Gone too is the Coastal Pacific, which once linked Picton and Christchurch.

Instead Kiwi Rail has plans to use the trains "to create multi-day experiences that showcase the best of New Zealand, both on and off the track".

Rather than allowing everyday New Zealanders the chance to lower their carbon footprint, the trains will cater to the elite end of the tourism market.

A passenger rail network of eight lines and 2700km in 2001, which shrank to four lines and 1340 km by 2020, now just has three short routes left, Wellington-Palmerston North, Wellington-Masterton, and Hamilton-Auckland, totalling 348km.

For tourists, there is still the train from Christchurch to Greymouth.

By comparison, Australia has 27 intercity rail lines, some of which run at up to 160kmh, plus seven additional tourist routes.

Climate conscious traveller Vicki Irons has used the Northern Explorer and the Coastal Pacific and wants to be able to use them again.

"It's a great way to travel, no motion sickness, one can read, with on board food, drink and toilets available. When the option is not there I take whatever else is available. Reluctantly."

New Zealand is the only advanced economy in the world without a train linking its largest cities. The underinvestment and decline of New Zealand passenger rail is well documented in Andre Brett's aptly named 2021 book Can't get there from here.

Now, those wanting to travel between Auckland and Wellington or points in between must fly, drive, or, if wanting a low carbon option, take a bus with (unlike services overseas) no on-board toilets.

In his final chapter, Brett sets out a vision for passenger rail revival.

Politically, the only major party supporting passenger rail are the Greens. But it is rare to hear them articulating this view.

The Government's Rail Plan, published in 2021, has little to say about long distance passenger rail.

Equally, the Climate Commission is silent on the contribution long distance rail could make to help decarbonise domestic travel.

It has been non-governmental organisations and individuals that primarily have been arguing for passenger rail. In 2017 the Auckland...

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