Occasionally it’s quite fun to look 50 years into the future and ask questions around “what will it be like?” Even the longest term planning documents around tend to just look at a 30 year vision, so going to 50 years is certainly another jump into the future beyond that point – but it’s quite fun and potentially quite useful to make sure what we’re doing in the next 10-20 years doesn’t limit our ability to do potentially very long-term projects.
Sub-national population estimates from Statistics NZ only go out as far into the future as 2031 – showing significant population growth for Auckland when compared to the rest of NZ (as we already know). National population estimates extend to our 50 year amount – to 2061 when the population of the country might be around 6 million. Here are some of the 2061 median projections:
Because of our ageing population, population growth tails off quite significantly mid-century. I suspect that questions around whether NZ’s population will ever be significantly more than 6 million come down to migration scenarios. Stats NZ did looks at what it would take for NZ to have a significantly higher population in the future, compared to the median projection – noting the following:
I have long thought that the real unknown here is what happens in climate change scenarios which are more severe than predicted. New Zealand generally seems to suffer less than many other countries (especially in comparison to Australia and the Pacific Islands) in ‘severe climate change’ scenarios – meaning that we could end up becoming a pretty attractive place to live for vast numbers of our near neighbours. Scenarios such as reaching 10 million due to an average net migration gains of 68,000 people per year (combined with a fairly conservative fertility rate) do seem unlikely, but not implausible.
Now let’s translate that into thinking about what might happen in this part of New Zealand – in particular the area known as the “Upper North Island”. The table below shows the population of this Upper North Island area up to 2031 – and how it represents an increasing proportion of New Zealand’s population (particularly in the high-growth scenarios):
Under a “high immigration” scenario one would expect the proportion of NZers living in the Upper North Island area by 2061 to have continued to grow significantly. Let’s say in our 2061 scenarios you might have around 65% of New Zealanders living in the Upper North Island area. This would mean 3.9 million people if the population is 6 million, 4.55 million out of a 7 million population and 6.5 million from a total of 10 million. In reality I think the proportion of the population in the Upper North Island would be higher in the higher growth scenarios (as shown in the 2031 projections) but we’re just using this as a broad guide.
I suppose the point of all this lead in is to highlight that the real bulk of the country’s population growth in the next 50 years is likely to be in the area often referred to as the “Golden Triangle”, between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga.
Significantly improving transport accessibility between these three areas, effectively joining them together into operating as something of a ‘super-region’ may result in significant benefits for New Zealand as a whole, particularly if higher population growth scenarios mean that Auckland in 2061 has a population pushing 3 million and is really struggling to find a way to house all those people.
Although some people currently commuter between Hamilton and Auckland on a daily basis, I feel sorry for them as they must end up spending a huge chunk of their lives in the car going back and forth on State Highway 1 – the 126 km trip which takes 1 hour 40 without congestion and probably more than 2 hours each way at peak times. What they really need, and what we need generally if we decide that it’s advantageous to ease the pressure on Auckland, is a faster way to connect up these cities – including Tauranga as our likely key trade centre over time as Auckland discovers it wants to claim back its waterfront more and more.
I think the obvious solution to this is getting a transport technology to link the cities up that is really fast. And the obvious option there is through vastly improving our inter-city rail network. We current do have a rail link between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga – it’s the busiest part of the country’s freight network and shifts a pretty huge amount of “stuff” between these cities. But the line is slow – horrifically slow in terms of its potential suitability for inter-city trains. The failed attempts to introduce rail services between Hamilton and Auckland were most probably doomed because of this very issue – despite not getting stuck in traffic the train service just couldn’t be time competitive when compared to driving or even catching the bus.
However, it doesn’t have to be this way. And I’m not saying we need to completely rebuild the rail connections from scratch to 300 kph high-speed rail standards either. If we could get the tracks up to a standard which allows trains to average 120-160 kph on their trips between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga you could really revolutionise the time it takes to get between these three cities and really bring them into the one “super region” in terms of inter-city accessibility. This is shown in the table below:
I suspect to really achieve something revolutionary in the connections between these three cities you’re probably going to need an average speed of at least 140 kph, which means some sections needing to operate at much higher speeds than that. Just at a glance then we’re likely to need the following works done:
- A full express track bypass of the Auckland suburban rail network
- Full electrification (presumably)
- Significant track geometry improvements, especially just south of Pukekohe and also whether the Hamilton to Tauranga section really needs to divert up to Morrinsville
- Doubling tracking of at least most of the Hamilton-Tauranga section of track
Obviously we’re talking a multi-billion dollar project here. But then again we are thinking 50 years into the future. Perhaps the best way to think about this is to compare its potential value with that of some of the less sensible RoNS projects (Puhoi-Wellsford and much of the Wellington Northern Corridor), or against the possible next generation of RoNS projects (Cambridge-Tirau, Hawkes Bay, Hamilton-Tauranga motorway). Against the zany motorway plans the government has for the very long term, this rail proposal start to look really sensible (though I’m not sure whether whether it’s better than a RoNS is really the best way to measure a project’s worth.)