The post I wrote a week or so ago, asking the question of whether Auckland should grow at the pace, or to the extent, of current projections, generated more comments than any other post on this blog ever. There has also been an ongoing flow of letters to the editor in the NZ Herald questioning whether it’s in New Zealand’s best interest, including Auckland’s best interest, to see such a significant chunk of the country’s future population growth in one city.

This situation seems to arise from a lot of people not liking the extent to which the Unitary Plan proposes intensification within Auckland but also not really liking the alternative of seeing Auckland sprawl further and further into the countryside. Put simply, given the choice of “up”, “out” or “both” they think there’s another option of “neither” (or at least not to the extent proposed). Seeing further projections of worsening traffic conditions over the next 30 years, even if we spend an eye-watering amount of money on transport infrastructure, probably reinforces these thoughts.

Personally I don’t mind the prospect of Auckland growing so much, as long as we ensure that growth happens in a way that’s well designed and properly pays for itself. I like the hustle and bustle of a big city, I like Auckland’s growing diversity, I think that 1.5 million is a messy population: big enough to experience the problems of a big city but not quite big enough to afford solutions or enjoy the benefits of being a proper big city. But a lot of people don’t think this way – some because they’re fearful of change and others because they see the cost of this, they see other parts of New Zealand suffering from depopulation and they see the potential efficiencies from spreading the burden and benefits of growth more widely.

Whilst there do appear to be some fairly valid arguments in favour of distributing the country’s future population growth a bit more evenly, the really tricky question is “how?” If Auckland’s high property prices don’t already put people off living here enough, then it’s hard to see what ‘could be done’ to change things.

One possible option came to my mind when reading a recent Atlantic Cities article on the impacts of high speed rail on second and third tier cities. Generally the effects on those cities were quite significant:

Through facilitating market integration, bullet trains will stimulate the development of second- and third-tier cities. By offering households and firms a larger menu of location alternatives, bullet trains help to protect the quality of life of the growing urban population. We document that this transport innovation is associated with rising real estate prices in the nearby secondary cities.

What does that actually mean? The Atlantic Cities article provides further explanation:

The idea works like this: by reducing travel time, high-speed rail effectively pushes secondary cities closer to major cities. (That’s especially true for places roughly 60 to 470 miles apart — too far to drive but often not far enough to justify the cost of flying.) This enhanced proximity enables employers to base themselves in the major city and create satellite offices in the now-accessible secondary cities where rents are much cheaper.

Meantime, employees themselves can settle in secondary cities and have the amenities of the major cities without (again) the high cost of living and also without draining public resources. That relieves the crowded infrastructure of the major cities, in particular traffic congestion, and also may lead to less sprawl, promoting a more sustainable development pattern. As Zheng and Kahn portray it, the situation offers the best of both worlds.

There’s increasing evidence that of this effect in China:

The researchers found evidence that housing prices are appreciating in the secondary cities connected to Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou by the bullet systems. These spikes in real estate reveal a rise in the market potential of the satellite areas, according to the study.

Zheng and Kahn point to three main factors that can trigger this market integration effect. First, there must be a reasonably high population density in a high-speed corridor. Next, there must be sufficient secondary cities to handle the extra population load. Third, the competing travel modes must already be congested or at capacity.

The article makes a series of comparisons to the proposed High Speed railway line in California.

While New Zealand is unlikely to see “true” high speed rail anytime in the next century, it strikes me that cities like Hamilton and Tauranga fit pretty well into the role of “second and third tier cities” which could feed off Auckland to a greater extent if a transport option was provided which brought them within a more reasonable commuting time from Auckland. Something like a rail system offering 160-180 kph speeds that could mean less than an hour’s travel to Hamilton and less than an hour and a half from Tauranga.

Of course achieving such an outcome would require really massive investment. Not only would the existing rural sections of the line need to be electrified and substantially upgraded, but extra ‘express tracks’ would need to be provided within the Auckland metropolitan area to ensure that these express trains were able to bypass metropolitan rail services. You’d need full grade separation, probably some major sound walls and so forth.

However, such a project could quite conceivably end up being the cheaper option when compared to more and more transport upgrades within Auckland itself – especially compared to motorway projects such as an Additional Harbour Crossing or adding more and more lanes to existing motorways for smaller and smaller marginal benefit. By leveraging off Auckland to a greater extent, perhaps it would be feasible for Hamilton to grow to 500,000 people or more – taking significant pressure off the growth of Auckland. Even with a super-fast train I don’t think I’d want to live there, but perhaps some people would.

Something like this seems about the only way, unless you start to get really draconian about where people live, to take growth pressure off Auckland. Unless there are other ideas out there?

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  1. Many people already live in Hamilton and work in Auckland (it’s a good way to avoid paying Auckland’s house prices), I’m sure if there were regular, high speed, high quality train services this trend would increase. There is already a close relationship between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga and with the advent of UNISA maybe they can get together and provide some strategic regionally integrated transport thinking.

  2. I think our first priority would be actually getting a single train from Hamilton to Auckland. If we can’t even manage that (which seems to be the case) than HSR is pie in the sky stuff.

    1. The current issue is that the tracks are not suited to running a passenger train at anything but a snail’s pace so there would need to be investment in making it a reasonably fast journey, it’s merely a case of all transport funding going into more motorways. NZTA blow hundreds of millions on the rounding, it’s their anti-rail bias that makes any form of fast rail a pipe-dream not the demand.

  3. Yes – although given the predicted UNISA rail freight volumes from Tauranga and the inland port development in Hamilton, a separate line might need to be created, as the existing is noted as a maybe for double tracking.

    With the rapid growth of Tauranga and Hamilton already (circa 270,000 people combined) would have thought the estimate of $2m operating cost a year (per Kiwirail in 2012) for a passenger service like the old Kaimai Express would be reasonable already. Especially when three local authorities and NZTA could be involved. A large number of residents in those two cities already drive to Auckland for work/the airport etc so contribute a bit to Auckland traffic.

    Downside being the Waikato and Western BOP have some of the most productive agricultural land in the country so maybe Whangarei is a better bet….!

  4. I always think this when driving south to Hamilton, if cities like Huntly, Ngaruawahia and Hamilton had a reasonably fast train service connecting them to Auckland they’d actually all become places for people to live and avoid expensive house prices in Auckland. I know several people who frequently say that given the option they’d move to Hamilton in a flash and simply commute to Auckland by train. As it stands these small towns in between Auckland and Hamilton stagnate and these people are forced to pay rent in Auckland. I am somewhat surprised councillors in these towns don’t start pushing for such a link as it would be an economic help for the towns.

  5. There are also several towns between that would be attractive for commuting. As per high speed trains in Japan, China, Taiwan, etc., I’d anticipate 1/3-1/2 of the services would have additional stops to service smaller towns along the way. These could also serve as interchange points for bus services to other surrounding small towns.
    In terms of the track, it would be a dedicated corridor and for speed it should be standard gauge, leaving narrow gauge for other services & freight. This is exactly what Japan & Taiwan have done.

  6. I wondered about Whagarei, but then followed the track through from Helensville on google maps, scenic? yes, high speed? not a chance, I’ve seen straighter riivers across plains

    1. To be honest, I don’t think that Whangarei’s big enough to justify a high speed rail service. A high speed rail line going from Auckland to Hamilton and then Tauranga would work, though.

      I’m told that it takes about 5 hours to get to Whangarei from Auckland on the NAL; it takes about 2 – 3 hours by car or bus, depending on your starting and ending points. The plane takes about half an hour, but there’s a lot of mucking around at airports and getting to and from them. The train’s times could be improved substantially simply by maintaining the track a little better and fixing up some of the tunnels that have speed restrictions. If they straightened out a few of the bends, then things would be even better. It would have to compete with the bus companies on price, though; currently a one-way trip is about $25. If the train can offer a substantial saving on that, I think it would have a chance (although given the prices on the Northern Explorer, that seems unlikely). But until Whangarei grows to about the same size as Hamilton, there’s no need for a high speed line.

      1. I drove from Wiri to Whangarei last weekend for a training course, departing Wiri at 06:00 on the Saturday. In a vehicle sign-written for a high-profile international organisation whose reputation I try to uphold, and inclined to obey the road rules anyway, it still took us less than 2.5 hours. The difference between road time and rail time is scandalous.

      1. If we ever get rail as far north as Orewa, then perhaps we could cut across to the current line from there?

        1. I have thought that too. That would leave the Western Line for freight and passenger services as far as Waimauku without adding potential snags. If you used the North Shore route, towards Warkworth, and then cut across Kaipara Flats to the current NAL route to Wellsford. A 1hr or so trip from Wellsford would be pretty good.

        2. Yes, such a service would be vastly more useful (and expensive) than simply upgrading the current line, since it would also allow commuter services on the Shore. However, if the busway is merely converted to light rail instead of heavy rail, then it might not be possible to connect to the NAL once you get north of Orewa. If there is no express track, you’d have the same problem with express services that is faced down south at the moment when considering Hamilton services – although there are fewer stops on the busway, so that might not be such a problem. And finally, you’re still left with the condition of the NAL north of wherever you connect to. It’s pretty windy and decrepit, and the only town of any significance that it visits between Helensville and Whangarei is Wellsford, which to most people’s way of thinking is not a significant town…

      2. Projects like P2W wouldn’t be so bad if they also included a rail component to be done at the same time. Even if it was just leaving enough space under bridges, on embankments etc without actually laying the tracks.

        1. “Future proofing” is as bad as not even doing anything, plenty of studies in the US have shown that PT projects are often even less likely to ahead when a motorway ‘future proofed’ for them. P2W would have to include a rail component from the start and in this day in age it’s slightly ludicrous that it doesn’t. If you want to revolutionise the economy of the north you’d do a far better job making it accessible from Auckland easily by train than billions to save 5 mins by car.

        2. Someone told me once that they reckoned that travel time on the NAL could probably be brought down to 3 hours or so on the existing line. I like the idea of extending a North Shore line through to Wellsford, but it would be very expensive. Also it would chuck out the idea of using ‘Vancouver metro’,you would need to use full heavy rail for the entire line.

        3. Build the metro to a Wellsford transport interchange and then upgrade the NAL (tunnels, tracks, alignment and signaling) from there to Whangarei to enable heavy metro to travel at 140km/h or so.

  7. agreed, but having a harbour and places like Tutukaka close by Whangarei does have lifestyle advantages and some pretty affordable real estate, I’d definitely consider moving north, but Hamilton, Huntly, never, Cambridge a remote possibility

    1. I agree, Northland is nice but no jobs. Waikato is too inland and too boring for me. All the disadvantages of rural areas without any good beaches or coastal settings.

      1. If there was a new compact town (like Assen – complete with cycle routes) built in Ruakaka with a commuter rail link to Whangarei, I would be there tomorrow looking for a job. Would it be expensive – not really given the amount of greenfield development available. The rail link from the Auckland district, combined with a compact Whangarei city centre (including apartments, terrace houses, cycle paths etc) would lure people, and business, up North I believe.

  8. We haven’t even got as far as putting in a third freight line down the eastern section. Given that this requires an order of magnitude more investment…

    Then again, a city rail loop would have seemed beyond possibility about a decade ago, and it’s moving towards reality (if the recent gains in passenger use are sustained over time).

    1. “We haven’t even got as far as putting in a third freight line down the eastern section”

      I was cycling past Panmure station on Friday for a look at how it was going.
      And was trying to work out where the 3rd line would fit in the trenched Panmure layout.

      As far as I can tell there is no room at Mountain Road Bridge for a third line to fit in.

      I did ask a woman taking photos of the new station concourse if she knew where the 3rd line was to go and she said down the middle between the two existing lines.

      But I don’t see room for that and since the concrete is all poured for the platforms etc there is not a lot of room to fit a 3rd line there.

      So it looks like it will be even further away than assumed if they have to widen Mountain Road Bridge to fit it in.

      Can anyone can confirm or deny if the 3rd line at Panmure is a do-do as it seems?

        1. Seriously? I thought that would be quite a good project to “future proof” for! Who knows, maybe one day we’ll have a rail line from Botany and that combined with an increasing number of freight trains will need more than a twin track line.

      1. The third main will go on the eastern side of the station. The mountain Rd Bridge has supposedly been designed to allow for an additional span to be added later. In other words they will have to dig it out all over again. As is increasingly apparent in transport planning in NZ, future proofing isn’t always what the general public think it should be.

  9. I really like the idea of a “fast” passenger rail service. Not high speed, but 150-160km/h would be good. A route from Auckland calling at Tuakau, Mercer, Te Kauwhata, Huntly, Ngaruawahia, Te Rapa, Hamilton, and then on to Tauranga and possibly Rotorua. Perhaps even a suburban service connecting Hamilton with Cambridge? What about reopening the disused Hamilton underground station? A 2 – 2 1/2 train ride to Tauranga would be very appealing for a weekend away at ‘The Mount’.

  10. There is 16 Buses a day doing the Hamilton – Auckland run plus 16 Buses a day Auckland – Hamilton Run, Low as $10 per trip, No government support needed. Try drive and park for that price.

    1. I wouldn’t take a bus from Auckland to Hamilton unless there was a nice smooth motorway, for comfort reasons, all the way. Oh wait, isn’t the govt building that? No govt support you say?

  11. I am totally for getting interregional rail services running in NZ. One problem that has to be sorted out first though- getting rid of the National Party as Government.

    We do that, then lets talk about commuter rail services.

    1. Given that KiwiRail is a freight company, set up by Labour as a for-profit commercial entity, I don’t see government as the issue. We need an open access network, where new players (including those set up, or contracted by local governments) can step in. KiwiRail should be removed from the equation entirely. I don’t know the current government’s view on an open access network, although more private enterprise on rail would be something National likes I would of thought. I don’t know Labour’s view on an open access network either, although being pro-union, they are probably against it, as the RMTU certainly is.

  12. “Given that KiwiRail is a freight company, set up by Labour as a for-profit commercial entity” Geoff – It was not set up as a freight company by Labour. It was set up as a state owned railway company.

    As Bryce states, actual tracks are more important than who operates on them. Since National has been ruling NZ with an iron fist they have closed or mothballed over 400kms or our nations rail network.

    Get National out, get rebuilding our nations rail transport infrastructure.

    1. Even when you take stops into account, 180 km/h would still be comparable or faster than travelling by car. An ultra high speed network that could run at 300 km/h + is super expensive, and not really feasible for a small country like New Zealand.

  13. There are a hundred and one potential options to prevent Auckland turning into an overcrowded hellhole… and to revitalise our provincial economy.

    Don’t forget that concentration is vulnerable. HAving one super city and then an atrophied provincial core would mean a single terrorist strike or epidemic could destroy NZ’s economy utterly. Better to have redundancy through multiple backups (mini-hubs)

    Now, what are those options?
    1. Set up tax-free/low-tax zones akin to the Chinese Special Economic Zones. Start with Tokoroa. Kawerau. Any former logging towns. This will stimulate corporate and industrial movement.
    2. Demand that central government set up “hubs”. MSD could be based in Hamilton. Defence could move to Palmerston North. MBIE would do nicely in Christchurch.
    3. Allow immigration on the proviso that immigrants reside somewhere other than NZ. Use internal passports and an expanded NZ Customs/Immigration/Police response to enforce this.
    4. Refuse all new residential building consents in Auckland. As 4.a and 4.b, allow them perhaps to replace existing buildings, and also have a maximum capacity residing in them… enforce with the staff from 3.
    5. Revitalise Work for the Dole – as a true socialist COmmunity Wage. Take the unwaged from Auckland, give them a good hourly rate (15$) and send them off to work on major infrastructural projects in the regions. Classic Keynes. It’ll solve many problems with one approach.
    6. Remove GST from all retail purchases in the provinces. An extension of 1.

    95 to go.

    1. 7. Force children to leave Auckland once they turn 18. You’ll need to do this anyway, since half to two thirds of Auckland’s growth comes from births minus deaths. Alternatively, you could kick out people as they turn 65, although I think you’d still need to take quite a few from younger age groups.

  14. I think if you are going to do HSR you need to go the whole hog and build dedicated standard gauge line capable of supporting 320-360kph. I can’t see how trying to do a 160/180k route on the cheap using the existing lines is even possible given the state of the current infrastructure, ballast and sub structure. You’d probably end up spending about as much as it costs just to build the new infrastructure on a better alignment. Too often NZ tries to do things on the cheap, and it works out being more expensive in the long run, it seems to be some sort of cultural mentality/impediment.

    Any interesting discussion on here for a Wellington-Auckland line, many good points made.

  15. Japanese and Taiwanese tilt-trains run at 140 km/hr block speeds on tracks with the same gauge as New Zealand’s, on similar counry, presumably with similar grades and curves. I have no idea of the quality of the track and maintenance levels.

  16. Why doesn’t the passenger train come to Huntly anymore? It use to when I was younger but now it just by-passes our town and I can’t get to Auckland anymore.

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