This is a guest post from reader Isabella

“You’re going to Auckland how?” said yet another person.

Why did it feel like I was doing something crazy? It was simply that in this day and age, I was eschewing flight in favour of going by train from Wellington to my conference in Auckland – and taking a ten-speed bike, no less.

After the nth explanation of why I was doing it (as an experiment, and ‘cause I could), I promised to write honestly whether my next Tamaki – Pōneke trip will be back on the plane, bikeless, like a normal person.

Northern Explorer At Strand
The Northern Explorer at The Strand station, Auckland (photo: Kiwirail.co.nz)

So here’s how, from my data point of one, the Northern Explorer stacked up vs the Boeing (and its buddies): on time, cost, emissions, and convenience.

If your boss or some other constraint forces you to fly, well, you have my sympathies. But if you have any say in how you get around, read on!

Carbon – way better

Emissions might not factor much in many people’s travel decisions, but I’ve always been (slightly) bothered by the carbon footprint of flying. Now I’m at liberty to choose how I travel, I thought I’d factor it in. Results are below (note that my loathing of long solitary car trips precluded driving).

Enviromark’s carbon calculator gives a Wellington CBD to Auckland CBD trip (one way):
Aeroplane + bus for the airport-CBD connection = 147.56
Aeroplane + taxi / Uber for airport-CBD connection = 152.7
Train (goes directly CBD to CBD) = 17.98

So from CBD to CBD, the Northern Explorer comes in at just under 12% of flying plus taxi/uber for the connections, or just over 12% of flying plus the airport buses.

It’s still dirty ol’ diesel but the emissions are tiny in comparison. I can “go around in a cloud of climate smugness” as a friend said.

Time – way longer, and great

This is the biggie.
From roll up (for checkin) to roll away (at the destination), the train is just under 12 hours – a full day. The opportunity cost of the time is what makes many people go “Oh hell no I couldn’t do that”.

Northern Explorer Smallest Seats
The smallest seats on the Northern Explorer

But for those of us whose office is mainly their laptop, it’s a different story.

Vodafone’s gappy provincial reception meant I couldn’t dial into one regular meeting. But once I switched off data, I had a rare and precious gift: several hours of truly thought-based work. It felt fantastically luxuriant to be able to think continuously – compared to the shallower, time-bound, interrupted thinking that’s so common (and much less productive).

Breaks were great too! Reading novels in the café carriage, downing (pretty decent) coffee, and wine, and Wishbone food, taking in fresh air and stunning scenery in the open-sided observation carriage.

Northern Explorer Ruapehu
Things to enjoy on the train: Ruapehu from the observation carriage
Northern Explorer Books
Things to enjoy on the train: Tools for relaxation
Northern Explorer River
Things to enjoy on the train: River gorge from the observation carriage

So – 12 hours, yes. But account for the productivity, the relaxation, and avoided airport connection hassles – it’s a great use of time.

Cost – comparable or less

For a return trip, the train was a grand total of $358.

($303 for tickets, including a checked bag and $10 each way for my bike, and $55 on food, wine and coffee).
That’s it! No extras. Here’s a table comparing my alternatives:

Main trip+ connections: taxis+ connections: Ubers+ connections: airport bussesPLUS bike costsTotal
Air NZ: $209$439$329$259+ $90 box & packaging$529 – $349
Jetstar: $139$309$229$171+ $90$399 – $261
Northern Explorer: $283+20$358 incl my gluttony

Whaddayaknow? The total cost of going by train is at the low end of the total costs of flying.

Destination convenience – a whole new world!

Gotta say it: doing short trips across Auckland’s sprawling centre(s) is infuriating. A bike makes it doable – one with a few gears, that’s easy to hop on and off, and has a decent rack. So Queenie the Morrison Monarch was coming along to make the destination better – and she would also tow my little Burley trailer with the check-in luggage. (Yes obviously four pairs of shoes for four days.)

Northern Explorer Bike and Trailer
Queenie and Burley trailer, homebound, with the loot from Auckland shopping

Getting there

Wellington end, 7.30am: cruise to the station. Check in bike and trailer. Settle in with coffee. Ahhhh.

Auckland end, 6.45 pm: retrieve bike and trailer. Don my lights. Follow another bikey person onto Beach Road, thence ten minutes (of protected cycleway gorgeousness) and I’m outside my Air BnB on K Road. Woohoo! Dump the luggage and hightail it to Coco’s Cantina.

Northern Explorer Fresh of train
Fresh off the train – an aperitif while waiting for my Air BnB host and getting excited about coming back for dinner

Homeward bound was even easier: downhill (early morning) means eight minutes to the station. I did have to ask some roadworking guys how to get into The Strand station – it’s not well signposted, and I didn’t pre-read the directions.

Northern Explorer Bike and Trailer Grafton Gully
So much protected cycleway serenity

But compared with the stress, cost and unpredictability of getting across Auckland to the airport – especially with a bike (and no don’t even ask about riding all the way), not to mention the hassle of re-assembling a bike and readjusting everything… train + bike is completely delightful!

Getting around

Auckland’s CBD is improving but is still oases of “place” in deserts of inhospitable stroad. For an out-of-towner, seeing friends and contacts (and shopping) around conference sessions is only really doable with a bike – avoiding hassle / lugging laptop and conference bag / Uber cost / asking people to come to you. (Not to mention night time – my lone female self safely biked back to my accommodation after nights out, where walking would feel very sketchy at several points).

And now it’s way safer and more relaxing to bike around AK, and improving all the time – the Quay Street cycleway actually opened while I was there. The incomplete cycling network wasn’t a biggie (and the bits that are done are great). With multiple transformations on my whim between lane-owning, traffic-pacing Friendly Cyclist, humble, courteous wheeled pedestrian, and true pedestrian (i.e. wheeling Queenie), Auckland city was my oyster.

I shopped, I coffee’d, I went for runs, I beer’d and dined, I conference’d, I mixed it all up and did it again, riding and walking and gently scooting, all over the city, usually grinning.

The verdict: for a trip of more than a day, train + bike = a great way to go. Definitely how I’m rolling for my next visit.

Northern Explorer Luggage Label

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112 comments

  1. Glad you made it up to K Road OK, Isabella. Fares: if you book far enough in advance, the Northern Explorer can be $99. A folding bike makes the bike costs cheaper in all modes (though sometimes you have to argue hard that it’s luggage, not a bike). If you want to take an eBike, train or bus is really the only option, since large batteries can’t fly.

  2. Fantastic little story Isabella – yes great to make the true comparison of CBD to CBD rather than just airport to airport. And isn’t traveling by train so much more relaxing. Now I wonder what the carbon emissions would be once we electrify the main trunk line!

  3. Great read, and highlights 2 points to me:
    1) Need heavy rail to Auckland Airport – the current bus situation is a pain in the ass for anyone who is not an Aucklander (and a pain for the Aucklanders as well to be honest) and no light rail does not cut it.
    2) The cycle improvements in Auckland are great!

  4. Now I know the Northern Explorer is a tourist train, but the 50km/h average it achieves is very liesurely. I wonder what would happen if that could be doubled to achieve a travel time of six hours. Is that fast enough to to make a difference, or is it still too slow?

    1. I just had a post along that theme. If you had EMU (provided the NIMT electrification was completed) then you could certainly get much faster speeds. There would however have to be a lot of track work done to improve the alignment and speeds to allow for an 8 hour trip. To get a 6 hour trip they would really have to do some major work (like remove the Raurimu spiral with a viaduct/tunnel/cutting. It probably would be too costly to do in the near future. But they could do the odd improvement here and there to get it down to 8 hours (with electrification).

      1. Why electrification? Queensland has narrow gauge tilting DMUs that do 160 km/h. I’d rather spend the half billion bucks it would cost to electrify the rest of the NIMT on track upgrades and curve easements.

        1. It cost $80m to electrify the Auckland network (most of which is double-track) which is something like 80km. So you would be looking at around $250m to complete the NIMT. Not pocket change but considering it would simplify things for freight and speed freight up as well as allowing for EMU passenger services.
          Use the remaining $250m from your budget to improve alignment etc.

          1. Except you also need to factor in the cost of the Auckland Hamilton electrification as well – which we are told is over $100m just for Papakura to Pukekohe, not even half the distance.
            And then what do do about the Palmerston Nth to Wellington electrification.

            I agree with Nick, Job #1 – sort the track [back] out so trains can at least go as fast as the old Steam trains did in the 50s and 60s then go from there.

          2. Greg N that cost includes EMU’s IIRC so would be about half that for the electrification and assuming that it is to be extended to Pukekohe anyway. That also involves replacing a bridge due to not enough clearance. So unless the rest of NIMT has things like bridges that need to be replaced (that wouldn’t otherwise be replaced…they just replaced a whole lot around Taumaranui) then $250 would probably do the job (most is only single track remember).
            Thing is at the moment freight is slowed by not being all electric and passenger trains would have better speeds if they were electric than being hauled by locomotives… that said DMUs could be used yes… I’m mostly thinking of the benefits of improved rail freight with less trucks on the road and using 100% NZ produced clean electricity rather than imported diesel.

          3. Bruce, it cost around $400m to electrify the Auckland network, excluding fleet and depot.
            That’s about $4-5m per km.

        2. Agree Nick. An EMU is a nice tio have but the price and emissions savings of a modern DMU (compared to flying), make it a very good alternative, even if only to build a better customer base. If we really wanted to, we can splash out a bit more dosh and buy a multimode DMU with electrics and diesels. Don’t know it would be worth it.

    2. Nick, I agree with you about Dora being a tourist train and I see it as only a tourist train to make Auckland to Wellington rail really viable for anything else requires nearly the whole NIMT to be rebuilt to allow faster speeds and diesels are more than capable of running it. If you wanted to run electrics on there the electrification not only needs to be completed from Papakura to Te Rapa but it also needs to be standardised as currently anything running on the Auckland network can’t run in the central north island even though they run the same voltage and Wellington to Palmy is a different voltage all together.

      1. wrong Bigted. The Auckland EMU’s can run on the NIMT, it is the old NIMT loco’s that can’t run on the Auckland network (as they don’t have protection built in and would overload themselves).
        These days there are plenty of electric locos around the world that can run on different voltages and both AC/DC.
        What would in reality happen is that the NIMT would be upgraded to Auckland standard leaving just the Wellington DC network as is. Eventually that too could probably be upgraded to AC standard.

        1. That is not what I had heard but you appear to know more than the Kiwi rail instructor or they to were confused. He clearly said that the central north island and Auckland networks were not compatible with each other, maybe he meant the central north island locos were not compatible with the Auckland network but that is not what he said.

          1. Myths abound, and I am pretty sure that the story about the Class 30’s not being able to run on the Auckland electrified network is also a myth. Not sure how this started but it has gained traction (pardon the pun) to the point where it now seems even some KiwiRail staff believe it.

    3. oddly enough, back in the sixties some ratty old nz built railcar did the auckland wellington run in not much more than eight hours.

      this was all pre the curve easements of the 80s for the overhead too.

      a case of what could be with a little (relative to road) investment (a spot of track duplication/amplification, further curve easements and signalling).

      1. Dora does it in about 10 and a half normally with all the stops so probably could do it quicker (if it was not a tourist train), she was just over 30 minutes early into Auckland tonight.

  5. Thanks for the post!
    I’ve taken the train several times back in the early 2000’s before they dropped that service…It certainly looks more comfortable now.
    If they could complete the electrification of the NIMT (IIRC it is only about 150km total to be done Papakura-Frankton, Palmerston North-Paraparaumu?) An all electric train with multiple traction carriages (a la EMU) would probably cut that travel time down by about 30 minutes. Add in a few other track improvements along the way and it shouldn’t be hard to get that time down to 10 hours (say 7:30am-5:30pm) which would be quite pleasant and have even lower carbon emissions.
    10 hours CBD-CBD would compare to approximately 3.5 hours for CBD-CBD by car/plane/car or 4 hours by bus/plane/bus including check-in times etc.
    This blog has in the past promoted electrifying to Tauranga also so the same type of train could operate AKL-TRG services at a comparable journey time to car and certainly faster than bus. Time to revitalise rail in this country!

      1. Word is those 15 new DL’s are for the growing Auckland-Mt Maunganui traffic, not for replacing the electrics.

      2. Diesel haulage between Hamilton and Palmerston North has increased over the past 12 months to the point where it’s about 50/50 electric/diesel, down from about 80/20 electric/diesel previously.

  6. Yes the train journey times are a bit sad in NZ. London to Edinburgh is almost exactly the same distance as Wellington to Auckland yet the train takes 4 hours. And that’s without laying new straight tracks for high speed trains like they did in France.

    1. In fairness England is much more flat than New Zealand, and there was a lot of money flying around (due to high population densities) to build high quality straighter and standard (or broad) gauge railways in the first place.

      In comparison New Zealand’s railways were built on a shoestring, using narrow gauge and an awful lot of tight turns to minimize construction costs.

  7. Isabella, you are a gem and an inspiration. Thanks you so much for sharing and I’m looking forward to the introduction of the overnight sleeper service again. I am just old enough to remember travelling to Auckland Station to see my father getting aboard the overnight sleeper service to Wellington hauled by a steam engine. Even when the air service to Wellington was a regular thing he stuck with the train as he got a good night’s sleep and a shower and breakfast then walked out of the Station down the Golden Mile to his meetings, fresh as a daisy. His Auckland colleagues who had got up at five am to fly to Wellington were already harassed and grumpy before the day had started.

    1. I used to train Silver Star to Wellington for the same reasons as your father, but I always flew back to Auckland, so that I could have a night at home before resuming at the office in the morning.

    2. The former overnight “Northerner” was a valuable service, even after it ditched its sleeping cars. I used it several times (usually to access small places not accessible by air such as Ohakune, Otorohanga). Each time it seemed reasonably well-filled, so I was surprised (+ disgusted) when the former Tranz Rail scrapped it.

      I believe local demand for long-distance passenger train travel is there, but has been largely turned away by the decision only to focus on tourism. Time for some new ideas I feel.

      1. The Northerner was useful, but (dis)credit where it’s due: it survived the Tranz Rail era, only to be withdrawn by Toll.

  8. Kia ora Isabella! Believe I took the very same train to the very same conference up from Palmerston North. There was another fellow on the train who did the same as well. I thoroughly enjoyed the journey, and wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.

    1. That would be seriously expensive for something that would still miss a significant chunk of the North Island’s population, and would result in very little money left for transport improvements anywhere else in the country for a number of years.

      The Auckland – Hamilton – Tauranga corridor is the nearer future of higher speed intercity rail travel in NZ.

    2. Does anyone know what the realistic top speed of narrow gauge trains is, with the right track conditions? Is it the 160kmh of the Queensland tilt trains?

      1. Narrow gauge trains have done well over 200km/h in test conditions, including in Queensland. However it seems that 160km/h is the limit in most places, but that seems to something of a convenience level at exactly 100 miles per hour.

        Anyway I think 160 would be reasonable in NZ, although only on the right sections of track. Actually the Japanese approach might be better. I think the nominal narrow gauge limit there is 140km/h, but through the use of tilting trains and decent track maintenance they maintain a steady 100 to 120km/h most of the way.

        For example earlier this year I took the Shinano line from Nagano to Nagoya (https://goo.gl/maps/YYer3eLWeXJ2) which is a windy mountainous narrow gauge line. According to the timetable this does the 280km route in in 3 hours 1 minute. That’s an *average* of 94km/h including eight stops on the way. Doesn’t sound especially fast but that would mean Auckland to Wellington in 7 hours, and Auckland to Tauranga in 2.5 hours. Not insignificant!

  9. Excellent article Isabella. Rail is the perfect bicycle range extender. Reminds me of my student days returning home via 2 trains and 3 bike rides, 1 through the middle of 90s London to connect from Charing Cross to Euston was an eye-opener for sure.

  10. I used to commute Christchurch-Picton regularly by train, often with a bike. It was great- I could work on the train, relaxing, great scenery, met lots of interesting people. Unfortunately they have more than doubled the fares and cancelled the trains over winter. and it now only makes sense to fly

  11. The history of modern warfare is the history of trains. No other vehicle can move so much, so quickly. For those intrigued by trains, study their importance in WW2 – railways were the veins and arteries of armies – when there were no railways e.g. the North African Desert, logistics crippled all advances (trucks burn as much as they carry)

      1. No, it doesn’t. How much fuel does a tank division need? How much does the food and ammunition weigh? You can’t move that by air.
        There are literally only 2 aircraft in the world that can move a fully-loaded main battle tank – the An-124 and An-225.

        Rail rules the roost. And will for the next few hundred years

        1. I beg to differ, sea freight is the logistically reality for inter theatre movement, unless the dimensions and weight of the load allow for air-frieghting.

          Inside the theatre, bulk is handled by trucks or for time sensitive small loads air, predominantly helicopters.

          Most theatres we’ve been involved in since WW2 haven’t had large rail networks.

    1. Except the Desert Railway; given it only ran along the coast but then much of the fighting wasn’t very far inland.

  12. Nice read. Did that myself without the bike, arriving at the PT access node at Britomart is just neat. And the views http://www.ipernity.com/doc/davidboyes/album/738510 But the cherry on the cake was the customer survey I form I got where “reasons for using the service” were things like “travel agent booking”, “sightseeing” – I had to fill in “other” with “Um, getting from Wellington to Auckland”. With friends like these…

    1. It no longer goes to Britomart, the easiest way to get to Britomart from the Explorer without a bike or a 15 minute walk is to get off at Papakura (the only point that Dora stops that you can also get a AT Metro train) and going to Britomart or any other Auckland rail destination from there.

  13. Good stuff Isabella! On my travels to Europe for three months last year, I made good use of a BritRail and EuRail pass for getting around visiting or to move on to my next resident destination. The flexibility afforded by this (esp. with the huge selection of train times to choose) made it very handy (and cost-effective, esp. when I often had multiple trips in a day) and, as you note, you can get quite a lot done during a long train ride too. When people there asked me about what it was like in NZ, it was quite depressing to state that there were a grand total of THREE inter-city passenger routes in the whole country running one service a day each way (not counting the Wgtn extended Metro runs to Wairarapa and Manawatu).

  14. Great post. I visit Wellington a couple of times a year and I always wish I had my bike. I’ve thought of taking my bike on the bus (also $10), but the train would be much more comfortable. I used to take it reasonably often (about 15 years ago) but the price has gone up and the number of scheduled services has gone down, so it’s less convenient. It’s a pity – with some investment it could be more competitive with flying, especially when you factor in airport travel time. Might take another look next time I travel, though!

  15. It took 15 hours the last time I took it, so I decided it wasn’t ever worth my time. 12 is still too slow.

    If I was in no hurry, and had a bike to haul, it would be an option.

  16. Thanks for that post, I have been planning several AK-WGTN trips and its definitely going to be rail. Although the lack of an AK to Hamilton to Tauraga train service is disappointing as I would be a regular weekly tripper to Tauranga.
    Using the completion of the crl as an excuse to not even consider such a service until post 2023 seems just wrong wrong

    1. Britomart is at capacity therefore it would have to terminate somewhere else. Better off waiting and trying to give the AKL – TRG service a fighting chance by having it terminate at Britomart.

        1. I’m not sure an all stops trip from either Papatoetoe or Papakura would be that appealing after an intercity ride from Tauranga. I think this is something that should be done properly using the surplus Britomart platforms post CRL and the 3rd main to allow trains to run express within the Auckland metro area, otherwise there is no way this can be done in a time that would make the trip competitive.

          1. As someone in an office where half of the staff regularly go to the Auckland office, Hamilton to Papatoetoe and all stops to Britomart is absolutely time competitive.

            Ideally We would do Pukekohe, Papakura, Papatoetoe, Panmure Britomart or similar but we cannot wait until 2023 to start this.

          2. Just had a look at the Northern Explorer page and it shows 2.5 hours from the Strand to Hamilton, plus with a transfer added it would be a bit longer, is this competitive? I don’t drive Auckland to Hamilton so I’m not sure, although I keep hearing traffic has got considerably worse on the Southern Motorway this year. I imagine it would need to be about half an hour quicker than peak hour driving to be competitive as many wont be going to the CBD or anywhere on the Southern line so will need to transfer again.

          3. But to do the AK-TRG properly means a 7 year wait until Britomart capacity is available in 2023. What about Strand until Britomart is available? If there is a stop at Newmarket or Panmure then the option is there to transfer to an emu to Britomart.
            With all the enthusiasm for the AK-HAM-TRG shown last year and the final rejection due to Briromart capacity/’won’t have diesel’, it sure looked like little effort was made to overcome the blockers used to reject this intercity service getting reinstated.

          4. Go for Panmure and Parnell as the two Auckland stations for Northern Explorer and an Auckland – Hamilton operation until CRL is complete.

            Use of Panmure provides the excuse to build the third track to the port right now which will be needed for freight. It will also be essential if New Zealand Inc is to get serious about Auckland – Hamilton operating in a reasonably timely manner

            AFAIK there will still be plenty of land when Parnell is built…..possibly enough for a separate platform and car-parking. Parnell provides that last stop connection to Britomart and later CRL, while Parnell also provides a very close feed into the tourism precinct along Parnell Road for rail tourism passengers. If Parnell is not suitable, then maybe the resumption of Newmarket West and through routing of Hamilton trains along the western line to a Henderson stabling yard might be an option. They would be limited stops along the western line so as not to hold up commuter trains and at Henderson might also have their own third platform.

          5. 2.5 hours is quicker than driving, unless you need to travel on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday or Sunday, in which case the trip takes 26.5 hours (50.5 on a Tuesday)

        1. My suggestion is to finish that third main already, then bring intercity trains up to Otahuhu, where they can stop at that extra platform they’re building early for the CRL. That’s about as close as you can feasibly get to the city centre while still having really good onward connections.

          After the CRL is operational then keep going to Britomart where there should be slots and terminal platforms available for quite some time.

          1. They will only be able to carry on to Brito if they are not running a diesel loco in front of it.

          2. How about Newmarket? Without the reversals, might it have some platform redundancy at a few points in the day? Much better as a destination in itself and for onwards connections.

            Some small questions:

            How far down will the 3rd main stretch? What will line speed be? Will it be bi-directional?

            Will diesels not be allowed in Britomart?

          3. cle
            “How about Newmarket?” even post CRL there will not be sufficient redundant capacity there.
            “How far down will the 3rd main stretch?” initially just Westfield to Wiri but eventually as far as Pukekohe.
            “What will line speed be?” the same as the lines that it runs parallel to (up to 110 in places).
            “Will it be bi-directional?” yes like the rest of the Auckland network.
            “Will diesels not be allowed in Britomart?” probably not due to the extra ventilation that will be required (the ventilation that is there is expensive to run and creates a wind tunnel effect).

          4. Have they decommissioned the ventilation system at Britomart that cleaned the air for the up to 5 diesel trains sitting on the platforms pre-electrification?
            Seems odd that an intercity service a few times a day could cause so much issue compared to more than a dozen diesels puffing away per hour that we had until recently.

          5. Bevan the ventilation system has not run for over a year now, it is expensive to run and creates a wind tunnel effect. Ventilation would not be just a matter of turning it on and off a couple of times a day as it would have to run continuously, Britomart is the lowest point of the CRL so all the carbon monoxide would find its way to that low point.

          6. I would have thought that post crl there would be available capacity at Newmarket?
            Platform 1 currently used for the reversal Britomart-Swanson service would become free as most if not all Swanson in and out services used the more direct to cbd via crl.
            Perfect for intercity stop, maybe platform 2 that’s not used now could become the intercity platform along with platform 1
            Could platforms 3 and 4 not cope with Southern via Newmarket services?

          7. Dgd the trains to and from Papakura and Onehunga will still go through there along with most of the trains ex Swanson terminating there so there will be very little spare capacity. If you really want these intercity trains they will need to terminate further south to reduce the disruption with the metro trains, Otahuhu would be as far north they could realistically come with any frequency.

          8. ‘Otahuhu would be as far north they could realistically come with any frequency.” Big Ted – ah no.
            That is the way to kill off any chance of Intercity. You just aren’t going to get passengers to transfer to a stop at all stations AT commuter train north of that point. Freights will be required to use the Auckland network with regularity through to the port and this is what will also provide the corridor for Intercity. Either they then terminate at a revitalized Britomart, or possibly at a re-vitalized Kingdon Street which avoids the current Newmarket station.

          9. tuktuk if you want to use Kingdon St you may as well just use The Stand station that Dora uses (There is already the infrastructure there), the issue is transfers to be able to carry on somewhere else and that is why it was ruled out right back at the start of the intercity train conversation. Dora starts and finishes from The Stand but the easiest place to board for anyone outside the CBD is Papakura (the only place Dora and the AT metro trains both stop) and there are a growing number doing this, including tourists.

          10. BIgted, going back I’m assuming post-CRL that we could have new intercity fleet, ideally dual mode EDMUs that can operate under wire in Britomart and Auckland suburban, and via onboard diesel generation elsewhere. With the CRL I don’t see a problem bringing say two intercity trains an hour in and out of Britomart at peak, even four should be able to fit with the schedule.

            In the mean time the best we could hope for would be some refitted carriages hauled by diesel locos, or perhaps a patched up silver fern fleet. I guess that would run to Otahuhu ideally, being more or less the end of the third main, and the closest stop to town that might have a spare platform, and having a very high frequency of relatively quick onward connections to central stations and other suburbs.. Papakura is no good because it still takes an age to get anywhere at suburban all-stop speeds.

            One alternative might be The Strand, assuming you could schedule a reasonable run through from the third main to the eastern line without much delay (which you would need for Britomart termination anyway). However… for The Strand to really work I think you would need to add a pair of platforms on the eastern line for connections to Britomart, making a Quay Park station which would be fairly useful in it’s own right given the cluster of apartments and businesses down there.

            Still, before the CRL that only gets you a connection to the eastern line services at lowish frequency, and only provides access to Britomart or the east. Ideally you would want to connect to the other lines too. Either you rely on a stop at Otahuhu to link to Ellerslie and Newmarket, or perhaps you could consider a third track and platform face at Parnell. In that case intecity trains would run via the eastern line then turn up the Parnell branch to terminate there, which would have onward connections to Britomart and all stations on the west, south and onehunga lines. Might be a bit busy on that stretch of track though.

          11. Nick provided they are not under diesel power when entering/exiting Britomart there is no reason they can’t go there now via the eastern line (it could get a little tight but in reality would there be the demand for even two and hour, Tauranga with a stop in Hamilton before continuing onto Auckland then another an hour or two later in peak, not more than a handful per day), there are 5 platforms so really one more than required (platform 5 is a little shorter than it was due to the CRL works).
            I can’t see there being any real use for a metro station at Quay Park due to its proximity to Britomart. Papakura was not a termination point when I mentioned it, it just has become a popular option for travelers on Dora due to Papakura being easier to get to than The Strand for those outside the CBD.
            Post CRL these EDMUs could easily find a home via the east onto one of the two remaining dead end platforms (platforms 2&3) at Britomart, as I can’t see there being excessive demand one or two trains per hour will be more than enough. Terminating at Parnell station would require a third platform as there would still be too many trains through there even post CRL. Dora displaces two metro trains (this may change in October when the turn around times are cut) Monday and Thursday mornings and Tuesday and Friday evenings (in the peak) but only one Saturday morning and Sunday evening at Papakura due to the time required to check in, load/unload luggage and board/disembark passengers.

  17. Thanks Isabella for a great piece,

    I run an environmental law firm out of Wellington and regularly use the daily overnight buses to Auckland and Hamilton to avoid air travel. It means I have the same ‘turn around’ time as people who fly in for the day, but I get to stop with relatives for an evening meal before returning home, and can stop longer with clients and explore things with them a bit more, since I dont have to rush back to the airport for the 4 or 5pm flight. It also means trips have to be really worth it, and I visit out of town clients when its essential and a phone conference wont cut it.

    There was a sleeper overnight bus for a short period, that was awesome. Hope it comes back. An overnight train would be even better – you could get on at 7 in the evening in Wellington, prepare for your meeting, read, sleep, arrive in central Auckland for breakfast.

    The current day train service is world class IMHO, with plug-in points at every seat and Wishbone Cafe food and its great to spend the day ‘at the office’ but rolling through the countryside. The trip from Picton to Christchurch is really spectacular.

    For places I cant get to by rail, I am hoping someone starts a Tesla rental service. I think clients would readily pay a premium to know their professional advisers take emissions seriously.

    1. One interesting thing QR are doing with their new long distance diesel tilt trains is business class style sleepers. These are big comfy seats during the day the fold flat into beds at night, just like Air New Zealand premier. WIth those, a single set of carriages could be both luxury daytime tourist train and comfortable night time sleeper. You just need a turnaround time comfortably under 12 hours for it to work well.

      1. For a while in the 1990’s (possibly early 2000’s?) the Overlander and the Northerner used to run like this. The same 2 sets of cars would run one way at night and the other during the day. It was tight schedule and prone to cascaded-delays, but tremendously efficient for vehicle-utilisation. Like all good things, someone decided to end it.

    2. Hi Stop, I would be interested to discuss with you, your rather interesting views on aviation. Please email me Phil@ariston.vg as I can tell you of some technologies, airlines are looking to use, that will make you happy.

  18. Given that a French company (Transdev?) has taken over from KiwiRail in running the Metro service in Wellington (only recently, so probably no signs of effects yet), does that leave the Auckland to Wellington service as the only passenger train in the North Island still under KiwiRail control? And if that is true, is there any chance of Transdev or others actually taking over the long distance rail journeys and running it like a service that was real, instead of a disney tourist service? I’ve done the Auckland to Wellington trip a few times, and the scenery is fantastic, but it really doesn’t go quite fast enough for anyone (except Isabella perhaps) to take it seriously.

    1. KiwiRail also run the Coastal Pacific (Christchurch-Picton), the Tranzalpine (Christchurch-Greymouth), and the Capital Connection (Palmerston North-Wellington).

      There is also the growing offering of passenger trains run by Dunedin Railways (formerly Taieri Gorge Railway), over routes that were abandoned by the former Tranz Rail some years ago.
      They are proving that *it can be done!*

      1. The future of the Tranzalpine would be doubtful if and when coal mining ceases on the west coast. A train driver friend of mine has told me that the railway line is expensive to maintain and is only viable while it is needed and paid for by coal trains. The Tranzalpine by itself, while popular with tourists, could not generate enough revenue to justify keeping the line open.

    2. Guy as Transdev don’t own any trains I can’t see them wanting to get involved in ‘tourist trains’ that only warrant running three times per week.

        1. If the Waikato regional council funded a Hamilton or BOP council funded a Tauranga commuter trains they could too, there wouldn’t be many slots available due to there being over 12 MP units most days along with other freight services on what is basically a single line for nearly all the way.

  19. I would love to catch the train for my work trips to Wellington, but I am usually flown down and back in the same day. By the time you’d arrived in Auckland, I would have flown down, gone about my work duties and then been flown back. Two days either side for a commute is not a luxury I am afforded.

    1. You used to be able to do it comfortably on the overnight “Northerner”. I never did it both ways for a work trip to Auckland (always flew one way). But I found departing at 7:50pm Sunday evening on the Northerner from Wellington and being lulled to sleep by the clickety-clack, was preferable to getting up at 4:00a.m. for the red-eye flight, Monday morning.

      1. I’d be tempted by it myself for some of the trips I do to Wellington, but our workplace exclusively uses Air NZ (through a corporate agency) so it ain’t going to happen even if it does work out cheaper. Pity as both Air NZ and Kiwirail are at least part publicly owned, and we’re a Crown entity…

        1. During the early 1990’s I briefly worked at Standards New Zealand. There the official company policy at the time was to take land-based public transport for work trips where possible, rather than flying. But when I expressed my preference for travelling to Auckland on the overnight train (for the reasons I outline above), boy did I get dumped on by the other staff who saw this as rocking a boat that might see them lose their flying-perk that was actually against written policy!
          I didn’t last long there!

  20. For an even smaller carbon footprint there’s video conferencing. Glad to hear that the cycle path to the airport can be scrapped.

  21. I imagine the most cost effective transport mode would have been to drive. You can rent hybrid cars in Wellington, so the carbon footprint would be tiny. Also, you could fit many shoes in the boot and not look crap towing a silly bag behind your ugly bike.

    1. Perhaps most cost effective if you value at zero both your time (16+ hours that could be better spent) and your life/health (at least 10 times riskier than travelling by public transport).

      But the most important and objective factors are, of course, the “silliness” of the bag and the “ugliness” of the bike, and not “looking crap”.

      1. Clearly if its time value you are seeking then you have to fly. However you can drive and be part of conference calls using a hands free phone. As for safety – again flying would be the best option.
        Probably explains why most people would take Air NZ and then get around Auckland by Bus/taxi/walking. I mean – Britomart to K rd is not much of a walk is it – 30 mins according to Google maps.

  22. When I worked for NZ Rail we had a full time travel person in the office next to me – all she did was book flights for the staff. Most of the staff had never caught the train or bus anywhere – they either drove or flew. Out of interest I once caught the train to from Wgtn to Auckland for work – and was amazed how long it took and how beside yourself with boredom you got when you were still 2-3hrs to go. Also offsetting the scenery was the journey thru the trash and graffiti filled industrial areas and backyards of the rundown houses of people who could only afford to live next to a deafening railway.

    KiwiRail signalled last year the electrification was going to be removed – the Greens had a whinge at the time but the reasons for it have long since gone with more grunty and cheaper locos from China. I was involved in the installation and even back then none of the engineers thought it was anything but using up $100M of Muldoons free Think Big money. From memory it went way over budget too. All the locos are worn out now.

    The NIMT will close sooner or later as there is so little traffic on it. It mostly just moves containers (incl empty ones north) and subsidising it takes some off the road but also takes some from shipping which has much lower GHG emissions. So closing it is probably a neutral environmentally. The good thing it would open sections of the spectacular scenery to say a steam train from Ohakune to Tauramanui or cycleways like the Otago Rail trail. Closure would also allow the northern Wairarapa Line to be closed as it only has one train a week and is kept open for an alternative route from PN to WN for the freight trains.

  23. Until 2004 there were of course four trains a day (two each way) between Auckland and Wellington, being the Overlander in the day, and the Northerner at night. I would argue the Northerner would be even better for business commuters, as it essentially means you are travelling when you would otherwise be in a motel or hotel. It was actually still quite a popular train when it was cancelled, but the rail operator wanted the locos and crews on freights instead. They had little interest in the passenger business.

    The trains were faster too, 10 hours, 40 minutes, instead of the 12 hours of today.

    9.5 hours is achievable without any track upgrades. Just needs the adoption of timetabling that doesn’t build in redundant time for delays, and priority over freights.

    Back in the 1960’s, long before the track improvements and deviations of the 1980’s, they achieved a speed record of less than 9 hours, with a railcar.

    But really, there needs to be an unbundling of the network before new passenger initiatives can be implemented. The KiwiRail monopoly must first end, with the network made available on an equal basis to all accredited operators. Under the current situation, no new passenger initiatives can be implemented at reasonable cost, being subject to high charges, and restrictive access having to be negotiated through the biased network provider who also happens to be the monopoly operator with a mandate to profit from anyone else’s operations on its network.

    New Zealand could have an exciting future with long distance and regional passenger rail, and if Auckland Transport got on with the Southdown-Avondale Line, in conjunction with the Onehunga-Airport-Wiri Line (it was proposed by ARTA in 2008 that these would all be done as a single package), you could actually have quite an intensive Britomart-Airport-Hamilton commuter operation. Even the Northern Explorer could swing by the airport on its way to Wellington.

    1. Geoff I think the future of rail is concentrating on the lines which work and new ones which might serve housing developments – satellite towns and cities and like you suggest Auckland-Hamilton perhaps. Currently pouring money into massively uneconomic NIMT and the Picton-Chch lines is done for political rather than transport reasons and just takes away investments from the good lines. And stops any building of new lines. The losses over the last 30 years are ridiculous – $8-10B – and in fact the cost to NZ of the rail has been massive since the 1920’s when the first road transport restrictions came in. The continual losses of $250m/annum could be used for one huge regional hospital every year – or say more teachers or higher teachers pay. In fact you could pay every teacher in NZ $100 extra a week for the money we pay into this bottomless pit.

      1. Think you’ll find that when the Treasury studies were done it was found that none of the lines were profitable in a strict accounting sense, not main turnk, not Chch-Picton, and also not Auckland – Tauranga. The seemingly “obvious option” advocated by some within senior management and MOT circles of retreating to Auckland – Tauranga didn’t stack up any better than retaining the full main trunk to Christchurch when the sums were done. The issue is and always has been one of funding CAPEX especially in the tracks where rail and road have never been funded using the same rules. Above the tracks, trains like trucks cover their costs.

      2. Graeme, the reason the government has retained rail is because for every $1 spent on it, roughly $3 is generated for the economy.

        You make the mistake of only looking at the balance sheet of the rail network maintenance, and not at the balance sheet of NZ Inc, for which many large industries and supply chains require rail to be as efficient as they are. The financial benefits are on their balance sheets, not KiwiRail’s.

        Put simply, if we did away with the rail network, the economy wouldn’t do as well. You certainly wouldn’t have any extra money to pay teachers with, as you assert. You would be worse off.

      3. Mate you should have a look at how much money we pour into the bottomless pit of road spending, you would be shocked.

        1. The cost of capital alone on $20 billion dollars worth of motorways being planned and built over the coming decade is gigantic. If we assume government can borrow at 3%, the interest on that amount is $600,000,000 – every year! Which puts the assertion above about rail “losses” into context. Why does nobody ever consider the losses on roads?

          1. That would make a cool story if only it was true.
            The land transport fund over the last three years was $9.3B with only $200M coming from short term borrowing $8.3B is from RUC and petrol taxes and $550M from MVR, the balance is in property.

            Coming out of that includes road police and nearly a billion dollars for walking, cycling and PT.

  24. Thanks for the great post Isabella. That view of the mountain is worth the trip alone. I like to do the trip from Auckland to Wellington each year although I wish it was a bit quicker. I wonder if the placement of the Auckland station is denting passenger numbers at all?
    At Britomart the sign says to get there you can catch a taxi or walk – no shuttle service? I can see it wouldn’t work having the station at Britomart with the CRL in operation.

    No wireless for a week because of an oops by NorthPower with the Albert Street roadworks. It’s been brutal!

  25. Great post.
    The comment about Boeing got me thinking and I realised that none of the national services by either airline use Boeing aircraft. Clearly a sign of changing times. 🙂

    1. Boeings still fly domestically on freight runs. Four 737 flights between Auckland and Christchurch each weekday night, and I understand starting very soon on a Palmerston North – Christchurch run as well. Plus a Qantas 767 makes an Auckland – Christchurch run on certain days of the week.

  26. Thank you Isabella for the great article.

    Goes to show how convenient rail is as we become more urban, rather than suburban, centered. Also, the fact that many workers can use time on a train productively for work makes it increasingly valuable compared to flying, let alone driving, not to mention its environmental credentials.

    If we want to make the train more attractive, then speed and frequency are probably the two that are most worthy of attention (comfort, reliability and value for money being seemingly pretty good, even Strand station isn’t that inconvenient).

    Daily departures would help, I have to wonder whether an overnight sleeper service is worth trying again, particularly if it were well timed for the start of the business day.

    I suspect that speed is difficult at both the Auckland and Wellington ends as the services have to fit in with suburban service, which perhaps begs the question whether at least passive provision should be made for an additional pair of tracks through Auckland for freight and long-distance passenger services? Average speeds can often be increased quite dramatically with relatively small changes and potentially inexpensive changes – additional signal sections, upgrading trackwork, additional passing points etc. Further electrification would probably help, electric trains are lighter, quieter, faster to accelerate, do less damage to the track, are cheaper to maintain and can put energy back into the network through regenerative braking, but traffic levels generally have to be fairly high before the expense is justified.

    In terms of pricing electrification, the big costs tend to be not those of putting wires above the trains and powering them, but the civil engineering in providing clearance for the wires (dropping trackbed, replacing bridges etc), the “whilst we’re at it” jobs that tend to be undertaken in anticipation of higher traffic volumes like track relaying, drainage, resignalling and immunisation of signalling to traction currents, and of course the purchase of new rolling stock. This tends to be more expensive per KM in urban areas as there are more things like overbridges to deal with and work has to be done at weekends, but rural areas with long tunnels and viaducts can also be expensive.

    As for the EF’s, they are 30 years old (which means relatively crude electronics) and draw a lot of current. That means that they are probably not ideal for use on Auckland’s traction power and signalling systems that have been designed for well behaved modern EMU stock. Given time and money they probably could be made to work, but a much more cost-effective idea would be to buy something like a dual-voltage version of the new UK Class 88 from Stadler with a diesel last-mile engine for running off the wires or following a power failure. Note also that modern traction is also much more efficient.

    The other thing to consider is the more passenger services you have, the more they become a serious option in the eyes of the travelling public, and the lower the cost per mile (as fixed costs get covered and assets are used more efficiently). So a bit like in Auckland, as you build the volume, you get closer to covering costs with farebox revenues.

    1. Good post – check the talk of the ‘third main’ above for where there are plans to add track capacity.

      It’s mainly for freight purposes now but could be used for express suburban trains, regional and indeed long distance too. Plus weekend works, contingency etc….

      On electrification, if Puke was done and then Hamilton (in conjunction with all those developments and new stations) then an hourly regional on slightly different stock could work, terminating in Britomart. I’d say after Papakura, only Papatoetoe and Newmarket stops – but Otahuhu may be useful for interchange and also pathing. This could use the third main – one each way could surely be timetabled with the freight needs.

      That’d help the viability of wires, at least to that point. From there onwards, more goes to Tauranga both freight-wise, and any future demand for regional rail also. So due south of Hamilton, it’s ‘there be dragons’ and the same problems as today exist.

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