This post is a news roundup and a few musings on the tourist trains in New Zealand.
Readers might not realise but we actually have three long distance train routes in New Zealand: The Northern Explorer between Auckland and Wellington, the Costal Pacific between Picton and Christchurch (currently suspended due to the Kaikoura earthquake), and the Trans Alpine from Christchurch to Greymouth across the Southern Alps. Combined with the Interislander ferry between Wellington and Picton these form a fairly decent network for tourist travel.
I’m writing this on the Northern Explorer up to Auckland after a quick night away in Ohakune. This is my first time back on the line in few years and I must say the experience has a been a mixed bag.
Overall the train itself is great: the new carriages are well appointed, comfortable, and the panoramic windows are a treat. The outdoor viewing carriage is unique for taking photos (although the fumes and noise from the diesel locomotive make it unpleasant for more than a few minutes). The food and beverage service is reasonable, toilets are clean and spacious. It’s also relatively fast and direct since they have removed many of the intermediate stops. The travel time of ten hours between Auckland and Wellington is better than a coach and competitive with driving, at least once you factor in the need for a couple of meal and toilet breaks behind the wheel. However it’s clear that these trains are now squarely focused on the high value tourist market, if only from the ticket price, any pretensions of being a transportation service for towns along the way are now gone.
So what’s not to like? Well the first thing I could gripe about is the terminal in Auckland. Not long ago they moved the Northern Explorer out of Britomart to make the downtown station electric only, and shifted the last remaining intercity train to The Strand station. If you haven’t heard of The Strand station it’s a bit of left over platform from the old railyards behind the Spark Arena… but it might as well be in Outer Mongolia. You can’t get there by local train, you can’t get a bus there, and it’s too far to walk from town or anywhere useful. There isn’t even any long term parking nearby so your only option is to be dropped off or take a taxi. I guess they’re fine with that for their tourist service, assuming everyone would catch a cab anyway.
I’m not sure how you fix that in the short term. Putting the diesels back into Britomart at peak times seems like a logistical nightmare, at least before the CRL frees things up a bit, and having them stop anywhere else useful (like Newmarket) would be even worse. About the only thing would be to fix up The Strand into a proper station. In the past we’ve suggested a set of platforms for the eastern line alongside the intercity stop, potentially turning into a grand central terminal over time. This would not only give regular train service to the area around Quay Park and lower Parnell, it would give a transfer station to get from Britomart and the eastern line to the intercity train terminus.
My other two gripes are related. To start with the train is too damned busy! Our service is sold out and feels a bit noisy and crowded as a result. The staff are getting a little curt and folk are being hustled through the cafe car without a chance to sit down. It seems the Northern Explorer is a victim of it’s own success. Recall a few years ago they were going to shut it down completely due to poor patronage. However they cut it back to three days a week instead, and introduced new spacious carriages and a faster timetable, at the same time as starting to market the service heavily. Not surprisingly that turned things around and it’s gone from the threat of closure to bursting at the seams.
The other thing is that three-days-a-week timetable. There is one trainset that goes down from Auckland to Wellington one day, and back from Wellington to Auckland the next, meaning you can only get a train three times a week. This makes scheduling a holiday a little inconvenient, especially if you are planning a short weekend away. The alternate day service means you only the have the option of staying one night and returning the very next day, or staying three or five nights away. The sweet spot of two nights away for a long weekend trip isn’t possible if you want to go both ways by train.
So it looks like they need more trains, more capacity and more services on the Northern Explorer. Luckily it seems this is on the cards. We understand that Kiwirail are building more of their scenic carriages and planning on returning the North Island train to daily service both ways every day. So this should fix both those problems by doubling the number of seats and allowing people to travel either way any day of the week.
But what about the South Island trains? Some good news there too. Kiwirail have confirmed they will reinstate the daily Picton to Christchurch trains once the tracks are rebuilt to passenger standard (which might take quite some time), and they are also planning on boosting capacity on the both-ways-each-day Trans Alpine with more or the new carriages.
The more exciting news is that they are looking into reinstating the old Southerner route, with $50k of funding for an investigation. This would run south from Christchurch at least as far as Dunedin, and possibly all the way through Southland to Invercargill. This is one of the old train lines that used to run until the early 2000s, and the recent boost in tourism in Canterbury and Otago have prompted them to start a business case for putting the train back in, with plenty of support from local businesses. If that were the case you could conceivable travel by train and ferry from Auckland all the way to the end of the South Island. Given the recent successes of the rest of the tourist train network we can expect the business case to come back fairly positive.
Generally speaking a well used tourist train network is a good thing. It brings in extra revenue for KiwiRail without needing anything much in the way of infrastructure and only a little investment in rolling stock. It helps spread around the cost of running the rail network a little, boosts tourist spend and international exposure, and there might even be a few local communities that get a useful transport option. I imagine if they ran the Southerner again a trip from Timaru and Oamaru to Christchurch by train would actually be a fairly useful service for residents of those towns.
So where else might we run some tourist focussed train services? Well one obvious line to consider reintroducing is the old Bay Express between Napier-Hastings and Wellington via Palmerston North. Also regular readers will be familiar with our Regional Rapid Rail proposal, which starts with daily train each way between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga, and includes future extensions to Rotorua and Cambridge once the not-inconsiderable cost of rebuilding their mothballed rail tracks is taken care of.
But what about further north? We didn’t think Auckland to Whangarei was the right fit for the Regional Rapid Rail model, but like we said in the RRR report we are fond of the idea for a tourist train on the North Auckland Line. You could run a similar scenic train from Auckland to Whangarei in something like four to five hours. As a transportation service that’s not a competitive travel time for the 200 odd kilometres: it’s hampered by an indirect route, windy alignment and almost-abandoned state of repair of the tracks. However when it comes tourist trains the travel time isn’t the point, it’s the scenery and the experience. On the tourist train network folks are happy to pay good money to take the scenic route.
That sort of travel time would work efficiently for one train each way per day. A single train, driver and cabin crew could head up from Auckland to Whangarei in the early morning, take a break for an hour or so, then return back to Auckland in the early evening, all on one shift. Whangarei still has a half-decent station that could be put back into service, as do the other two main towns along the way (Helensville and Wellsford). All that’s missing are the carriages… and a business case.
But why stop there? In my mind the logical terminus for a Northland tourist train is actually the Bay of Islands. The line does actually go there, or at least it did back in the day before they cut it back a few kilometres to the rail yard at Otiria. I understand there are plans by the heritage train operator in Kawakawa to reconnect the tracks back through to Opua which would technically return the line to it’s former extent (but probably not to mainline standard). If anyone has wandered around the marina there while waiting for the ferry to Russell, you can actually see the old tracks running through the carpark.
With a bit of investment the tourist trains could run up to Opua wharf as the gateway to Bay of Islands, where ferries, coaches and taxis could distribute people around the bay to Paihia, Russell, Waitangi, Kerikeri and Hururu. Just the think for the local tourism based economy.
So there we are, a few promising bits of news and ideas that might one day see see a network of tourist-focused train services stretching from Northland to Southland.