Last Friday the NZTA Board approved funding to progress a rail service between Hamilton and Auckland (well, Papakura).
Here’s the Minister’s announcement:
The NZ Transport Agency Board has approved a business case for the next steps in a start-up trial Hamilton to Auckland passenger rail service, Transport Minister Phil Twyford announced today.
Phil Twyford said approval of the business case is an exciting step towards the planned roll out of a five-year trial service to begin in March 2020.
“We know more and more people are commuting between Hamilton and Auckland, and introducing this trial service will give them a choice in how they do that,” Phil Twyford said.
The business case allows for the fit-out of rolling stock and the detailed design of infrastructure. The total cost of the five year trial, including the service operated by KiwiRail, is estimated at $78.2 million, including $68.4 million from the NZ Transport Agency and $9.8 million from local authorities.
“The Government is committed to investing close to $4 billion in public transport, rapid transit and metro rail across New Zealand. This trial service will demonstrate how investing in public transport can help manage growth and shape our towns and cities.
“It would stop in Hamilton at Frankton and The Base in Rotokauri before going onto Huntly and finally stopping in Papakura in Auckland, where passengers can change onto the Auckland Public Transport Network. Future stops may include, Te Kauwhata, Pokeno and Tuakau.
“A new station including a platform and Park & Ride parking area will be created as part of the Rotokauri rail stop and the Huntly platform will need to be upgraded.
“The service would start with a four-carriage train which can carry 150 passengers each way. As demand grows, it would be expanded to a five-carriage train carrying up to 200 passengers,” Phil Twyford said.
NZTA will now work with local councils and KiwiRail to develop a pre-implementation plan in early 2019.
To be honest, I have mixed feelings about this proposal. On the one hand, much of the current impetuous for this service came out of our Regional Rapid Rail proposal last year. But on the other hand, this start-up service really isn’t very good. There are just two trains northbound in the morning and two trains southbound in the evening – and despite only stopping in four places between Hamilton and Papakura, passengers still face a total travel time of nearly two and a half hours each way!
In December last year Harriet laid out several key points in relation to making sure we got inter-city rail right. They’re worth quoting at length:
One of the important traps we must not fall into when doing Regional Rapid Rail is to think about commuters only. If we provide one train to Auckland in the morning and one train back to e.g. Hamilton the scheme will find it much harder to work for many reasons:
- It’s hard to base travel on a single service or even two as its pretty risky if you miss it. Decent frequency makes the service much more viable to people;
- This isn’t just about Auckland it’s about Regional Development as well. People need to be able to travel to Hamilton etc. Therefore we need “counterpeak” services;
- The demand isn’t just commuters, in fact, research from previous reports on a Hamilton – Auckland rail service show commuting only makes up a small part of potential demand for the service
Just as with the principles of the New Network providing a decent frequency as well as the span of service is integral. This cannot just be a single train in the morning and evening if it is to be a great service lets learn from the success of recent PT improvements in Auckland.
Don’t Rush – There is Time to Get this Right
This is another trap we should try not to fall into. The idea is popular and everyone wants to hit the ground running but taking a little time to make sure we get the service right will make a huge difference in the service giving us time to
- Sort out the Third Main in Auckland so the service doesn’t get stuck in or add to the congested section between Westfield-Wiri;
- Have a really good think about the rolling stock. Can we get something great second hand overseas, or is there something much better than the Silver Ferns as proposed originally?;
- Have KiwiRail do any upgrades they need to do between Papakura and Hamilton, including potentially the Whangamarino Deviation;
- Making sure that the future upgraded Puhinui Station integrates well with the service.
This doesn’t mean delaying starting the service for five years or so, but giving it a little extra time to really improve reliability nd get those travel times below two hours, which I think is crucial to making it a success.
Commit Long Term – This is About Regional Development
While having a train between Hamilton and Auckland is cool and will be really useful we cannot forget the real goal behind Regional Rapid Rail is to enable Regional Development across the Golden Triangle.
If the Government only commits to a small trial for a short period with a “we will see” approach then Councils, Developers, and People cannot make long-term plans to develop around Regional Rapid Rail. It would be risky to buy a home in Huntly if the service could be cancelled in 2 years time. This doesn’t mean the Government needs to commit to Stage 3 just that it won’t cut the service in the foreseeable future. It also means Regional Rapid Rail shouldn’t be judged on simple financials as it’s an investment that allows a step change in long term regional thinking.
The start-up service unfortunately does fall into a lot of these traps. It is only just about commuters, there aren’t any counterpeak services to get people from Auckland to Hamilton, the initial phase doesn’t integrate with Puhinui and it does seem rushed. The big impact of this rushing is that the trains can’t go north of Papakura, pushing people into having to make a transfer onto all-stopping local trains to continue their journey.
All that said, it is also quite exciting to see a first, tentative, step towards the vision we laid out in our Regional Rapid Rail proposal. Furthermore, it seems that this first step is definitely the hardest – and it will potentially be quite easy to make significant further service improvements if there’s a strong commitment to ongoing improvements. Not after the ‘trial’ is completed, but regular improvements to run more trains and invest in the corridor to deliver ongoing incremental improvements – while we plan for a more comprehensive, fast, inter-city service.
The business case gives us some good hints about where to start with further improving on the service. Here’s a summary of the operational costs:
Of the total operating costs of around $7 million a year, about $3.5 million a year is for service delivery and the rest on maintenance and overheads. This means that for another $3.5m a year they could at least double the service levels (off-peak). In other words, for the six year trial it seems we are spending $76 million and getting a pretty bare minimum train service. A good first step would be to keep those trains running throughout the day, spend $96 million and get a far more viable product. In other words, spend a quarter more for two to three times the train service.
Then we should start to look at track improvements. The third main should be completed in the next 3-4 years, as will at least the first stage of the Puhinui interchange. This means, hopefully, that we might be able to run the trains right through to Otahuhu. Some investment in the rail network south of Pukekohe to shave off extra travel time, plus opening up a train station in the heart of Hamilton, and we’re well on the way towards something that might actually be attractive.
I just hope that a pretty poor initial service doesn’t undermine this initiative in the long run as there will be plenty out there looking for any excuse to stop it. It seems to me that ensuring ongoing improvements are made throughout the trial period and that they are clearly advertised is key to minimising this risk.