This post is by Paul Callister and Heidi O’Callahan
In rail’s heyday, holiday times were hectic. On Christmas Eve in 1938, 16 express trains (including eight bound for Auckland) swept more than 11,000 travellers out of Wellington in a single day.
Those are significant numbers – fully 7% of the wider city’s population, on a single day. Leaving such a strong legacy, the people of 1938 would have expected New Zealand would have an advanced passenger rail network by 2020.
New Zealand can resurrect regional passenger rail. With the resources available to us today (including cheap fossil carbon for a while yet) we have a window of opportunity. We can establish a network our descendants will find functional in the low-carbon era they will face. It would be safer, more accessible, more user-friendly – and more able to cope with holiday volumes – than the transport network we have today.
The fastest and most comfortable passenger trains were mainline expresses, which limited their stops and often included sleeping and dining cars. The most famous was the ‘Night Limited’ express, which ran on the North Island main trunk line (NIMT) from 1924, cutting travel time between Auckland and Wellington to just over 14 hours.
From 1971 to 1979, the all-sleeper Silver Star briefly transformed NZ rail passenger travel.
I (Heidi) learned some details about the attractions of the Silver Star at an Anthonie Tonnon concert in December.
Credit: NZ Railways “Silver Star” brochure (thanks to Anthonie Tonnon)
Some first steps towards a national public transport network could be taken now. Obviously data collection and network design are needed. Bringing rail, bus network priority and interchanges up to standard will need an ongoing programme, and take time.
What’s possible reasonably quickly, however, is re-establishing an overnight sleeper service between Wellington and Auckland. The distance of 682 km is within the range considered optimal for a sleeper service, as suggested in a New York Times article, Once threatened, Europe’s Night Trains Rebound.
Cost is one excuse often used against investing in regional public transport. A benefit-cost analysis of a revived overnight sleeper service needs to re-assess the environmental, access and safety benefits. The current government wishes to see the price of carbon increased, emissions reduced, and social and safety outcomes prioritised, so any previous cost benefit analysis is out of date. What needs to be investigated includes:
- how many people would shift from flying to the train if aviation was fully user-pays?
- what level of support from individuals and businesses for the service will there be as climate awareness grows further?
- what social and environmental benefits would we see, particularly if establishing the service is seen as the first step to creating a comprehensive public transport network?
- while climate-aware citizens are frustrated by the pace of government climate action, what public engagement and mental health benefits would arise from seeing early, tangible action on transport’s rapidly increasing emissions?
The first point listed is important because flights are unnaturally cheap:
- aviation is not paying for its environmental damage (especially carbon emissions);
- passengers flying from Wellington to Auckland to join an international flight pay no GST on the domestic leg of the trip, but would be charged if they used the train as the connection;
- government and local government have been subsidising many airports. Kapiti District Council ratepayers have provided support to a privately owned airline which flies from Paraparaumu (on the main trunk line) to Auckland;
- land use and transport planning decisions in both Wellington and Auckland are often made to support aviation without a true understanding of how this negatively impacts other urban planning goals.
As a baby boomer I (Paul) missed peak rail. But as a youngster I did travel to and from Auckland with my parents on the overnight train. In my late teens and early 20s, I frequently used the overnight train to reach the central north island for hiking trips. In the 1980s I even used the sleeper service to attend conferences in Auckland and Hamilton. But all that ended in 2004 when the overnight train ceased operation.
Cocktails anyone? NZ Railways “Silver Star” brochure (thanks to Anthonie Tonnon)
Between Auckland and Wellington today, we have the daytime Northern Explorer, which operates three times a week in each direction, and takes 10 hours and 40 minutes. There are on-board toilets and a café car. The ample leg room and tables mean one can work on a laptop if needed, albeit without on-board wifi. However, the high cost, slow speed and infrequent schedule rules the option out for most travellers.
In his year without flying, Shaun Hendy used the service a number of times, and again on his recent No Fly tour.
Source: Shaun Hendy twitter account
Of course, regional trains need to be faster; we need improved alignments, a third and fourth line south of Otahuhu, double tracking through the Whangamarino Swamp and north from Waikanae to Otaki and perhaps as far north as Palmerston North. Yet none of this is critical for a sleeper service. Track improvements, when they come, can provide faster and more reliable journey times, meaning a later evening departure time is possible. But that’s not required to start the service.
The day train already has limited stops to save time. The trade off between speed and amenity is difficult, but until there are both limited stops and all stops services, perhaps the stations not timetabled could allow passengers to pre-request stops for a small fee?
A train leaving Auckland at 8pm could pick up passengers at Hamilton at around 10.30pm. Equally, a train leaving Wellington at 8pm could pick up Palmerston North passengers at around 10pm.
Cup and Saucer (link is external), 1948-1957, Auckland, by Crown Lynn Potteries Ltd. Purchased 1998 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds. CC BY-NC-ND licence (link is external). Te Papa (GH009069)
Would the service be supported? In October 2019 newly elected Wellington Regional councillor Thomas Nash promoted the idea:
With an increasing number of people wanting to travel with a lower carbon footprint, he believed a business case should be done to see if a regular night train was feasible.
He also suggested on twitter
if a bunch of employers publicly committed to making bulk purchases of train tickets for their employees that might be the kind of evidence needed to make the case
Let’s think about those employers. Private and public boards alike are becoming increasingly aware of their obligations to ensure climate action is taken and climate risks are minimised. In NZ, the Institute of Directors and law firms such as Chapman Tripp and Simpson Grierson are all releasing recommendations, and there’s no shortage of international climate advice from the likes of the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures and the World Economic Forum.
As an example, Victoria University of Wellington has committed to being net carbon zero by 2030. While some of this will be achieved through carbon offsets, a knowledge-based organisation like a university cannot ignore the limits to carbon offsetting, so reducing flying will need to be part of the mix. 3000 German-speaking academics have pledged not to fly distances under 1,000 km (621 miles) – journeys of up to 12 hours on the train. Shaun Hendy suggests:
that our universities get behind faster, more frequent train services between major centres
There is good potential for environmentally conscious NGOs to make some commitment to swapping planes for trains when travelling between Auckland and Wellington. This could include staff and supporters of Forest & Bird, WWF, Greenpeace, Oxfam, GenZero, Extinction Rebellion and School Strike.
Central and local government are also likely to be under increasing pressure to reduce flying. In the 2014-2015 financial year NZTA staff used 23,065 internal flights. By 2018-2019 it had risen to 34,300. Many of those would have been between Auckland to Wellington, and some could be done by train. When Barcelona announced its Climate Emergency this year, limits on flights by municipal staff was effective immediately.
Here’s a video of the Northern Explorer:
Credit: Darren Davis via Instagram
Change could come thick and fast as many New Zealanders are seeing what other countries are managing. Here are some examples.
In Australia – another sparsely populated country – there are overnight trains from Sydney to both Brisbane and Melbourne. The Sydney to Melbourne train sets off at 8.42pm arriving in Melbourne at 7.30 the next morning. A standard adult fare costs just under A$120, first class A$164 and a sleeper costs A$271.
The Caledonian sleeper train is a new overnight service in the UK. It leaves London just before midnight and arrives at Edinburgh at 7.30 in the morning. A twin ensuite can be booked from £150 while a sit-up seat starts from £48. There are ‘pet friendly’ options and bikes are carried for free. The trains are also wheelchair friendly.
In Germany, increased awareness of the emissions footprint of flying seems to have resulted in a drop in domestic flying and an increase in long distance train travel. And to increase it further Germany has just announced a price cut for long distance train travel.
An overnight train between Auckland and Wellington appealing to a large market would have:
- competitive prices, with a mix of cheaper sit up seats along with sleeper options;
- work stations and on-board 5G wifi;
- wheelchair access and carriage of bikes;
- great dining and socialising areas, with quality food and drink.
Youth and climate conscious voters are demanding action but seeing slow progress. In 2019 the government released its draft New Zealand Rail Plan, which is currently open for feedback. While it has many positive recommendations, a night train is not mentioned. Establishing such a service is an opportunity for the government to take early concrete action towards their vision of an enhanced transport system. We believe it makes strong economic and environmental sense.
Credit for the leading image: an ad for a copy of Jimmy Forrest’s Night Train album on Popsike.