A story a few weeks ago highlighted that lower North Island councils are frustrated that the government didn’t provide funding in the budget for new regional trains.
The Transport Minister has left the door open for 22 new electric trains, after lower North Island mayors kicked up a stink they weren’t funded in this year’s Budget.
The four-car trains would replace “vintage” units and quadruple peak-time services between Palmerston North and Wellington on the Manawatū line, while doubling them between Masterton and the capital on the Wairarapa line.
Now, Ponter and Horizons Regional Council, supported by 15 mayors, have written to the Transport and Finance Ministers after their $360 million Budget bid towards the $762m project failed.
They said they were surprised and disappointed.
“We are now working against the clock to replace our fleets of 50-year-old regional rail carriages, which will soon reach the end of their working lives,” the letter said.
“The tender process for new trains must continue unabated so we look forward to engaging with you on finding ways to unlock Waka Kotahi and other funding for procurement.”
The plan is to buy 22 four-car tri-mode trains – trains that are powered by electricity when under wires and by a combination of batteries and a fuel based ‘compression-ignition’ engine when off-wire – the exact type of fuel is not specified.
The cost also includes a variety of infrastructure improvements to support the trains and the additional services that are planned. The paper also notes that it is expected that over time as battery technology improves it would extend the range able to be achieved, further reducing fuel use.
In response, the article says
Transport Minister Michael Wood wrote a letter in reply and said while the bid was unsuccessful due to competing priorities, ministers were mindful the long-distance passenger rolling stock was reaching the end of its economic life.
Service continuity was critical, Wood said.
He has asked Ministry of Transport officials, in preparation for Budget 2023, to continue working with the regional councils to look at the business case in more detail.
“This engagement may also consider issues of scope, cost share, and timing.”
It’s crazy the government won’t fund this, a project that aligns with government policy and the Emissions Reduction Plan, that has a benefit cost ratio (BCR) of 1.83, but is pushing ahead with the Otaki to north Levin expressway which had a BCR of 0.2 and that was before it nearly doubled in price to $1.5 billion. Also notable is that even with the expressway and optimistic assumptions, it is only expected to move about 22,600 vehicles per day by 2041 which is less than Waka Kotahi’s own suggested trigger for four-laning of forecast volumes exceeding 25,000 per day.
There are perhaps two good reasons for the government holding off funding and they are that
- this should be national project rather than just a regional one
- the government should include funding for additional electrification infrastructure thereby potentially changing the preferred train architecture
Let’s look at these.
A National Project
Wellington isn’t the only place that could do with some improved regional trains.
At the very least it would be useful for Te Huia to get some bi/tri-mode trains allowing more services to run and for them to use the wires within the Auckland region. That could also potentially allow Te Huia services to access Britomart and make use of the two platforms that are likely to be spare once the City Rail Link is up and running. It’s worth noting that the government have always talked about Te Huia being a start with further improvements to come over time. This could be a start to some of those longer-term improvements – there’s also this paper which looked into providing faster services along the route.
Additional trains could also be used to improve the Northern Explorer service between Auckland and Wellington. Currently just six services a week run – three each way and those trains are hauled behind an old diesel locomotive, even though 72% (and soon to be 75%) of the journey is under wires. New trains could allow for more services and perhaps even overnight services. There are other potential benefits too, for example because Electric Multiple Units perform better than diesel-hauled locomotives, it may enable services to stop at towns currently bypassed.
So why include trains for these other services:
- A larger order would be more attractive to international train builders, which may help fetch a better price.
- A single nation-wide regional train architecture could enable better efficiency, for example, having just a single facility for heavy maintenance, a common stock of spare parts and potentially even the ability to move trains between services if needed.
- It sets up a clear design should other regions want to consider services and depending on how many are ordered could even allow for some to be trialled.
And before anyone raises the issue of different power systems, the shortlist for Wellington’s business case even included dual-voltage options.
- Option 1: EMU (1600V DC) + 1600V DC partial electrification + buses beyond Featherston and Ōtaki + increased services
- Option 2: B-DMU + increased services
- Option 3-1: B-EMU (1600 V DC + extra battery) + no further electrification + increased services
- Option 3-2: B-EMU (dual voltage + battery) + 25 kV AC partial electrification + increased services
- Option 3-3: B-EMU (1600 V DC + battery) + 1600 V DC partial electrification + increased services
- Option 4-1: Tri-mode (1600 V DC + battery + CI) multiple units + no further electrification + increased services
- Option 4-2: Tri-mode (1600 V DC + battery + CI + 25 kV AC provision) multiple units + no further electrification + increased services
- Option 5: EMU (dual voltage) + 25 kV AC electrification over full current non electrified route sections + increased services
The main uncertainty with dual-voltage options that also include batteries and CI engines seems to be just whether there’s enough space on the trains for all the equipment needed. Either way that likely means more cost and I assume that’s something Wellington is unlikely to want to invest in given there’s not a lot of benefit in it for them.
An alternative to having dual voltage could be just to have a common design but in two fleets with each having different transformer equipment.
It would be easier to have dual voltage trains if we could ….
In a reply to an OIA I came across, Kiwirail included a high-level study they commissioned in 2021 on the cost to electrify four key route segments in the North Island. If all were completed it would electrify all lines that currently carry passenger services, the busiest freight route in the country, and extend electrification infrastructure into the freight yards in Auckland and Wellington.
What’s really notable here is that the consultants estimate we could get all of that for less than the cost of a single expressway. That seems like an absolute bargain.
In their response to the OIA, Kiwirail say:
We comment that the information in this high-level study is feeding into other work KiwiRail is currently undertaking – such as an indicative business case that considers further electrification, potential alternative technologies, and encouraging freight mode shift to rail in the decades ahead; and separate work around network improvements to support the business case that Greater Wellington Regional Council is currently working on around long distance commuter trains to Palmerston North and the Wairarapa.
So rather than electrification, there may be better economic options longer term.
Greater Wellington Regional Council is currently working on a business case for replacement commuter trains, with potential for them to be bi-modal. For those types of trains to operate there would need to be some infrastructure upgrades, including the further electrification of a small section of the line between Waikanae and Palmerston North.
We are currently in the early stages of looking at the feasibility of these required upgrades and there is no timeframe for further steps.
KiwiRail is exploring other options for low emissions freight ourselves, including tri-mode locomotive technology which only requires a partially electrified network to operate on. Tri-mode locomotives work by
using the existing electric overhead infrastructure where it exists and then use energy storage (battery) in between electrified sections.
The locomotive has a small diesel engine to use to charge the batteries if required too. This exploration of locomotive technology is also in a preliminary stage.
It feels like all the various pieces are sitting out there, just waiting on someone in the government to pull them together into a single vision that will significantly improve the rail network and the services on it while at the same time as reducing emissions.