This is a guest post by commentator-about-town David Slack, who has kindly liberated it from his excellent Substack newsletter for the greater benefit of Greater Auckland readers. 


God, but I love a train.

Imagine being in Vienna last week, with all the travel writers and railway buffs invited there to see a new generation of night trains for Europe.

You bet I would have climbed into the new carriages and enthused to the comms people, God but I love a train.

You bet I would have nodded along with them as they told me this is a sane response to the climate crisis, a journey on this train is 50 times more climate-friendly than making it by plane.

And maybe I might have not at all kept my professional cool but instead rabbited back to them, oh I know, you don’t have to convince me, I’m not like the antediluvian clowns who fill up the papers back home like John Roughan.

And perhaps we might have shared a rueful pause as we contemplated the savage drought that has ravaged them this past summer.

And it would not need to be said out loud by either of us, well clearly that’s climate, not weather. Clearly the need to decarbonise is more pressing than ever.

A four-person overnight berth on a NightJet train
A four-person overnight berth on a NightJet train. Photo: Harald Eisenberger, via the Guardian.

And you bet I would have enthused over the cosy sleeping pods, and the sliding doors, ambient lighting and curvaceous seating, because for one thing I love the idea that trains might be big in our future and for another I have acquired fresh life goals from the couple who run the Grounded Life Travel YouTube channel. We are empty nesters who ran away from home to travel the world, they write. We have been travelling full time since 2018, visiting over 40 countries so far. 

Swoon.

Here, have some hardcore fantasising, I just love the idea of taking another ride on the city of New Orleans and  this time I will for sure pay the extra for the sleeper, because God I love a train.

And Vienna. Oh Vienna. I likely would have not kept my professional cool at all but just waxed lyrical to the comms people of NightJet, Well I can see why you are considered one of the world’s trailblazers in night rail travel. This is just mighty.

And if they had replied We do believe it’s a viable alternative to flying, I might well have said, Oh you don’t have to convince me I’m not like the people back home who have been giving Julie Anne Genter a hard time. I mean who doesn’t love a night train? God I love a night train.

A tweet by Julie Anne Genter from 8 September 2022. The text reads: "Honestly didn't expect the night train from Akl to Wlg to be so controversial. Not suggesting it be mandatory just nice to have a low carbon option that is also more comfortable than the night bus."

It really is a sane response to a climate crisis; it really could be a great way to get vast numbers moved across the country.

We used to do it, we really did, and I’ve raved about it before, my first experience of this: Mum and us kids joining the Express at Feilding with thermoses of hearty soup and sleeping and not sleeping our way north through Marton and Taihape and Tangiwai and everyone getting out in Taumarunui for their cup of tea and all the way up to Auckland to be met by the cousins of previous holiday stories and was it a whole lot of adventure? You bet it was. I loved all of it.

And that was on a packed cooped-up can of a train; nothing like the ones I would discover when I stepped out into the world in America and Europe and South East Asia and China and Australia and found that a train done properly is just a thing of absolute beauty.

What a way to be. Someone else is worrying about getting you there; your only job is to enjoy yourself, free to move around at will and be endlessly fascinated by the view and look forward to what you’ll eat next and drink next and read next and listen to next and the next conversation with some random stranger. It’s a dream, all of it, fully lifted out of ordinary time and life.

Oh Vienna.

Meanwhile here in New Zealand, Nostradamus John Roughan writes with enthusiasm about Auckland mayoral candidate Wayne Brown for taking the view that if The Future ain’t a lot like what we’ve got right now, I ain’t goin’.

Wayne Brown,writes Roughan, will get my vote. Seldom have I heard a candidate for any public office these days challenge so succinctly the notion that the only possible response to climate change is to give up things we like, especially motorised personal transport.

Like Wayne Brown, he says, I don’t do ‘visions’.

And then he bangs on about all the electric cars that are filling up our roads as though that’s all the change we’ll need, no worries. (And for a full explanation of the wrongheadedness of such thinking, please see this thread from Brent Toderian.)

https://twitter.com/brenttoderian/status/1516822703054852097

God save us from the blinkered magical thinking of a man who looked at Auckland’s Northern Busway and predicted a white elephant and who somehow still gets his predictions indulged even as riders on that busway cross the bridge each day in their tens of thousands.

Unlike John Roughan I have never been able to stop myself from doing visions.

My vision when I was 16 was to ride everywhere on a bike. And so I bought a 10-speed bike out of the Evening Standard and got around on that while all the other kids were buying motorbikes and cars. Did I get absolutely ragged for it?  Of course I did. But fuck them, my vision was that they would grow up to be someone like John Roughan.

Well, sort of. I had little money and parents who were hesitant to let me get my licence. I resented it then but I’m grateful now because for one thing who’s to say I wouldn’t have been one of those teenagers whose life ended at speed just outside of town on Saturday night and for another if you get into the practice of thinking outside of motorised personal transport you find other ways to go that can be altogether more enjoyable.

By way of illustration, let us turn back to the 10-speed. Being secondhand it turned out to keep needing fixing and my thoughts turned to a better lighter faster newer one and I’m not sure how in those long ago days with no computer I found my way to Bluebird Cycles in Petone, but I did. I established that they had just the bike I needed. We agreed I would come and try it out.

Not having a licence and living in Feilding I now had to get imaginative. My thoughts turned to the train that rolled through town every afternoon. Next thing you know I’m bound for Wellington and then a unit to Petone, arriving at Bluebird Cycles just on closing time, taking a ride along the Petone foreshore and telling them yes please I’ll take it, riding it to the station, onto the unit, back into the city in time for the train heading north and two hours later I’m back in Friendly Feilding Where The Parking’s Easy.

Could you do that today if you were a weird teenager in Feilding? No you could not, because the trains are not what they were then. But they could be again if we could only let go of our dismal fixation on motorised personal transport.

Sure, trains are a big investment. Sure, things may evolve and change over the future. But do we really think this marvellous way of moving is not going to keep on making sense?

And sure it’s costly if you don’t have big numbers of people using it. But viability comes from frequency and abundance and reliability. Get that right and public transport can just hum.

Like, for example, the Northern Busway, Mr John I don’t do visions No you really don’t mate that’s very clear Roughan.

If we were prepared to give rail even a fraction of the vast love that funding for roads has had for so long, we could do mighty things.

And if we really wanted to be enlightened about it, the way we calculate our return would measure not just profit and loss but also the enormously valuable social environmental dimensions.

God but I’d love to see it. I would love to see passenger trains plying the Main Trunk day and night between Auckland and Wellington. I would love to get on board.

Public submissions are now being called by Parliament for an Inquiry into the future of inter-regional passenger rail in New Zealand. I will for sure be writing  a few words. Or maybe I will just be copying  and pasting at length from this here guidance by Save Our Trains NZ, because it’s excellent.

But I will for sure be adding God, but I love a train.


For more content of this kind, much of it about transport, be sure to check out More Than a Feilding.


Submissions are open until 6 October 2022, for the Parliamentary Inquiry into the future of inter-regional passenger rail in New Zealand.

Here’s the official page for making submissions.

Here’s the submission guide by Save Our Trains. 

Further reading: our original post about the Inquiry from a few weeks ago, and a nice post from Autoearoa, a new weekly newsletter by Chris Williams, about how important intercity rail is

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33 comments

    1. I was just talking yesterday with someone from Balmy Palmy who was lamenting the congestion coming from/to Feilding each day.

      We contemplated a shuttle running between the two places several times a day, but also noted the (now) sub-optimal location of the station. Still, not an insurmountable problem using the local bus network.

      1. And we also discussed how good it would be if the station was still in its original location; in The Square, right smack-bang in the middle of the city center.

  1. No to a diesel burning high fare tourist styled night trains. If it can be low carbon and priced to be attractive for everyday travel and competitive with air travel then okay. A better solution is to run EMU’s between Hamilton and Palmerston north with connections to Auckland and Wellington being made by Te Huia and the Capital Connection or bus. This will involve a certain amount of waiting at Palmerston North and Te Rapa so these stations will need an upgrade and better connections into there city centre. One EMU set could make 3 one way trips between Te Rapa and Palmerston North in a 24 hour period.

    1. Re the City Center connections in PN, its an easy straight run up Rangitikei St to the Square by Bus. Would take less than 5mins.

      A few years back a guy wanted a Gondola system linking The Square with the University, mostly via Fitzherbert Ave. Maybe something for the railway station-Square-University spine?

      1. I was thinking an expanded Capital Connection with more service’s per day could start and finish from Fielding. Simarly my main trunk EMU’s would probably run to the Base Rotokauri. Te Huia could still run to Te Rapa but connection from Te Huia could be made at either station. Overlapping connecting services.

        1. And in the short term, I think that’s the answer. Start to increase and enhance the services we already have.

          Ultimately, linking everything together won’t be as challenging but should be part of a national strategy.

        2. There is only a certain number of time slots that make any sense and they overlap whether you are travelling to Hamilton or Wellington. So an early morning train from Auckland for a day in Hamilton coincides with an all day trip to Wellington. Conversely a day in Auckland from Hamilton also serves to complete the final lap of an overnight train trip from Wellington. If you consider other scenarios you will see the synergies. And that is before you even consider a day in Auckland from Tauranga. And as I stated above if things get busy and we have available time slots extra services possibly through services can be justified even if they are diesel hauled carriage sets because full trains will be economic and emit less carbon than any alternative mode. However for the rest of the year we can still travel guilt free without the constant taunts of wasteful carbon emmiting trains being levelled.

    2. I don’t think we would want to introduce two transfers with a journey between Auckland & Wellington complete with luggage for some passengers & certainly not on an overnight train.
      Need a new line with hybrid trains until full electrification can be done. Te Huia & Capital Connection can be put to use some where else or used as an additional service to a full running line.

      1. Well I do. The biggest challenge to better rail service is to minimise the amount of trains running around near empty. It immediately attracts the attention of the sour right who are against anything that’s isn’t a car. They argue it is a waste of money and also it add carbon particularly if a service is diesel hauled and near empty. They will even argue that electric trains are bad because they are powered by Huntly power station. The truth doesn’t matter to them so don’t give them any ammunition. Back in the 1990’s a Wellington bound morning train used to be followed 20 minutes later by a Tauranga and Rotorua train which was two units which split at Te Rapa and proceeded independently. On most occasions they were pretty empty. Its a bad look and bad economics and its bad for carbon emissions. Fill up the trains make them as green as they can be. That is the answer to there success. At busy times bring out more trains even if they are diesel propelled because a full train will always be the lowest carbon solution. Don’t be scared to substitute a bus if numbers don’t justify the train especially if it can be electric.

        1. If you’re aim is to avoid empty trains then I don’t think having two transfers between Auckland and Wellington, along with all the extra stops at Otaki, Shannon, Te Kauwhata, Huntly, Pokeno etc is the way to go.

        2. If you look at this websites Regional Rail proposal it achieves what you want by splitting the lines to Wellington, Cambridge, Rotorua & Tauranga. This means you end up with the frequent core to Hamilton Central (new station in city ctr by then).
          Initially the split would be just Tauranga & then Wellington.

        3. Sorry guys your wrong. Through trains have being tried and they failed. Its like the old Auckland bus network what an improvement it was when we switched to the connecting model the only thing wrong at the moment is the trains are unreliable. I am not talking about an Auckland Wellington train I am talking about a North Island wide public transport network and I don’t want it in ten years when maybe if Kiwirail get all its ducks in a row and if the right party happened to be in power then something would grudgingly happen. We need something we can start tomorrow then build upon. Spend less on inferstructure and more on trains. Build on what we have got electrification to Pukekohe has being used to axe rail services. Don’t make that mistake again when there are better cheaper low cost hybrid technology available to run passenger trains. If the Govt and Kiwirail decide they need electrification for freight then they can fund it and not turn passenger rail into a political football. Its just like using cycleway money to add extra traffic lanes which people on this site like to go on about. The first thing car people ask me when I tell them I have being on Te Huia is how long did it take. I tell them don’t worry about that just enjoy the ride. Te Huia numbers are good and could be better If the authorities and potential passengers can get their heads around how it could be used to reach other destinations. Time watches or headless chooks.

        4. Royce the 1990’s was just a bad time for trains in NZ due to so many cheap Japanese imported cars and other reasons. They were empty because no one took the train not because they ran all the way through. The Auckland to Hamilton would have 4 times as many services as any of the other destinations which would get 1/4 each roughly speaking.

  2. The election will be a turning point for Auckland. Either Collins or Brown will win and both want to reign in Auckland Transport. Collins says he will make sure the Council appoints the two board members it is allowed to appoint. Brown says he will sack the board (which he can’t do). But either way the days of AT doing their own thing while trying to impede development are nearly over.

    1. Haha. This is so wrong both in terms of what will happen and in its gleeful “AT needs to be reigned in” when nobody agrees on what they need to be reigned in.

      Does reigning in mean AT should be “stopped from building cycleways everywhere” or does reigning in AT mean “should be stopped from doing Status Quo everywhere!”

      Does stopping “AT impeding development” mean that AT will just allow whatever stuff a developer comes up with? There’s a lot of rubbish proposed – for every stupid AT comment that is unreasonable, there’s a developer design that is absolutely horrid, unsafe or broken, Or do you mean “stopping impeding development” as “AT budgets should just really pour lots of our rates into greenfield roads, subsidising those houses, rather than asking developers to pay for it themselves?

      So yeah, thanks for your opinionated comment – as you can see, I have some opinionated opinions myself, and so has everyone about AT. That’s the fact when you are dealing with the #1 way our rates money directly affects our city. Everyone has an opinion.

    2. From Browns website: “Big expensive projects all over Auckland – from the City Rail Link to the Western & Eastern Busways and drainage projects – are all way behind time and well over budget.”
      Yeah like he’s going to wave a magic wand and fix CRL overruns. Every construction project had gone up in costs for various reasons in this pandemic economy we have gone through. If 20% of your work force is off for COVID reasons of course it’s going to impact things, often with a flow on effect. Just like our bus routes running somewhat under the frequencies it should be. Let’s just magic up some none sick bus drivers from no where.

    3. “Either Collins or Brown will win and both want to reign in Auckland Transport”.

      To reign you need a regent. A regent is not elected, ergo Collins or Brown will not be reigning in or over anything or anyone.

      Charlie Windsor might be able to do some reigning in, but that would be undemocratic (“How did he become King? I didn’t vote for him”).

      I suspect you mean “rein in” which is something done to horses. Horses are not elected either.

  3. Goff removed Mike Lee and Christine Fletcher and added Chris Darby to the board of AT – he did nothing and under his watch (and board members salary) allowed the mess to develop we have now.

    Brown will win. AT is going to have one hell of a shake up coming.

    1. Shake-ups are OK, where there’s a clear and tangible purpose and a viable alternative path to go along.

      Change for the sake of change/posturing? That’s the sort of thing that just delays badly needed stuff and lets people build silos, which are ultimately resistant to future change in the event you get someone who wants to actually drive change through leadership.

      The consequences may well live long beyond a three year mayoral term.

    2. I think the Councillors who were on the AT Board originally were voting members, and were getting full AT Board member salaries…?

      The positions held by Darby and Cashmore presently are simply as “CCO liaison councillors” – without voting rights – and neither of them appear to get any more for having the role, as you can see here: https://www.aucklandcouncil.govt.nz/about-auckland-council/how-auckland-council-works/elected-members-remuneration-declarations-interest/Pages/elected-members-remuneration.aspx

      These amounts won’t be cumulative, each councillor will get the value based on their highest position. So Cashmore’s is determined by his role as deputy mayor. Darby’s is determined by his role as Committee chair or CCO liaison councillor (they are the same). If being a CCO liaison councillor had been their only role above councillor, they would’ve been paid $17,000 more for the privilege, but this was not the case for either of the two currently in the role.

      Note also, AT’s Board meeting dates are set to clash with the Council meeting dates; this has been true of every AT Board meeting in the last year.

      I put my money where my mouth is, in terms of trying to hold people to account. But the problems at AT cannot be blamed on two non-voting CCO liaison councillors who are being blocked from even managing to attend meetings.

      There are good reasons for not having councillors on the AT Board. https://www.greaterauckland.org.nz/2016/10/26/no-councillors-on-at-board-perhaps-not-a-bad-thing/ It may be a useful stepping stone towards a better, long term solution, though.

    3. “Brown will win. AT is going to have one hell of a shake up coming.”

      While we are predicting things: Brown will squeak in as 2nd or 3rd place like the grumpy uncharismatic bloke he is, and – for better or worse – nothing much will change at AT no matter who wins.

  4. People complaining about possible high fares are missing a trick. All good sleeper services offer a range of amenities at different price points. The people in the cabins paying airfare rates, say $300, for extra comfort + privacy, are cross subsidising those in couchettes (like in pic above), or even in airline biz class type reclining seats in carriages.

    Also don’t think there isn’t a market at these prices; executives and public servants all now have to file carbon accounts for their operations and flying is almost always their biggest problem.

    Kiwi Rail will likely be slow to understand this, is probably best served by private sector, so govt should work on removing the process barriers to new entrants into the passenger rail sector. Including bypassing KR’s visionlessness.

    Long term track access agreements and standard PT subsidies, perhaps from Carbon Fund, would do the trick.

    If AirNZ were smart they could offer their marketing and branding chops to this to complement their current services for the carbon and PR win. SkyTrain, NightJet, etc…

    1. “ If AirNZ were smart they could offer their marketing and branding chops to this to complement their current services for the carbon and PR win. SkyTrain, NightJet, etc…”

      I think it’s far more congenial to Air New Zealand to support Kiwirail’s current vision for passenger rail: an overpriced curiosity for tourists, preferably involving flights at both ends

  5. I’ve never understood the appeal of this meandering kind of writing. It’s like being cornered at a party by a drunken Boomer.

    1. Each to his own. David Slack had me transfixed as I read his missive. He was echoing my own younger days to a tee. And his point is valid, that New Zealand is increasingly out-of-step with much of the developed world in its jaundiced attitude to train-travel.

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