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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.