Tomorrow submissions close on the Transport and Infrastructure Select Committee’s inquiry into Inter-regional passenger rail.
The aim of the inquiry is to find out what the future could hold for inter-regional passenger rail in New Zealand. The terms of reference below will guide what the committee investigates.
Terms of reference:
- Investigating possibilities and viability of passenger rail in underserved communities, those with prior rail links that have been disestablished, and those currently advocating for improved rail links;
- Gaining insights into viability of passenger rail sitting alongside KiwiRail’s freight network;
- Evaluating existing inter-regional passenger rail, such as the Capital Connection, and how these services work between local and regional councils and central government;
- Gaining insights into the integration of regional rail into existing local public transport networks;
- Investigating the climate and emissions reductions possibilities of passenger rail, and how this links to VKT (vehicle kilometres travelled) reduction targets in the Emissions Reduction
- Plan, and including electrification between regions; and
- Investigating potential rail expansions and investments in specific areas, such as Tauranga (following a recent report on the re-introduction of passenger rail) and the Lower North Island (following a business case funded at Budget 2021).
We’re still finalising our submission but I thought I’d share with you some of the key points we’re making – also let us know if we’ve missed anything major.
Greater Auckland believes the rail network has an important role to play in the providing real transport choice in how New Zealanders and visitors get around our beautiful country. This extends beyond just providing for specific commuter or tourist markets, instead helping to improve access, safety and lowering emissions for a wide variety of potential users.
Regional Rapid Rail
We’re no strangers to thinking about how inter-regional rail might work with many posts over the years. Most notably for this inquiry is our Regional Rapid Rail proposal from 2017 that looked at how we could, staged over a period of time, deliver a high-quality inter-regional rail network linking the Waikato and Bay of Plenty to Auckland.
The report for this can be found on our website.
The proposal would place half the population and economy of New Zealand on one low-emission transit system .
An opportunity for a Unified Fleet
Greater Wellington Regional Council are looking to purchase a fleet of new tri-mode trains for use on the Capital Connection and Wairarapa Line services.
We believe the government should look to buy national fleet that can also be used for Te Huia on the Auckland electrified network as well servies such as Kiwirail’s Northern Explorer between Auckland and Wellington, as other potential future routes.
A single, larger and unified fleet would have advantages such as:
- 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.
- Battery Technology is evolving rapidly
Wellington’s preferred train architecture calls for tri-mode trains – trains that can source power from overhead wires where they exist but also contains both batteries and a combustion ignition engine for when the train is not under wires.
The inclusion of a combustion ignition engine is due to battery range limitations and takes up valuable space that could be used for other equipment, such as transformers to allow operation under the 25 kV AC networks in the Central North Island and Auckland.
However, it is important to note that battery technology is advancing rapidly with some trains now able to achieve over 200km of operation on batteries. This could enable the dropping of the combustion ignition engine and allow space for the equipment needed under all three sections of electrified networks in the North Island.
As battery range continues increase it will make additional routes viable to be served with zero emission rail travel.
Integrate inter-regional services with the Metro networks
We believe that inter-regional trains should be thought of and planned as part of our existing metro networks rather than as standalone services. This can help in making better use of track capacity and provide additional choice and therefore greater benefits to the public.
As an example, Te Huia only stops at a few stations within the Auckland urban area but regardless of how full it is, Aucklanders are unable to board it and take advantage of a potentially faster travel time to their destination.
The opportunity to integrate inter-regional and metro services is likely to increase in the future following the completion of the City Rail Link and third main in Auckland. It is likely that will see some limited stop services reintroduced on the Southern Line. Integrating these services could mean, for example, faster trips to Puhinui to connect with the AirportLink bus service.
Note, with the changes mentioned earlier, we are seeing this happen with the Wellington network but this should apply to Te Huia and any other future services too.
Services need time to grow and target the right markets
With public transport it takes time for people to ‘give it a go’ and start using it on a regular basis. However the media tend to proclaim success or failure based on the first few days or weeks of a service.
As such, it is important that any consideration of new inter-regional service is that we give them enough time to grow.
Te Huia’s ridership, as with all public transport, has been significantly impacted by COVID-19. However, ridership data shows that restrictions were eased in mid-April, weekday usage has continued to grow and currently averages around 260 boardings per weekday.
We can also see there is higher use in weekends and significantly more usage during public holidays. While the service is focused on commuters, this suggests there is stronger demand for a wider variety of trips and that more services throughout the day and across the week could help in generating more demand.
A single agency for planning and funding inter-regional travel
Currently each region is responsible for the planning and contracting of public transport within their region and they get funding assistance from Waka Kotahi via the National Land Transport Fund (NLTF) to do that. There are a few exceptions to that but in general there is no agency trying to plan or deliver improvements to inter-regional travel. There should be.
A national public transport agency should be established with the same remit that regional councils have with the responsibility to plan, procure and fund inter-regional public transport, including buses. It should also assume responsibility for the existing inter-regional tourist trains run by Kiwirail, such as the Northern Explorer.
We also believe this inquiry should include the use of inter-regional buses as improvements to them, via such a national agency, could help improve access around the country and yield strong mode-shift results, thereby helping reduce emissions as required in the government’s Emission Reduction Plan. Making improvements to inter-regional buses can also form a useful first step before or while rail services are established.
Such a national agency should also be able to access NLTF funding just like any other public transport service.
Clear separation from Kiwirail as a freight company
Kiwirail is tasked with running our rail network but its primary business is moving freight. It appears that in Auckland, and elsewhere, this has in the past created a conflict in the operation of the network due to concerns new or additional passenger services will make it harder to run freight services at some point in the future.
We believe it would be useful that a transparent process exists for understanding network capacity, allocating that capacity for services, and opportunities for addressing constraints.
Across the world, we are seeing a resurgence in the use of overnight sleeper trains as a way to provide cheaper and lower emission travel options over long distances.
By international standards Auckland to Wellington is a good candidate for a sleeper trains, with the right sort of route length, travel times and demand drivers to be a success.
An overnight service in each direction would have the potential to replace up to 150,000 long distance car trips or flights per year, and in the order of 75 million vehicle-kilometres-travelled.
In order to make inter-regional rail services viable, there is almost certainly going to be a need investment in infrastructure. This is may include some of the following interventions:
- New/upgraded stations
- Improved track condition to support passenger services and higher speeds
- New passing loops or double tracking
- Deviations to improve the network alignment
Funding for these kinds of investments will need to come from the government and an assessment should be undertaken to understand what is needed to provide initial services and what can be delivered as improvements over time.
A rolling programme of electrification
In New Zealand, electrification of rail lines has been an adhoc process. Research from overseas shows that this is the most expensive way of delivering rail electrification. Countries that are able to deliver electrification most efficiently achieve this by having a rolling programme of electrification projects allowing for stable, and therefore cheaper supply chain sourcing, retention of skilled staff, knowledge and processes.
We believe a rolling programme of electrification could have benefits for New Zealand which would have the benefit of helping to make inter-regional rail travel easier.