Last year Parliament’s Transport and Infrastructure Select Committee held an enquiry into the future of inter-regional passenger rail in NZ. You can read our post about it here, and our submission here.
Yesterday they released their findings on it. In total the inquiry received 1,752 written submissions and of that, 97 percent expressed support for new inter-regional passenger rail services. Despite this, support for inter-regional rail fell along party lines with National and Act opposing the idea.
There are some interesting quotes scattered throughout the report but their conclusion sums it up fairly well.
We recognise that there is real potential for inter-regional passenger rail in New Zealand. Our inquiry has been an excellent opportunity to gain further insight into the socio-economic, environmental, and well-being benefits that passenger rail could provide. It has helped us to evaluate the role that inter-regional passenger rail could play in New Zealand’s land transport system in future.
The main finding of our inquiry is that the regional-centred approach to land transport in New Zealand has resulted in the potential for inter-regional public transport, such as passenger rail, often being overlooked. There is a knowledge gap regarding what opportunities interregional services could unlock. We think that one clearly-identified agency needs to be responsible for providing leadership and guidance regarding inter-regional public transport, identifying and evaluating the public value of potential services, and supporting the work of other land transport agencies in this area. Essentially, we expect this agency to lay the tracks for the future of inter-regional public transport.
We have also identified specific routes where we see the most potential for new interregional passenger rail services in the short term. These are the routes Auckland–Wellington, Auckland–Tauranga, and Napier–Wellington, and extension of the existing Capital Connection service to Feilding. We recommend that the Government initiate a programme of work to test the viability of these services.
From this point, we hope to start a more informed conversation about inter-regional public transport and start working towards an integrated system that supports transport, movement, and connection all across New Zealand.
We acknowledge that investment in the national rail network to support inter-regional passenger rail services would be a substantial and long-term commitment. We, as a committee of MPs from across the political spectrum, may not agree on every aspect of this report. However, we hope that this work indicates cross-party support for investment in public transport systems that are beneficial to New Zealand.
We note that, once we have presented our recommendations to the House, the Government will have 60 working days to respond. We look forward to this response with great interest.
We thank everyone who submitted on this inquiry. We have appreciated the great enthusiasm for rail and public transport and the high level of public engagement throughout this process. We also thank our advisers who have worked hard to assist our consideration of this inquiry.
We look forward to seeing how work on inter-regional public transport in New Zealand progresses.
And here are the specific recommendations.
Leadership for inter-regional public transport
- We recommend that the Government clearly identify a transport-sector agency to provide system leadership and guidance specifically for inter-regional public transport.
- We recommend that this agency be responsible for the following areas:
- providing advice, support, education, and guidance relating to inter-regional public transport in New Zealand
- identifying and proposing new inter-regional public transport services
- engaging with and supporting regional councils to identify potential for interregional public transport services that would benefit their region and communities
- engaging with regional councils and Waka Kotahi—New Zealand Transport Agency to help consider the costs and benefits of proposed inter-regional public transport services
- coordinating with regional councils, Waka Kotahi—New Zealand Transport Agency, and the Treasury—Te Tai Ōhanga to determine the appropriate business case pathway for proposed inter-regional public transport services and providing assistance to regional councils during the business case process
- promoting well-being and environmental principles in the planning and design of public transport services
- We recommend that the Ministry of Transport investigate how the New Zealand Rail Plan could better incorporate inter-regional passenger rail
Funding for future inter-regional passenger rail services
- We recommend that funding arrangements for future inter-regional passenger rail services reflect the level of national benefit of such services to New Zealand.
Scoping studies to be progressed for inter-regional passenger rail services
- We recommend that scoping studies be progressed for the following inter-regional rail services:
- an extension of the Capital Connection service to Feilding.
- We recommend that further investigation of other potential inter-regional passenger rail routes be undertaken to meaningfully compare and identify the costs, benefits, and risks associated with different opportunities.
While generally supportive of intercity rail and good in principle, leaving it up to an as yet undefined agency and the Ministry of Transport feels like a recipe for inaction and lots of easy money for the consultancy industry assessing various routes.
For those potential routes listed (and any others), the issue of not having any spare rolling stock is noted a number of times. As such, perhaps one aspect they’ve missed is the opportunity to expand upon the recently announced rolling stock order for the lower North Island. Increasing the order would almost certainly add some economies of scale and provide a fleet which could be used for trialling some of these more easily.
As noted earlier, both the Act and National parties dissented on the recommendations of the report and the views of each are included in the report but in both cases, feels like ideological opposition to inter-regional trains more than anything. Both quote things such as the subsidies to run Te Huia. However, one interesting comment I found in the report was:
Te Huia is funded through revenue from passenger fares, contributions from the Waikato Regional Council and Waikato District Council, and a subsidy from Waka Kotahi. Its farebox recovery rate—the portion of its operating costs covered by passenger fares—is 13.4 percent. This is almost double the service’s target farebox recovery rate of 7.6 percent. Higher farebox revenue than expected ultimately results in a lower subsidy than planned.
One thing particularly notable is that farebox recovery of 13.4% is currently higher than what Auckland has, sitting at just 11.2% due to the recently ended half-priced fares and lower usage due to all of the network disruption right now.
Now we wait to see how the government responds to this report.