Axver (axver) wrote,

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Bringing New Zealand back on track, I: Introduction and the upper North Island

I imagine this series of entries is going to be of interest to just about nobody (oh yeah, nothing like that sort of introduction to hook people!). It has evolved out of a procrastination exercise over the last couple of weeks to stop me from going absolutely insane with university work. I think it's a bit of a shame that the topic of transportation stimulates precious little interest in the public at large, as transport networks are what keep this place ticking and are pretty much central to human society. But I guess it's just a lot easier to get people really, really mad about terrorism, something that is less likely to personally affect the average Westerner than being kicked to death by a donkey, than about something that is central to their daily life. A good transport network means you can get home quickly from work and maximise your leisure time doing things you like. An inefficient transport network means you'll spend bloody ages in traffic jams or intolerably slow trains or clapped out old buses, and when you finally get home, your food and other things you like will be more expensive due to the extra freight costs hidden in the overall price. It really does matter.

This series of entries will focus on New Zealand, simply because it is the part of the world I know the best - even those areas that I largely haven't visited, I have studied historically, geographically, and socially. I would hope that by choosing to focus on New Zealand, I am avoiding talking out of my arse like I would be for most of Australia. There will be three parts: upper North Island, lower North Island, and South Island.

Put simply, it's time for an end to short-sighted transport planning. We need an integrated and efficient transport network and we need to start work on it now. We can't wait until we're at crisis point. Modes of transport should be used in complementary rather than competitive manners, e.g. bus routes feeding railways, as this will create a more efficient and sustainable network. In 1870, Julius Vogel's Great Public Works policy proposed a network of trunk routes linking New Zealand's major centres, and bringing the provincial railways under the control of the central government and standardising the system. Although Vogel's plan was to some extent hijacked by local interests (with the worst manifestation meaning Nelson today has no railway), it meant New Zealand completely avoided gauge disparities that have caused countless problems in Australia and elsewhere, and most importantly, it was absolutely pivotal to the development of New Zealand from a bunch of disparate British colonies into a cohesive nation. Before the railway linked Christchurch and Dunedin, they were a lengthy sea voyage or arduous overland journey apart - after the railway, they were an easy day's travel away. We need a Julius Vogel for today, though I’m not quite sure where we’re meant to find one. We need somebody with the long term vision and audacity to actually implement a vast, sweeping plan. It will be expensive and it will take time to bear fruit. But short term fixes are not the answer. New Zealand currently has a 19th century railway being ravaged by 20th century mentalities. Let's bring both the railway and the mentalities into the 21st century.

Since my knowledge primarily relates to railways, I will exclusively discuss rail transport in these entries. I want to make two things clear at the outset. Firstly, I will not be covering commuter rail as that could justify a series of entries all by itself. I am focusing on interurban and intercity transport here. Suffice to say, I believe Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin can all maintain commuter networks and require some expansion, and there are also other local services around the country that have potential. I will touch on some commuter issues in the course of this discussion, but only where it naturally arises rather than through any design to discuss them.

Secondly, I want to emphasise that freight is the backbone of the present day rail network. Too many railfans seem to focus just on passenger rail and overlook the central role of freight. Freight is the most profitable side of the New Zealand railway network. I would perhaps do some models on freight loadings, relevant lines and upgrades, and so forth as I am doing for passenger rail here, but the simple fact of the matter is that I just don't know enough about the freight side of things for a lot of the country. My interest in social geography and history means that I feel I have more of a basis to make comments about passenger trains.

Fundamentally, each form of transportation has spheres to which it is best suited. The European experience indicates that rail is competitive with airlines on journeys of up to 3 hours' duration, since rail terminals are typically centrally located and lack lengthy check-in processes or anything like that. Increases in actual transport times are offset by not having to wait around for ages at airports or having to travel out of the city to the airport, and rail can offer cheaper fares. What I have noticed from living in Victoria is that regional cities can and should feed major centres; an efficient train network allows people to enjoy the lower cost of living in, say, Ballarat, while still allowing them to work in inner Melbourne. It opens up links between urban centres and helps to reduce suburban sprawl. So all of my proposals here are for where I believe rail is the transportation mode able to provide the best, most efficient, cost-effective, and environmentally-friendly service. You won't find any kind of railfan wet dreams here, i.e. I am not going to suggest a link between Taneatua and Gisborne just because I'd love one, since there's essentially no freight or passenger traffic potential there, the terrain is a nightmare, and the existing rail link from Napier to Gisborne is struggling to keep its head above water. I would like to believe that this series is realistic, and I clearly note which suggestions I believe may not be entirely viable and should be considered as more long term options to be implemented should other suggestions succeed.

Auckland - Whangarei
Catchments: Whangarei (population of 50,000), Warkworth (3,300), Wellsford (1,700).
The present route of the North Auckland Line is little more than a convoluted joke. This 19th century railway could never compete with road or air. It's slow, it goes via Helensville, and it twists and turns all over the show. Put simply, a new line needs to be built to replace this fundamentally worthless legacy infrastructure. It's an expensive suggestion, but basically, the line needs to cross Waitemata Harbour, run through the North Shore up to the Hibiscus coast, and rejoin the existing line somewhere around Warkworth/Kaipara Flats, south of Wellsford. Since there are no significant lineside settlements between Wellsford and Whangarei, there is also a lot of scope for minor deviations to improve line speed, and it might be worthwhile investigating whether a major eastern deviation via Ruakaka and Marsden Point would be better than the existing central route via Waiotira.

Is this justifiable? Put simply: absolutely. From Auckland across the Harbour up to Orewa, it would be a valuable commuter corridor. For freight, it would make rail much more competitive and efficient, something that will be essential once the major new harbour at Marsden Point comes online; this will make the expensive deviations cost-effective. And for passenger traffic, the focus of my discussion here, it would drastically reduce transport times. A train capable of running at an average speed of 150km/h including stops would get from Whangarei to Auckland in under an hour. Suddenly, you can live in Whangarei and work in Auckland. And the ridiculousness of there being nine daily flights between Whangarei and Auckland will be a thing of the past.

Oh yeah, and what about the existing line? Close it north of Helensville. Make Helensville the outer extremity of the suburban Western Line. At the moment, that service will be marginal, especially as there doesn't seem to be much freight out that way to guarantee the line’s viability. A couple of trains a day able to maintain an average of 110km/h including stops would be quite enough. But as Auckland sprawls westward, this corridor is valuable. If an eastern deviation is pursued on the northern section, everything south of Waiotira becomes redundant, while the section from Waiotira to Oakleigh becomes part of the Dargaville Branch.

Auckland - Hamilton
Catchments: Hamilton (130,000), Pukekohe (19,000), Huntly (7,000), Ngaruawahia (4,000), Te Kauwhata (1,300).
It is simply inexcusable that there is presently no service between Auckland and Hamilton. If the Victorian experience is anything to go by, there should be at least an essentially hourly off-peak service here like Ballarat and Bendigo receive! Put simply, the North Island Main Trunk between Auckland and Hamilton should be fully electrified and duplicated with bi-directional signalling and made capable of running trains at speeds of at least 200km/h. This is one of the most important routes in the country, especially as the port of Tauranga rises in importance over Auckland's port. At the barest minimum, passenger services should be running at an average speed, including stops, of more than 160km/h. Any less is a cop-out. This is the 21st century; let's run the railway like we're aware of that fact. A service like this will make the North Island's largest and third largest centres less than an hour apart. Note that I am including Pukekohe in this service's catchment; the level of service provided to Hamilton should be sufficient for Pukekohe (and certainly be better than it has today!), and the southern terminus of the Auckland suburban network should revert to Papakura. Pukekohe would not necessarily stop being a terminus; just like Bendigo line trains terminate in Sunbury or Kyneton, some trains on this route could only run to Pukekohe. I think it is far enough out that it would be more ideally served by interurban standard trains rather than being at the arse end of a slow suburban service.

Auckland - Tauranga
Catchments: As with Auckland - Hamilton, plus Tauranga (110,000), Morrinsville (over 6,000), and possibly park-and-ride facilities at Waharoa for Matamata (6,000), depending upon the outcome of Rotorua.
Got to love that Kaimai tunnel. Even fairly superficial work could reduce the 3.5 hour journey time of the former Kaimai Express. Since Hamilton - Tauranga is just as significant freightwise as Auckland - Hamilton, it should receive an upgrade of a similar calibre. Double track all the way to Tauranga except the tunnel. Electrify it. You could get timings to Auckland down below 2 hours.

Auckland - Whakatane
Catchments: As with Auckland - Tauranga, plus Whakatane (18,000), Te Puke (nearly 7,000), and possibly Edgecumbe (nearly 2,000).
Anybody who knows anything about New Zealand's railway network is surely seeing the problem here: there's no railway to Whakatane. You could build a direct route from Matata along the coast into Whakatane, bypassing Edgecumbe, but a line from Awakeri into Whakatane (which I think would be able to utilise some of the formation of the Whakatane Board Mills line) would require much less new track and not substantially add to travel time. Sufficient upgrades of the existing track from Tauranga to Matata/Awakeri should allow a train from Whakatane to be in Auckland in 3 hours or less, plus it would provide quality transport along the Bay of Plenty, and to Hamilton.

The only question remaining is whether this is viable. This is a rare case where I'm proposing a whole new branch, not just a deviation, and it's somewhere where potential freight is probably negligible. Cheaper alternatives are just running some Tauranga services a little further to Te Puke, or using Edgecumbe as a terminus with park-and-ride facilities for Whakatane residents. But I think a train from Whakatane would be viable, running 2-4 times daily. It would follow the successful Victorian example of re-introducing V/Line service to Ararat on a line where the only trains are 3 passenger services each way. Presently, Air New Zealand appears to offer four flights daily between Whakatane and Auckland. A round trip is going to set me back NZ$302 right at this very moment. On top of the 45 minute flight time, I must add getting to Whakatane airport outside of Whakatane itself, check in at least 30 minutes before departure, then wait for my bags in Auckland, and then take bloody forever to get into Auckland itself. You would have to budget over two hours each way for the trip, and probably over 2.5. A return train trip for under $100 that takes 3 hours each way would be considerably competitive, especially since both terminals would be central and you only need to rock up to the train a couple of minutes before it departs.

Auckland - Rotorua
Catchments, existing route: As with Auckland - Hamilton, plus Rotorua (roughly 60,000), Morrinsville (over 6,000), Matamata (6,000), and Putaruru (nearly 4,000).
Catchments, unlikely deviation: Remove Morrinsville (served by Tauranga anyway) and Matamata, add Cambridge (15,200).
New Zealand, the 21st century is laughing at you. Rotorua is easily one of the country’s most famous tourist destinations, and yet it languishes without a rail service. If this were Europe, there would be a high speed train service running connections and codeshares with international flights. And that’s exactly what I am going to suggest. I can hear the self-depreciating, defeatist bleating right now about how New Zealand is "different" (re: inferior). You’d think Zimbabwe is a paradise of opportunity compared to New Zealand, the way some people go on. These sorts of negative mentalities are barely worth addressing except to condemn them as exceptionally narrow viewpoints that seem incapable of noticing it’s not the 1950s any more and New Zealand is not just a far-flung outpost of humanity.

So, in place of regressive attitudes, I propose the restoration of Rotorua services and their integration not just with the national rail network but also with the international air network. Rotorua trains (and, I would suggest, at least a couple daily Tauranga services too) would access Auckland via a new line to Auckland International Airport. This would divide from the NIMT somewhere around Manukau, pass through the airport, and then either join the Onehunga Branch or enter central Auckland via a new and almost certainly underground route to open up even more of the city to commuter services. It would function both as a commuter line and as the Rotorua route to Britomart. Trains on this service would be specially equipped not just to provide intercity service for locals, but airport connections as well. A passenger in Rotorua – or, for that matter, other significant stops such as Putaruru – could check in for their flight before even boarding the train. When they arrive at Auckland Airport, their luggage is handled for them and they simply hop off the train and proceed to the gate, boarding pass in hand.

Now, I better address infrastructure at the Rotorua end. The line has been mothballed since 2002, and since it will already require some work to restore, the opportunity should be taken firstly to improve the difficult route over the Mamakus and secondly to restore the line right into central Rotorua. It won’t be easy to achieve average journey speeds between Putaruru and Rotorua of over 110km/h, but it’s already successfully done in other parts of the world at even higher speeds in more difficult terrain. What is a significant impediment, in my view, is the legacy infrastructure that sends the Rotorua line from Putaruru up to Morrinsville first before heading across to Hamilton. A more direct route would be ideal, running from Tirau via Lake Karapiro to Cambridge and then on to Hamilton. The route to Rotorua would be quicker, the significant catchment of Cambridge receives a service, Morrinsville is still served by Tauranga trains, and Matamata is close enough to Waharoa that park-and-ride facilities could serve it adequately. There’s only one nagging issue: could this line be viable? Put simply, I don’t know but I deem it "unlikely". If Kinleith freight traffic would find it useful, that would help a lot (I don't know the details of Kinleith Branch operations). In addition, if Rotorua is actually going to generate any substantial freight traffic going to the NIMT, I’d consider this deviation essential. But just for passenger traffic? I have considerable doubts. Nevertheless, keep it on the drawing board. If the Rotorua service takes off, with journey times to Auckland of two hours or less, this proposal could further enhance it. And even if it never comes to fruition, constructing the Hamilton to Cambridge section would probably be a smart idea, running as an extension of the Hamilton service.

Tomorrow or whenever I get around to it: the lower North Island, focusing on services out of a Wellington hub. Also, assuming I don't ramble too much, some rolling stock considerations.
Tags: development, infrastructure, new zealand, politics, railways, sustainability, trains, transport
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