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Bringing New Zealand back on track, II: The lower North Island

Welcome back to the 2008 Shit Boring Entry Series, addressing the urgent need to fundamentally rethink transport planning, with specific focus upon New Zealand. Yesterday's entry introduced the series and discussed the potential of rail transport in the upper North Island. Today's entry shall bring those considerations to the lower North Island, with Wellington as an operational hub. Again, drawing upon the idea that transport modes have spheres to which they are uniquely suited and that these spheres are complementary, it shall identify the spheres that are suited to interurban and intercity rail but for the most part are inefficiently run by road and air transport. As a note of clarification, although the current extent of electrification of the Wellington commuter network is Paraparaumu, it is being extended to Waikanae, so in this entry, I shall make all references to Waikanae rather than to Paraparaumu.

Auckland – Wellington
Catchments: Auckland – Hamilton (see yesterday), Wellington – Wanganui as far as Marton (see below), and between Hamilton and Marton, Te Awamutu (nearly 14,000), Taumarunui (5,100), Te Kuiti (4,400), Otorohanga (2,600), Taihape (2,000), Waiouru (1,600), and Ohakune (1,300).
In a perfect world, you would build a dedicated high speed line capable of 300+km/h running and make the two cities barely 2.5 hours apart. But in the real world, that sort of railfan’s wet dream is not going to happen in the foreseeable future due to New Zealand’s rugged terrain and low population density. I was initially hesitant to even suggest doing much with the Auckland to Wellington run, but after thinking about it, the potential to drastically quicken the Auckland – Te Awamutu and Wellington – Marton stretches gives me hope.

At the moment, Britomart and Wellington Railway Station are less than 700km apart, yet it takes the Overland more than 10 hours to complete the journey. This sort of laughable absurdity is not competitive in the slightest with any other mode of transportation and serves no purpose except to cart a pittance of tourists and a handful of retirees around the country. Due to the lack of viability for 300+km/h dedicated trackage, I doubt you could make this route seriously competitive with air, but I think you could make it somewhat competitive due to the lower cost of train tickets, and it would beat the pants off road transport, undoubtedly attracting many from buses or driving. How would you do that? Firstly, electrify the entire route. Maintaining an average speed, including stops, of between 160 and 200km/h on the northern and southern sections would go a long way, and compensate for slower running on the central section (I would also only stop at the main catchments of Auckland and Hamilton in the north and Marton, Palmerston North, and Wellington in the south; all other stations are adequately served by other services).

Secondly, for the central section, some deviations in addition to those already pursued in 1980s for the Palmy – Te Rapa electrification would help, as would running trains with tilting technology. Some double trackage and long crossing loops would not go astray either. Obviously some delays can’t be avoided, like the Raurimu Spiral. But ultimately, the aim would be to knock the travel time between Auckland and Wellington down below 5.5 hours. Below 5 would be even better. It should be possible. Even if it isn’t perfectly competitive with air, it would be far superior to road-based transport, and it would likely prove competitive with intermediate air routes, e.g. Wellington to Hamilton. The central North Island catchments that I have identified would likely receive a huge boost from the access these trains would provide, including some which would become within commutable distance of either Auckland or Wellington. However, they would slow down through running, so I would suggest as a starting foundation tiered running; 2 daily services stopping at all seven catchments plus the aforementioned main catchments on the other sections, and 3 daily services stopping only at the main catchments (maybe even skipping Marton; its main purpose is as an interchange with Wanganui/New Plymouth). The aim would be to have both levels of service doubled within a couple of years of their introduction. I am also considering the possibility of fitting out at least a couple of daily runs with Motorail facilities, i.e. the ability to load your car, but I am not sure if this is feasible.

Wellington – Palmerston North
Catchments: Palmerston North (nearly 80,000), Levin (nearly 20,000), Otaki (nearly 6,000), Shannon (1,500 itself; bus link and park-and-ride facilities for the 5,000-strong Foxton catchment).
This route today currently sees a single train each way every weekday, the Capital Connection. It exists solely to serve commuters who live in the Horowhenua and Manawatu districts but work in Wellington. It is absolutely useless to any other traveller who might exist, and to be perfectly honest, it’s hardly the height of usefulness for commuters either. You look at Victorian equivalents that run roughly hourly off-peak, and more frequent peak services carry crush loads. This route should be upgraded to and beyond that standard. It should be fully duplicated with bi-directional signalling, made capable of speeds of at least 200km/h, and electrified. The goal is for the journey time to be reduced to 45-50 minutes.

Let’s deal firstly with electrification. The Hamilton to Palmerston North system, plus Auckland’s impending electrification and by default my proposal to electrify Papakura to Hamilton yesterday, runs on 25kV 50Hz AC. The Wellington suburban network to Waikanae is 1,500V DC. This has been a stumbling block for years in linking the two systems, but for absolutely no good reason. The Europeans for decades have been operating electric locomotives capable of operating not just from multiple overhead voltages, but from third rail pick-ups as well! Since new locomotives would be required in the event of linking the two systems anyway, it would be no trouble at all to order these locomotives as capable of operating under both voltages. Run 25kV AC north of Waikanae and 1,500V DC south of it. There is no issue here. There never was. It exists solely in the minds of regressive officials and politicians and their sheep-like followers.

Secondly, there is the matter of the route. North of Paekakariki up the Kapiti Coast, through the Horowhenua, and into Palmerston North, I do not doubt that the flat coastal plain would make the achievement of 200km/h speeds a realistic goal. South of Paekakariki, it is a much different story. Thankfully, we already have the Tawa Flat deviation of the 1930s and the Porirua Harbour deviation of the 1950s to help things along, leaving the main issue as the difficult grades south of Paekakariki up the Paekak Hill to Pukerua Bay. There have been proposals to somehow bypass this, although I am not familiar with the details. What I am sure about, however, is the necessity of such a deviation and that it will surely require substantial tunnelling and earthworks. My proposal is simple: build the damn thing. It will be substantially beneficial not just to all long distance, high speed passenger services into Wellington, but they should be sufficiently infrequent that paths will be open for freight trains and some peak commuter expresses. To boost system redundancy and keep paths free on the deviation, I would retain the present commuter service via Pukerua Bay and Muri.

Wellington – Wanganui
Catchments: As with Wellington – Palmerston North, plus Wanganui (40,000), Feilding (nearly 13,000), Marton (nearly, 5,000), and park-and-ride facilities in either Greatford or Marton for Bulls (nearly 1,800).
I must admit, I have often found the route from Marton to Wanganui baffling. It is one of the more difficult in the North Island, although the Turakina deviation opened in 1947 eased things somewhat. Nonetheless, looking at terrain maps, it is hard to see why the line was not built along the coast; it would have required more extensive bridging, but would have surely offered easier grades through better country than the present route. I suppose it’s an example of legacy infrastructure, seeking to give port access to a 19th century hinterland that in the 21st century has no use for rail.

I’m not sure how much we have to live with it, not being too familiar with the area or the costs of a substantial realignment. In an ideal world, instead of turning inland at Whangaehu to go into Wanganui via Fordell, the line would take an alignment closer to the coast and enter Wanganui from Putiki, with a bridge over the river near the station and the existing motorway bridge. The present-day Wanganui Branch from Aramoho would then be absorbed into the main line. In the real world, I would hope that could be justifiable both from the perspective of the proposed passenger service and existing freight contracts, but my concern is that it would instead have to make do with improvements to the existing alignment.

In any case, regardless of whether a new route is pursued or the existing route upgraded, the objective would be to reduce travel times to below 2 hours, say 90-100 minutes. At the moment, people are willing to spend over two hours on the train to commute from Palmerston North to Wellington, thus a 100 minute run from Wanganui would have some commuter potential. It would also offer about 50 minute timings between Wanganui and Palmerston North, thereby facilitating very effective communication and considerably helping the economy of the Manawatu-Wanganui region.

Wellington – Napier
Catchments: As with Wellington – Palmerston North, plus Napier-Hastings (120,000), Dannevirke (6,000), Waipukurau (4,000), Ashhurst (2,500), Waipawa (2,000), and Woodville (1,500).
Previous services on this route have been demonstrably unsatisfactory. The distance from Wellington to Napier is under 320km, and yet trains have taken 5.5 hours to complete the journey, so it’s no small wonder that the Bay Express got canned in 2001. It was hardly an express, since every other transport mode could outdo it! But if you can get the approximately 139km NIMT run to Milson’s Junction rated for 200km/h and trains are able to complete the trip at an average speed higher than 160km/h including stops, then you’ve shaved a lot off the time already (over an hour by the Capital Connection’s present timetable) and just have the approximately 178km to Napier to worry about.

The Manawatu Gorge presents problems for sure, and there probably is not a lot to be done there. The rugged terrain of the Hawkes Bay hinterland isn’t going to be helpful either, but there is plenty of scope for improved track conditions and deviations. The coastal plains around Hastings through to Napier should be very conducive to high speed running and could be brought up to 200km/h running – this section also has potential for an interurban shuttle of some description. Ultimately, if the average speed including stops could approach 150km/h, then it would be possible to run Wellington to Napier in only a shade over two hours and rail would quickly become the primary means of transport from Wellington, Horowhenua, and Manawatu to the Hawkes Bay. You can bet that the roughly monthly trips I made as a child from the Kapiti Coast to visit my cousins in Hastings would have been made by train if it could have offered those timings and ran to any degree of regularity, i.e. multiple options throughout the day. But the slow, once daily service of the Bay Express was never appealing.

Wellington – New Plymouth
Catchments: As with Wellington – Wanganui, plus New Plymouth (approximately 50,000), Hawera (11,000), Stratford (over 5,000), Inglewood (nearly 3,000), Eltham (2,100), and Patea (1,300).
This is a rather marginal suggestion. It would only follow a successful implementation of a run to Wanganui, and would be just as focused on facilitating better freight flows as it would be on passengers, as this is one of those routes that seriously pushes rail’s competitiveness with air. Assuming a train could reach Wanganui from Wellington in 100 minutes as forecast above, that still leaves approximately 170km to go to New Plymouth, some of it through very difficult terrain, e.g. the route out from Aramoho to Kai Iwi featuring the Westmere bank. This route would certainly be more viable if New Plymouth were located about where Hawera is! But I don’t think it’s an insurmountable difficulty. The run from Hawera to New Plymouth encounters few significant geographic obstacles, so some high speed running on that section could offset the difficulties encountered between Hawera and Wanganui. Ultimately, if you could knock the run down to less than 1.5 hours, that would allow a run between Wellington and New Plymouth to be completed in about 3 hours. That would definitely be competitive, and it would offer great timings for intermediate journeys, e.g. Wanganui to New Plymouth or Hawera to Palmerston North.

Wellington - Masterton
Catchments: Masterton (over 22,500), Carterton (4,100), Featherston (nearly 3,500), Greytown (2,000; park and ride facilities in Woodside), and Martinborough (1,300, park and ride facilities in Featherston).
At present, this is the one service out of all those I have addressed that currently not only exists but also operates to something resembling a worthwhile schedule, with 5 services each way on weekday (6 on Fridays; 2 on weekends). It offers much room for improvement, especially on the roughly 60km from Upper Hutt to Masterton. Between Wellington and Upper Hutt, it has to contend with Hutt Valley commuter trains, but beyond this point, there is only the occasional freight. The route has the Rimutaka Tunnel through the Rimutakas and fairly easy terrain between Featherston and Masterton. You could really ramp up the speeds. The stops would be frequent enough that I’m not sure you would gain too much by making the line capable of 200km/h, but 150km/h would be a good target. Electrification would be very beneficial in light of its superior acceleration. With electrification, higher speeds, and decent pathways south of Upper Hutt, you could probably be running times into Wellington of around 40-50 minutes.

It might also be worthwhile investigating the possibility of some or all Hawkes Bay trains running via the Wairarapa, bringing the catchments of Pahiatua (over 4,000) and Eketahuna (600) into play and freeing up some valuable space on the North Island Main Trunk. Then again, this may just be a waste of time if Napier services simply operate as an extension of Palmerston North services that would have operated anyway.

Well, I did ramble on too much to really fit in rolling stock considerations. Well, stay tuned. Tomorrow will likely see a different entry to break up the series, but stay tuned for the third installment in a couple of days, addressing the South Island.
Tags: development, infrastructure, new zealand, politics, railways, sustainability, trains, transport
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