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Bringing New Zealand back on track, III: The South Island, rolling stock, and concluding thoughts

After the interlude of my previous entry and a week or so of inactivity, I’d now like to return to this series, focusing on the potential for serious and substantial rail transport revitalisation in New Zealand. My first two entries focused on the upper and lower North Island. This entry shall look at the South Island, with Christchurch and Dunedin as operational hubs. The east coast of the South Island has a number of markets where air and road are doing a rather inefficient job of handling traffic that really falls within the sphere of rail. There is precious little traffic over on the west coast, and Nelson is rather out of luck due to the complete absence of a railway, but the corridor from Blenheim to Invercargill has plenty of opportunity.

Christchurch – Blenheim/Picton
Catchments: Blenheim (nearly 30,000), Picton (3,000), Kaikoura (2,200), Seddon/Ward district (at least 1,500), Amberley (1,300), Cheviot region (1,200).
When I first drafted this series while procrastinating on university assignments, this route did not factor into my considerations whatsoever. Too long, I thought. Then I checked a line guide; roughly 320km to Blenheim and about another 28km to Picton. Too difficult, I thought. After all, the Main North Line passes through some very difficult terrain and was the longest railway construction project in New Zealand’s history – the first rails north of Christchurch were laid in the 1870s but through train travel to Marlborough was not possible until 1945. But then I considered something: unlike almost every other line in the country, and despite a spate of service cancellations this decade, the Main North Line is still sustaining a daily passenger train in each direction. So I thought about it a bit more, and I think this is actually doable.

Firstly, the track. From Christchurch to Waipara, the terrain is easy and very high speeds should be possible. Build it to 160km/h, maybe even 200km/h; in any case, the section through Kaiapoi and Rangiora should be massively upgraded as part of a Christchurch commuter network. Similarly, north of Wharanui, especially around Blenheim, there is potential for line speed increases. The difficult coastal section from Waipara to Wharanui via Kaikoura is a much different story. The line is wedged between sea and mountains, and I doubt massive earthworks would be cost-effective, so upgrades would be more to signalling, track quality, etc., rather than deviations offering more direct routes. Perhaps this is another area where tilting technology would be a welcome implementation. Ultimately, the aim should be to have an average speed above 110km/h including stops, with the southern and northern ends compensating for the difficulties in the middle. This would make Blenheim less than 3 hours from Christchurch; far more efficient than road and competitive with air.

Secondly, the service. Presently, the TranzCoastal takes roughly 5 hours 20 minutes to dawdle up the coast with little beyond a swag of tourists every day. This is a train incapable of 70km/h including stops, so even an upgrade to 110km/h is going to provide a huge boost. I would suggest a minimum of three services daily, running through to Picton to connect with the Cook Strait ferries, with room for more. I am unsure of the necessity of running all trains to Picton, hence my emphasis on Blenheim. It is, after all, the hub of Marlborough and would be the main destination other than Christchurch for local passengers, i.e. those not wishing to connect with the ferry crossings. Unlike almost all other suggested services, which would be introduced as wholly new, this service benefits from being able to be developed out of the TranzCoastal.

Christchurch – Timaru
Catchments: Timaru (over 27,000), Ashburton (16,500), Temuka (4,000), Geraldine (3,500, park-and-ride in Orari or Rangitata), Rakaia (1,000). Rolleston (3,000, projected to hit 14,000 within ten years) should be the outer extremity of suburban rail rather than within this line’s catchment.
In a word, the potential for this route is enormous. The terrain is extremely favourable – the “racetrack” near Rakaia did not earn its reputation due to sluggishness, that’s for sure. Let’s not stuff around with half-measures of 160km/h here; this is prime territory for 200+km/h. The ability to maintain an average speed of above 170km/h including stops would make Timaru an hour away from Christchurch and Ashburton barely half an hour. The boost to these centres would be simply astronomical. The linkage with Christchurch would be an economic boon – beyond allowing Timaru and Ashburton to function more effectively as satellites in terms of feeding Christchurch, it would allow Christchurch businesses to transfer operations to Timaru and Ashburton and capitalise on cheaper property. It would be quicker to get from Ashburton to central Christchurch than from one side of Christchurch to the other!

Dunedin – Oamaru
Catchments: Oamaru (nearly 13,000), Palmerston (1,000), Waikouaiti (1,000).
I would discuss Christchurch – Dunedin, but by addressing this run first, it allows me to cover some issues here and save clutter. This really is one of those marginal routes that benefits simply due to convenient circumstances, much like how an Auckland – Whakatane service is possible not because it is inherently viable, but because it is made viable by the ease of extending a few Tauranga services. Dunedin – Oamaru is possible not because it is inherently viable, but because the need for upgrades along the route it would use makes it viable. You could probably not justify massive deviations just for this service, but because it will also benefit Christchurch – Dunedin services and is one of the country’s main freight corridors, the work is economically justifiable and this service is a happy byproduct. After all, we aren’t serving the world’s largest catchments here. In fact, I didn’t realise just how lightly populated Palmerston and Waikouaiti are.

Now, when I say massive deviations, I mean massive deviations. The route north out of Dunedin is, to put it mildly, a difficult one. Between Oamaru and Dunedin is a distance of just over 120km, and yet the Southerner prior to its 2002 cancellation was timetabled to take a staggering 2 hours 31 minutes. 1 hour and 32 minutes of that were wasted staggering along less than 54km between Palmerston and Dunedin. I wish I could say that I am joking. No wonder this service doesn’t run any more. Why even bother if the average speed is under 40km/h? This track’s 1870s alignment, built to 1870s speeds, limited by 1870s financial constraints, and dictated by 1870s goals and attitudes, needs to be completely realigned. Legacy infrastructure is of no contemporary use, and some of the coastal runs, while scenic, surely sit on some pretty valuable land. I am advocating the same as what I advocate for the Christchurch – Blenheim run; an average speed of 110km/h including stops. Given the importance of the route, that 110km/h target should be taken as a bare minimum. An average speed of 125km/h would put Oamaru and Dunedin at just under an hour apart. Do I need to keep emphasising the benefits for the regional economy from such infrastructure? No, I didn’t think so.

Christchurch – Dunedin
Catchments: Christchurch (over 350,000), Dunedin (nearly 120,000), Timaru – Christchurch as above, Oamaru – Dunedin as above, and Waimate (3,000; over 7,000 in broader district, served by park-and-ride in Studholme).
I’ve already looked at the northern and southern sections. The central section from Timaru to Oamaru has very easy terrain, only one significant stop for Waimate, and at a mere 80km in length, a train capable of 160km/h could do it in half an hour non-stop. Even allowing for the stop in Waimate, building the line to 200km/h speeds would slash it even further. Travel between Christchurch and Dunedin would be slashed to just 2.5 hours, if not less. Oamaru and Christchurch would be less than 1.5 hours apart. This route, formerly the flagship of the New Zealand Railways Department, would be a premier route again. Air and road would be significantly outdone by a rail service of this nature, especially the ludicrous Oamaru to Christchurch service, and I do not doubt its potential to be a profitable and prominent service of the highest quality. Dare I speak the word ‘electrification’? That’s probably a bit too bold, a bit too much of a railfan’s wet dream, but perhaps not entirely ludicrous as oil prices spiral upwards.

Dunedin – Invercargill
Catchments: Invercargill (over 50,000), Gore (10,000), Balclutha (over 4,000), Milton (2,000), Mataura (over 1,700).
This route is presently approximately 225 km, and especially in Southland could be upgraded for high speed running. Speeds of 160km/h should be attainable, and travel time from Dunedin to Invercargill should at least be cut to 1.5-2 hours. At this stage, I believe this should be run separately from Dunedin – Christchurch, although they could be through-routed and at minimum run to connect, as the through time should be about 4.5-5 hours. This route is a vivid illustration of where road transport just wilts in the face of rail’s potential, but due to grossly insufficient funding or interest in rail, road has nonetheless come to prominence.

Rolling stock
I feel I should also address the matter of rolling stock. Some rather substantial research would probably need to be conducted into travel patterns to determine precise requirements. Passengers should not be told to adhere to a timetable thrust upon them from on high; the timetable should be designed to suit travel patterns and thereby most satisfactorily attract people to rail. Rolling stock should in turn be designed to fulfill timetable requirements rather than force timetables to deal with stock limitations. Rail should fit in with the demands of its clients rather than expect its clients to fit in with the demands of rail.

So all I can do is sketch some requirements. There is firstly the matter of locomotive-hauled carriages or multiple units; the global trend appears to be multiple units and I see no reason why this would not suit New Zealand either. On the other side of the Tasman, the Tilt Train, VLocity, XPT, and Prospector all provide useful examples. The Tilt Train is particularly important, since it is also narrow gauge and shows that 3’6” is only a limitation in the minds of some.

The second matter is that both diesel and electric stock will be required. Electric would run Auckland – Wellington (and the Hamilton and Palmerston North routes encompassed by that) and Auckland – Tauranga, and would need to be fitted with dual voltage capabilities. I see no use in some trains being only suited for 25kV AC, since that would confine them to Auckland – Hamilton and Auckland – Tauranga, and they should be interchangeable with Auckland – Wellington and Wellington – Palmerston North trains. I would suggest two types of electric rolling stock. One would be designed for the interurban runs to Hamilton and Palmerston North, say two or three carriages long, and capable of working in multiple. These could also work some/all Tauranga services. For the intercity run from Auckland to Wellington and maybe for some Tauranga services, longer trains with full catering facilities would be more appropriate. These likely would not need to run in multiple, being six or seven carriages.

Diesel railcars would likely take two forms as well, modelled on the above split for interurban and intercity runs. Though since the bulk of the diesel runs would be over 2 hours anyway, perhaps the smaller units could be fitted with at least a small buffet, though not full catering. There is also a third diesel railcar to be considered, for the Rotorua – Auckland Airport service. This would be fitted out with extra luggage capacity and the ability to very quickly exchange baggage at destinations. It shouldn’t be hard to implement. I realise this creates a problem of dedicated, single-service stock, but I believe the benefit is there, and it could also run services to Tauranga/Whakatane.

I have not at all addressed the Christchurch – Greymouth TranzAlpine here. It is New Zealand’s most successful long distance train, and due to its tourist emphasis, I think it is largely sufficient as it is. It just needs new rolling stock – modern carriages and better, newer locomotives. The locomotives should not be confined to passenger duties, just to boost their usability, and carriages would also be useful for charters and peak loadings on other routes. A good pool of carriages would thus be a boon.

So, this is the end of the 2008 Shit Boring Entry Series, where I have sketched out the potential for radical change and improvement in New Zealand’s transport infrastructure. These proposals are obviously open to critique, adjustment, refinement, and improvement. I am sure much can be done to enhance their potential for practical implementation. What I do think needs to be emphasised, however, is that it must be implemented post-haste. There should be no delay. We need a Julius Vogel with a Great Public Works policy and we need one now. The longer New Zealand’s transport network is allowed to languish in inefficiency and inadequacy, the more the country will suffer economically and socially. Prices will rise, quality of life will decline, and the place will just get left behind. There is no option here, really: radical investment is the only way, and most of the proposals I have outlined above should be implemented and completed in some manner by 2020 as a national priority.

Beyond this point, we must have some solid long term goals. These are the sort of goals that in the current climate are railfan wet dreams and are impractical to seriously consider implementing. However, if the network I have outlined were operational, they would become viable considerations. All infrastructure must be future-proofed, so as to not preclude further upgrades, e.g. electrification, even higher speeds, duplication and beyond. Electrification from Christchurch to Dunedin and maybe even through to Invercargill should be on the cards in the long term, and with higher and higher speeds, separation of freight, interurban/intercity, and commuter traffic becomes more and more essential. New corridors or widening current corridors should be investigated. The network also has obvious expansion potential: the return of services to Gisborne, New Plymouth to Auckland, and bringing Nelson and Taupo into the national network. There may be some scope on the West Coast for a localised railcar service from Westport to Hokitika too as petrol prices become increasingly ridiculous, and a Christchurch – Greymouth service targeted at the general traveller rather than the tourist. Even in this long term outlook, though, I have a difficult time imagining anything such as Gisborne – Auckland or Dunedin (or Invercargill) – Central Otago/Queenstown as being practical. I’m not even quite sure how you would go about a Taupo link, really.

Anyway, I hope these ideas have been interesting and thought-provoking to at least somebody out there. I may return with a series on commuter services at some point; I have already made it clear, either explicitly or implicitly, that there should be commuter trains from Christchurch to Rangiora/Kaiapoi, Lyttelton, and Rolleston, from Dunedin to Mosgiel and Port Chalmers, from Auckland to the North Shore and Hibiscus Coast, and between Hastings and Napier. I would also support the partial relaying of the Southbridge branch to enable Christchurch – Lincoln commuter trains. So we’ll see. I suppose it could be a project for next semester when I feel like procrastinating!
Tags: development, infrastructure, new zealand, politics, railways, sustainability, trains, transport
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