The regions are being chipped away at... so here's an idea for a serious shot in the arm

It seems our state-owned enterprises are letting us down somewhat these days. Last week it was Solid Energy dashing the hopes of the Pike River families, today it's Air New Zealand cutting flights to more regions. If we want more zombie towns, this is a pretty good way of going about it. Just cut 'em off.

Air New Zealand is shutting down these routes:

Kaitaia - Auckland; Whakatane - Auckland; Whangarei - Wellington; Taupo - Wellington; Westport - Wellington; Palmerston North - Nelson; and Hamilton - Auckland.

This is, of course, after the Gisborne-Napier railway line has been left to rust and there's even talk of rail to Northland being mothballed as well. This is the sort of thinking that only makes it harder to live and do business in the regions, many of which are struggling at the moment post-GFC and as commodity prices fall.

While those are temporary woes, Shamubeel Eaqub has laid out the risk of zombie towns in this country and when you consider that incomes in Northland are akin to Timor Leste, there's certainly no room for complacency.

Perhaps the government should consider placing a Kiwishare-style requirement on Air New Zealand. It was good enough for Telecom to be required to keep some public good at the front of its thinking, even if that came at a cost. Maybe the 'public good' of keeping air routes open should be required by government of a company that's ticking along quote nicely now.

Sure, the marketeers will argue that if the demand is there some new company will meet it. Perhaps. But if we're meant to think like NZ Inc these days, sometimes there will be an infrastructure cost required that isn't profitable but is still important to our overall growth.

Which brings me to an idea I've been spouting a lot recently, and one that would help counter these sorts of decisions that are hurting some regions.

I'd like to see a full costing of high-speed rail around the top of the North Island -- between Whangarei, Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga.

Close to half the population would live within coo-ee of it and it could be a game-changer on so many fronts. Hey, if you can't do it in the air, do it on the tracks.

It could help boost development all along its shiney new tracks (in existing corridors), especially in the north. Think of the tourism and freight opportunities if people and goods could be moved rapidly to Marsden and into Northland. Think of the benefits of taking trucks off the road. Think of it as a way of combatting the poverty in the north. Think of the potential to unlock value on Auckland's waterfront if you don't need to grow (and could even shrink) Auckland's port.

Think of the villages that could be revitalised or shoot up along the tracks, moving people out of Auckland and relieving Auckland house prices. Think of the benefits to the Waikato and Bay of Plenty.

The list goes on -- I'm sure you can think of other pros (and cons). It would of course be hugely expensive and Vogel-esque in its vision. But remember what Vogel's bold dreams did for this country's economy in the 19th century.


It just needs someone with the right smarts to take a serious look at the costs and benefits, and a politician with the balls to back it. Perhaps a new Transport minister from Tauranga, who wants to one day be Prime Minister? Just sayin'.

Certainly we need some long-term thinking on how to boost the regions, because the short-termism of the likes of Air New Zealand will be costly indeed.

Comments (28)

by David Crosswell on November 11, 2014
David Crosswell

With what amounts to no editing process at all, I just couldn't be bothered reading it.

The catchphrase with journalistic writing is to write so that a 12 year old can understand it, but I know 12 year olds that wouldn't be making that many mistakes.

If the issue's worth the time to write about, it's worth the editing time also.

Just chucking a hastily written first draft up doesn't say much about the writer.

by Dave Guerin on November 11, 2014
Dave Guerin

I can't see how you can say Northland's GDP per capita is near that of Timor Leste.

Timor Leste seems to have a GDP/capita of about US$1,370 going by

Another source said Northland's GDP per capita was NZ$30,000.

by Tim Watkin on November 12, 2014
Tim Watkin

Dave, check out Eaqub's book... see here.

by Tim Watkin on November 12, 2014
Tim Watkin

David, sorry to disappoint. We all have bad days some times and when you're late to pick up a child, a couple of spelling mistakes don't seem so important. It seldom happens and is fixed now.

by Moz on November 12, 2014

Tim, one problem that fast rail in Eurpoe is dealing with is that stops were designed for political reasons rather than efficiency. There are too many of them, too close together - and by that I mean less than 100km in some cases. Which means the "fast" train is just getting up to speed when it has to start slowing down and the average speed on some links is barely better than standard rail. You've got Whangarei to Auckland (150km), Auckland-Hamilton (100km), Hamilton to Tauranga (100km). For comparison, the Sydney metro train system extends to Wollongong (95km) and Newcastle (160km) as well as Goulburn (195km) and Lithgow (140km) inland. Those are commuter rail trains, and people commute on them every day.

Only one of those is fast train territory, and then only just. If you were talking Auckland to Wellinton with a stop at a 500,000 person city around Taumaranui that would make more sense. Or just run straight through.

Also, fast rail and freight is a very bad idea, especially on short hops like you're talking about. Sure, throwing a tiny amount of parcel fright or mailbags onto a fast train might make sense. But at that scale if it's not worth paying a person to carry the parcel on the train it's probably not worth doing at all. And Sydney to Newcastle on the train is ~$15 and a bit over an hour. $20 overnight on the courier or a couple of hours in wages to have it there really, really fast.

by Alan Johnstone on November 12, 2014
Alan Johnstone

Population density isn't high enough to justify it.

The 500km HS2 link in England is being estimated at 60bn NZD. This would have a similar cost. That's before rolling stock and operations costs.

It'd be north of $20,000 for every man woman and child in the country.


by James Green on November 12, 2014
James Green

I think this idea is definitely worth discussing, but I think some of the evidence from Europe (and France) suggests that high speed train connections have only further served the hub-city (Paris or Auckland), at the expense of the outlying areas, especially those that don't fall on the train lines.

Having said that, I think there is also increasing argument (sorry I'm being vague and without links) that suggests that moderately fast trains (180-225km/h) have much lower energy and engineering requirements (TGV lines were engineered with 4km radius corners originally, now out to 8km to accommodate any future speed increase). It may be possible with modern tilting train technology to run trains on our existing lines faster, especially with some sections straightened out (but not to TGV standards). I think extending this on to the Auckland-Wellington route would make a lot of sense. Not because Auckland-Wellington would be particularly competitive, but that it would enables shorter, faster journeys between intermediate destinations. Both Australia and Japan run tilt trains on the same narrow gauge that we use (up to 160km/h)


by Lee Churchman on November 12, 2014
Lee Churchman

Sure, the marketeers will argue that if the demand is there some new company will meet it

They would be violating the standard view of economics if they did.

by Tim Watkin on November 12, 2014
Tim Watkin

Well this is the useful sort of discussion a barely formed idea like this needs. Moz, all good points. I did wonder about freight on high speed rail, but not from the angle you're considering it. I just wondered whether the long freight trains taking lots of imports/exports to market/ports would be suitable for high speed.

And it's a good point about just getting up to speed and having to slow down again. You want it to be able to stop at small towns, not just go flying by.

So maybe what I'm imagining is 'higher speed' trains. The sort James is talking about. It may make commuting from further out more feasible without the speed up/slow down issues. And without whole new track, too. And without Alan's horrendous cost estimates.

James, how much faster are these trains than the existing stock? And isn't there something about us having the wrong guage tracks? Would these faster but not high speed trains fit?

by Tim Watkin on November 12, 2014
Tim Watkin

Alan, if you're anywhere near right that sort of cost would of course be impossible. But the density argument is a circular one. This would be the sort of investment that would create the density along the track. You'd have to put the transport horse before the density/people move cart.

by Moz on November 12, 2014

Thanks Tim. The Sydney metro trains top out at about 120kph IIRC, but that is likely as much to do with the quality of the track and wiring as the trains. They do run 160kph overhead powered trains in Europe as not-fast-trains, and 220kph in Japan. Newcastle to Sydney the express services seem to take about 2.5 hours for 160km: 6:32am Newcastle gets you to Central at 9:10am (the site is actively hostile to deep linking)

If you were willing to build a separate pair of lines to run faster trains on you could probably do that 160km trip in an hour with no stops. Otherwise you'd have to time the overtaking very, very carefully. It wouldnt get too expensive until you hit the outskirts of Sydney, but that last 30km would cost you at least $AUS1M per 10m wide house and section just for the land (which is why new lines here are built underground ... it's cheaper).

If you built a dedicated Hamilton-Auckland line I suspect you could get well under an hour even with a stop in the Auckland suburbs. But each stop costs you 5 minutes or so, and on a "less than an hour" trip five minutes is a lot. And you'd probably want enough trains to run a service every 10-15 minutes in the morning peak, which would mean 6-8 sets (assume you have 6 leaving Hamilton and 2 Auckland in the morning before any arrive to do return trips).

Again, the Sydney trick is that an "all stops" usually leaves very soon after the express, so that the express has clear track until it overtakes the previous all stops train. Using Hamilton-Auckland with half hourly trains you could run four expresses leaving Hamilton between 7am and 8am, then an 8:05am all stops that would probably get to Auckland 90 minutes later, at about the same time as the 8:30am express. You just couldn't run an 8:15am express from Hamilton if you did that :)

by Moz on November 12, 2014

Oh, and the recent Perth Metro expansion cost about $AUS 1.6 billion but I can't see just how big that was (they have 173km now and the expansion doubled it, so maybe 80km?) and there were a lot of new stations built. OTOH, building a 4km extension to Morang in Melbourne and one station cost $498M. It seems to depend a lot on who is running the project and what they want to spend.

by Dave Guerin on November 12, 2014
Dave Guerin

Ta for the feedback Tim - I may get around to reading the book, but the excerpts I can see online don't look that convincing about the Timor Leste comparison. Anyway, its not your claim, and not a big issue.

by insider on November 12, 2014

lawks if you think building railways is the 21st century game changing answer you must have slept through the 20th. Quite why you'd spend billions in response to the loss of regional services that 19 seater planes were clearly overcatering for, I'm at a loss to understand. There is just not the demand for infrequent fixed timetable services. 

The fact you call for politicians with 'balls' to make a decision in the same sentence as wanting a 'serious' cost benefit analysis tells me you really don't believe what you are writing. You just want a heroic investment in rail, because you've pre-determined it a game changer. You're not alone; it happens about every 20 years, forgetting the lack of change it has actually delivered most times. Vogel may have been a game changer but NZ was a very different country and he was not without critics. He was blamed for almost ruining the economy and rail has never covered its costs since. It's easy to be heroic with other people's money. Rail is mostly a proven economic loser in NZ.

"After the initial enthusiasm of the 1870s, Julius Vogel’s reputation suffered in the 1880s when New Zealand’s economy slumped into a long depression that was triggered by an international banking crisis. Political rivals condemned him as an ‘impudent adventurer’ whose reckless borrowing had fuelled an unsustainable boom, leading to an inevitable bust. But as prosperity returned in the 1890s and 1900s, and the Liberal government championed its own public works schemes, Vogel was again praised as a progressive visionary."

"In other ways, though, Vogel’s legacy was less positive. Public works spending concentrated power in central government’s hands, and rail- and road-building decisions were often made for political gain rather than sound economic reasons."

by James Green on November 12, 2014
James Green

James, how much faster are these trains than the existing stock? And isn't there something about us having the wrong guage tracks? Would these faster but not high speed trains fit?

Tim, New Zealand's official passenger speed record is in a Vulcan railcar, from memory, about 125kmph. The old steam hauled express was rumoured to exceed that between Chertsey and Christchurch ;)

Sensibly, however, most of NZ's current rail-lines run at a 90kmph limit, and mostly slower. Slow equals less wear and tear on the tracks. Or if the tracks are poorly maintained, it's required.

Japan and Queensland both share our 1067mm narrow gauge. Both have tilting trains, which enable them to go round tighter corners faster than a conventional train. The actual speeds they could achieve will depend on the tightness of corners, but in Queensland they get to 160kmph. There might be stretches in NZ where it clearly doesn't makes sense to straighten track, but in other places, it might mean you could get extended running at higher speeds. A tilting train can still take a tight corner faster than a non tilting train, so it would still give some advantage. I think the line to Northland takes a fairly circuitous route. But it might at least get it back to comparable with a bus, hopefully better. And on other routes clearly better.

Freight is not a goer for high speed. The weight puts too much lateral force on the rails while cornering, and increases wear etc. Plus it takes far more energy to get it fast. France keeps all it's freight on it's low speed network.

In summary, true high speed rail is not feasible (too expensive, plus our terrain would make new dedicated right of ways with large radius corners implausible). So called higher speed rail or medium speed rail is a better bet. Particularly an incremental approach. Buy trainsets capable of travelling faster, and then incrementally improve the lines, focussing on the easiest wins first (e.g. making a gentler corner in the middle of two straight stretches, and progressively move from there).

PS - If you want to waste some good time on this, I'd recommend reading Guardian articles on HS2.

by James Green on November 12, 2014
James Green

And there it is. New Zealand's land speed record for rail, in a 6 cylinder vehicle built in 1940! 78 miles per hour (125.5 kmph)

Perhaps a brave first move would be to invest in some new diesel tilting railcars. The 42 year old Silver Fern railcars are still surprisingly tidy by NZ train standards.

by James Green on November 12, 2014
James Green

Queensland Tilt Train

And they could make a start with the 3 Silver Fern units, that have a design speed of 120kmph. Would need to make the track they were running on a bit tidier I'd imagine.Plus progressive upgrading of the train control/signalling.

by Tim Watkin on November 12, 2014
Tim Watkin

Insider (do you want to share your name with us? It's preferred on Pundit), you're right my inclination is that it would be a game-changer. But I'm saying I'd want evidence to back up the instinct. I may be wrong. And as you can see by the discussion, I'm asking for more info to inform myself.

You seem to have decided however that rail is somehow a dated technology, which is odd given the huge investments going into it in China, Europe and, well, all over the world. Demand, as I replied to Alan, is circular, evidenced by rail use in Auckland.

I wasn't pitching it literally as a replacement for air, but rather using that announcement as a reason to discuss the issue of regional development (or lack thereof) and how we might tackle that.


by Tim Watkin on November 12, 2014
Tim Watkin

James and Moz, great info thanks! So we could get speed up on existing tracks from 90km/h to as much as 160 km/h with the right trains? What's the patronage like in Aus?

by Moz on November 12, 2014

Sydney rail probably carries the population of Auckland every day. I know during the Olympics they got all excited because they were going to be dumping 200k people at Olympic Park every day and that was a challenge... nope, it's only 280,000 a day in 2011. Sydney rail have a geek page that says:

  • 1 million customer journeys per weekday
  • 281 million customer journeys annually1
  • 176 stations (includes 4 Airport Line stations)
  • 2,181 carriages maintained by Sydney Trains which includes 564 NSW Trains
  • 2,885 timetabled trips per day
  • One eight-carriage train can move 1,000 customers
  • 97.8% of trains are air-conditioned2
  • Operate across 937km of electrified track
  • Workforce of 10,450
  • The first railway in Sydney was opened between Sydney and Parramatta in 1855.

So yeah, if you wanted everyone in Auckland to commute from Hamilto and Whangarei, it could be done but you'd need to build a few more rail lines :)

by Tom Semmens on November 13, 2014
Tom Semmens

 "...So we could get speed up on existing tracks from 90km/h to as much as 160 km/h with the right trains..?"

No. If trains were traveling at or in excess of 160kp/h then we would have to traffic separate every level crossing and probably three or four track the entire route to allow for slow trains as well as fast trains, as well as generally securing the line from intruders.

by James Green on November 13, 2014
James Green

So we could get speed up on existing tracks from 90km/h to as much as 160 km/h with the right trains?

And a little more work. Faster trains tend to ride continuously welded rails (instead of having conventional joints), though NZ may be moving to welded rails anyway, I think. The faster a train travels, the more perfect the alignment has to be, so there would also be need to make sure they were maintained to a higher standard. The signalling would ideally be upgraded overtime. Fast trains tend to use on-board signals, as they are travelling too fast to easily see stationary signs/lights. As they get faster, there would also be more need for passing loops and dual tracking. I'd also imagine if we get trains travelling at over 120kmph, we'd also want to remove level crossings from those stretches, though it might be possible to have only some of the new crossings rated for trucks, which might save some $$. And ultimately, realigning some stretches of track would enable trains to go faster, and for longer stretches. It wouldn't be an entirely cheap enterprise, but one worth investigating.

As a final aside, my understanding is that the service between Auckland and Wellington now takes around an hour and a half longer than it used to, as the tracks are not maintained to a level they were 20-30 years ago. They have however now, re-sped it up by reducing the number of stops!

by James Green on November 13, 2014
James Green

Tom - It wouldn't necessarily require triple/quadruple tracking. KiwiRail currently run freight trains predominantly at night, as they only need to pay the engineer to work through the night, and the loading and unloading then doesn't require shiftwork (This is true, even in the south island, where there are basically no passenger trains to avoid). Agree obviously re level crossings, but changes to intruder security relatively trivial compared to upgrade of actual track to achieve that speed.

by Charlie on November 14, 2014

My solution to regional economics:

1/ Build motorways. Few if any businesses are going to decide to move out of town on the basis of a state owned railway. You get laughed out of court for that! If however we had completed a decent 6 lane motorway from Auckland up into Northland than I could envisage some businesses taking advantage of lower land and labour costs if their market was only 90 minutes away by truck.

2/ Repeal the RMA and start again. This legislative nightmare has been costing NZ jobs for decades. It is chasing businesses away. No sane entrepreneur would attempt to make a serious fixed investment under the current regime. It took 6 million dollars and 6 years to get a marina project going on the Coromandel!

by Andrew R on November 14, 2014
Andrew R

Charlie both of your solutions are bad.

Take the RM Act and regional economies. It appears that regional economies are getting worse.  And this is happening more since 1991. In other words after the prescriptive Town and Country Planning Act (and some 40+ pieces of environmental legislation) were replaced by the more liberal Resource Management Act. On the face of it the problem is that the planning law needs to go back to being more restrictive then the regions will thrive.

Or maybe the underlying problem is 30 years of (failed) neo-liberal economics.

Oh and one reason why it could have taken 6 years for a specific marina to get consent could be that the original proposal was ill-conceived, and the RM Act worked properly.

by DeepRed on November 17, 2014

Charlie: If you don't mind a personal question, is taxation theft? Do you read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged?

by KJT on March 09, 2015

I don't know how the "Charlies" can look at what the road and rail links did for Tauranga/Bay of Plenty and then think they will not do the same for Northland. Especially as Marsden Point is the Upper North Island's only natural deep water port.

Eventually the lack of lonks will hirt Wellington and the Wairarapa as much as Northland.


by KJT on March 09, 2015

I don't know how the "Charlies" can look at what the road and rail links did for Tauranga/Bay of Plenty and then think they will not do the same for Northland. Especially as Marsden Point is the Upper North Island's only natural deep water port.

Eventually the lack of lonks will hirt Wellington and the Wairarapa as much as Northland.


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