An opinion piece by Matt Lowrie first published by Greater Auckland on 19 April 2021 exploring future options of Hamilton to Auckland inter-regional train services being operated by the Te Huia train.
Two weeks ago week Te Huia, the new train between Hamilton and Auckland began service. The train has attracted a lot of media attention for a few reasons and a lot of it has centred around its level of usage. For example on Thursday it was reported that after the buzz of the launch, usage settled down to just over 100 trips per day.
Though the scene was quite different on Saturday, it’s first weekend run with passengers reportedly left behind.
The media have always loved to jump on new public transport, and particularly rail, services and declare them a success or failure after the first day/week. The reality with public transport is it takes time to grow usage as people don’t immediately change their habits. For example in Auckland it took 4-5 years for effect of electrification to be seen in ridership numbers.
While we’ve been big supporters of re-establishing rail services between Auckland and Hamilton, I can’t help but think this is a few years too early, particularly in light of the significant and still lingering network issues that have been discovered in recent times, not to mention all the projects going on like electrification to Pukekohe and the third main. Combined with some of the other features of the service I don’t think the service meets what we might consider a ‘minimum viable product‘. So to ensure Te Huia doesn’t follow it’s namesake into extinction it will require some improvements. So here are some things I think are needed if it is to be more successful – and to be fair many of these have already been identified by the councils/agencies behind the trial and they were the subject of a post-covid ‘shovel ready’ funding application.
Extend services to Puhinui
Currently services run from Hamilton to Papakura where users can change trains to continue on further into Auckland. While it would be ideal to get services into Britomart, that’s not something that will be possible in the short term due to capacity constraints and that diesel trains aren’t allowed in there anymore. There’s are also capacity constraints north of Puhinui until the 3rd main is completed. However, getting services to Puhinui, which is due to reopen in the next few months, should be feasible and would do a couple of key things -
a. Those travelling further north into Auckland would have the ability to transfer to either a Southern or Eastern line train making that transfer easier.
b. It would also enable those from the Waikato to make a single transfer to access the airport or Manukau.
It would require a new platform and section of track to ensure Te Huia services didn’t get in the way of AT Metro or Kiwirail freight trains however the new Puhinui station was designed with additional platforms in mind. The shovel-ready application suggests this would cost about $10 million.
Even if the funding can be found, there’s still a bit of an issue with Auckland Transport and Kiwirail doing their best spider-man pointing and spider-man meme impression, blaming each other for not wanting more services on the network.
On weekdays there are currently just two services to Auckland in the morning and two back to Hamilton in the evening and there is one service each way on a Saturday. It’s just not enough and you better hope you don’t run late, or worse there’s an issue on the Auckland network, and miss your train.
Furthermore, one of the major problems we have with public transport in NZ is that it is almost exclusively focused on peak commuters and the response on the first weekend also highlights that potentially there is a much bigger market than anticipated for day-trips.
There clearly need to be more services, including more on weekends and some that enable trips from Auckland to Hamilton in the morning. With the current trains available even just bouncing them back and forth between Auckland and Hamilton, say every two hours, would make it much more useful. That would mainly just require a bit more operational funding to enable.
The only stop between Hamilton and Papakura is in Huntly. Yet there are a number of communities along the route, including some seeing a lot of growth, that also should be being served too. In particular Tuakau, Pokeno, Te Kauwhata and Ngaruawahia. Combined those four towns are home to about 20,000 people so represents a substantial increase to the possible catchment and combined with more services we might even start to see some commuting from them to Hamilton.
The shovel ready application suggested these additional stations would cost $10-15 million each which seems quite high given Parnell Station cost less than $20 million and that included significantly re-grading the line and moving in a heritage building.
The one downside to additional stations is it does slow the train down a little bit but …..
At about 1 hour 40 from Hamilton to Papakura the service isn’t exactly fast, averaging just 64km/h over the 105km distance. Once they’ve finished fixing the tracks in Auckland there really should be a focus on getting it faster, which likely requires Kiwirail upgrading the tracks. If it was possible to get the average speed up to 80km/h it would bring the travel time down by about 20 minutes and would start to become time competitive with driving.
Thinking a little bit further into the future, here are couple of possible next steps.
If the short term improvements prove successful more trains will be needed. Instead of refurbishing some more old carriages we should start to look at a new fleet of intercity/regional trains. These could possibly be part of a combined order with Wellington who are looking for new trains to run the Capital Connection and their Wairarapa services. Some battery or dual or tri mode EMUs could be perfect for this. Furthermore these could be designed to enable much higher speeds for a future where further corridor enhancements enable up services to run at up to 160km/h.
Extend Services to Britomart
Ultimately it would be ideal if the service could get into Britomart. At the very least this requires the completion of the City Rail Link but there’s also the issue mentioned earlier of Auckland Transport and Kiwirail wanting any additional available capacity for themselves. I think one possible solution here is that the service actually needs to become part of the Auckland network. Essentially it could pull double-duty as an intra-regional express, for example, if it ran non-stop from Britomart to Puhinui it could give airport travellers an option for a faster trips to the airport. The key would be to ensure that there was actually enough capacity for going south of Auckland.
Matt Lowrie is the editor of the Auckland transport and urban design blog greaterauckland.org.nz