New Zealand's Regional Passenger Rail Network

Published on 10/09/2022 at 8:25 am.

Between 1936 to 1978, Aotearoa New Zealand had a national regional passenger rail network operating from Opua in the North Island to Invercargill in the South Island, using a fleet of 50 bidirectional diesel powered railcars consisting of 15 48 to 52 seat single units and 35 88 seat articulated twin units operating on regional, inter-regional and main line routes, complimenting long distance passenger trains.

With the demise of the network by 1978, there has been discussions in recent years to reintroduce regional and inter-regional passenger train services across Aotearoa New Zealand to reduce non essential car use and emissions.

Currently, Aotearoa New Zealand national rail network covers 13 of the 16 regions in the country from Whangarei in the North Island to Invercargill in the South Island connecting Aotearoa New Zealand's 6 main cities with 13 provincial cities, major towns, smaller semi rural towns and rural communities, with a potential passenger catchment of two thirds of Aotearoa New Zealand's population.

In August 2022, New Zealand government announced a more flexible planning, funding and procurement model - Sustainable Public Transport Framework to replace the current rigid Public Transport Operation Model (PTOM), giving regional councils more flexibility to plan regional passenger rail services within their regions and work with neighbouring regional councils for better passenger rail and other public transport connectivity.

With the Government planning to move to zero emissions by 2050 and the increasing availability of sustainable environmentally friendly fuel options, coupled with improvements in train motive power technology, the question is - why can't Aotearoa New Zealand reintroduce national regional and inter-regional passenger train services using this technology on a DBFOM (design, build, finance, operate and maintain) style of public/private partnership?

Aotearoa New Zealand could have a national subsidised 'turn up & go' regional passenger rail network for urban (excluding Auckland and Wellington urban metro train services), regional and inter-regional train services if there was the political will to do it.

The regional passenger rail network, whilst the core of Aotearoa New Zealand national public transport network, would be 40% of public transport services being operated, with 50% being bus services and the remaining 10% consisting of ferry services, light rail, on-demand riding sharing services etc.

What would be the regional passenger rail network routes

The following would be the core regional/inter-regional passenger rail routes -

North Island

  • between Auckland and Whangarei
  • between Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga and Te Puke
  • between Auckland and Rotorua*
  • between Hamilton and Palmerston North
  • between Palmerston North, Whanganui and New Plymouth
  • between Palmerston North, Woodville, Hastings, Napier and Gisborne*
  • between Palmerston North and Wellington
  • between Wellington, Masterton and Woodville

* Subject to upgrading of the track within the Rotorua city boundaries

* Subject to the rebuilding the rail line between Wairoa and Gisborne

South Island

  • between Christchurch, Blenheim and Picton
  • between Christchurch and Greymouth
  • between Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill
  • between Christchurch, Timaru, Ashburton and Waipa (Canterbury regional)
  • between Christchurch, Rangiora, Rolleston and Lyttleton (Christchurch Metro)

Passenger rail services between Invercargill and Bluff, Greymouth and Hokitika and between Greymouth. Stillwater and Westport could use 'Light Rail for Branch Lines' options.

All regional passenger rail services would have connecting urban, semi rural and rural buses services to destinations that don't have rail connectivity.

What type of trains would be used

The below are possible types of trains that can be adapted to to suit Aotearoa New Zealand conditions, for use on the network -

Stadler WINK

The Stadler WINK is a low-floor single-level regional/inter-regional train operating in 2 to 4 carriage configuration with a fully accessible power car, located between two carriages, offering flexible drive solutions, being diesel or HVO (Hydrotreated Vegetable Oil) only, diesel/battery, electric/battery or hydrogen fuel cell/battery. The Stadler WINK can carry up to 220 people in a 4 carriage train set, with a maximum speeds up to 160 km/h.

Alstom Coradia Polyvalent H2

The Alstom Coradia Polyvalent H2 is a 160kph dual mode electric and hydrogen/battery, 72m 4 carriage train set with a capacity of 218 seats, has disable passenger facilities and onboard toilets with a range up to 600kms on non-electrify track using hydrogen/battery,

Both the Stadler WINK and Alstom Coradia Polyvalent H2 would have the ability to travel between Wellington and Palmerston North, Wellington to Masterton and Woodville using the existing electrification in the Wellington region between Wellington and Waikanae and Wellington to Upper Hutt and between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga using the existing electrification in the Auckland region and hydrogen/battery to Hamilton and Tauranga other destinations in the Waikato region.

If the Pukekohe to Hamilton rail line is upgraded to 160kph speed and electrified to 25kva voltage, the Coradia Polyvalent H2 and the Stadler WINK can operate frequent services between Auckland using the City Rail Link and Hamilton using electricity and hydrogen/battery or electric/battery between Hamilton and Tauranga and other destinations in the Waikato region.

If the electrified section of the North Island main trunk line between Hamilton and Palmerston North is upgrade to meet the electrification specifications of the Auckland region, the Coradia Polyvalent H2 and Stadler WINK could be used to proved daily inter-regional passenger train services between the two cities.

The Coradia Polyvalent H2 and Stadler WINK in a 220 seat four carriage and fully accessible power car confirgurationcan remove 54 to 220 non essential cars of the road reducing at least 269 tonnes of carbon and other noxious emissions each train journey.

Alstom Coradia iLint

The Alstom Coradia iLint is a 140kph 2 carriage train set with a capacity of 150 seats, has disable passenger facilities and onboard toilet facility, with a range up to 1000kms on a tank of hydrogen. The Coradia iLint can operate as multiple train sets in peak hours and single 2 car train set in off peak hours.

The Alston Cordia iLint and the Stadler WINK in a 150 seat two carriage and fully accessible power car confirguration could be used on localised frequently used services between Auckland and Whangarei, between Palmerston North, Woodville, Hastings and Napier, between Palmerston North, Whanganui and New Plymouth, between Napier and Gisborne, between Christchurch and Greymouth, between Christchurch, Kaikoura, Blenheim and Picton, between Christchurch, Ashburton, Timaru, Oamaru and Dunedin, between Dunedin and Invercargill.

The Cordia iLint and the Stadler WINK could be used on Christchurch's urban passenger train services between Rangiora, Christchurch, Lytttleton and Rolleston and Canterbury region passenger train services between Amberly, Christchurch and Ashburton or Timaru.

The Coradia iLint and the Stadler WINK can remove 37 to 150 non essential cars of the road reducing at least 182 tonnes of carbon and other noxious emissions each train journey.

How will regional passenger rail be funded

The day to day operational funding of Aotearoa New Zealand regional passenger rail network would be from fares collected, regional rate payer subsidies and from taxpayers through New Zealand government reformed national public transport fund agency - Public Transport Aotearoa New Zealand, based on population density of the region that would have regional and inter-regional passenger rail connectivity.

What would the cost be to re-introduce regional passenger rail

The estimate cost to re-introduce regional and inter-regional passenger rail services based on a fleet of 35 train sets, using a DBFOM (design, build, finance, operate and maintain) style of public/private partnership on a 20 to 25 year agreement, plus building 2 heavy maintenance facilities (one in the North Island and one in the South Island), 4 regional maintenance and stabling facilities and 8 regional stabling facilities, building of environmentally friendly fuel infrastructure, upgrading and rebuilding of railway stations across the regional passenger rail network could be $900 million to $1.5 billion.

The DBFOM agreement, besides the designing, building, shipping and maintenance of 35 train sets, would include training of train crews and maintenance personal, 5 yearly train refurbishments and technology upgrades over the duration of the agreement.

The DBFOM agreement would have a 'buy out' option should the government decide to buy out the agreement.

Who would own the regional passenger rail fleet

The regional passenger rail fleet would be jointly owned by the reformed New Zealand Railways Corporation (a 'not for profit' entity under the Ministry of Transport) and the various private contractors through the creation of a joint venture partnership entity, with the government contributing between 20-30% of the estimate cost of re-introducing the network.

What about travel on long distance passenger trains

The current non-subsidised, commercial long distance 'scenic' passengers trains like Northern Explorer, Coastal Pacific and the TranzApline would compliment regional passenger rail services.

Aotearoa New Zealand population is expected to increase to 6-8 million by 2030 and there is a need to provide clean sustainable environmentally friendly national passenger transport connecting communities across the country as the population grows. A clean sustainable environmentally friendly national regional passenger train network is a core component in building that network.

The question is not if but when.

For further information concerning the points raised in this article -

If you support a national regional passenger rail network concept, have your say or become proactive by getting involved in local better public transport campaign groups.

Public submission

The New Zealand Government parliamentary Transport and Infrastructure Committee has opened an inquiry into the future of inter-regional passenger rail in New Zealand. The aim of the inquiry is to find out what the future could hold for inter-regional passenger rail in New Zealand.

Greg O’Connor, the Chair of the committee, said “We hope interested New Zealanders will take the time to have their say and help us better understand inter-regional passenger rail and its future in New Zealand.”

The committee welcomes your comments and ideas on the topic and is looking forward to learning what the future of passenger rail could look like for New Zealand.

To have your say, please make a submission on the future of New Zealand's inter-regional passenger rail services

Submissions close 6th October 2022

The creation of Aotearoa New Zealand's national passenger rail network is one of the initiatives of Public Transport Forum New Zealand.

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