The Te Huia train service between Hamilton and Auckland could be heading to central Auckland as soon as October. The train courted criticism for the fact that its weekday services only go as far as Papakura, at which point travellers must change trains if they want to get to the city.
A journey on Te Huia to Auckland takes about 98 minutes to get from Hamilton to Papakura and another 50 minutes if travellers are going to Britomart.
As of June, the train has been going as far as The Strand station in central Auckland for its Saturday services. As of October, The Strand station looks set to become the permanent terminus for Te Huia's weekday commuter services too.
Councillor Dave Macpherson of the Hamilton City Council said that the three-council group that oversees the train had agreed all services will now travel into central Auckland, Covid alert levels permitting.
Councillor Dave Macpherson said the changes had been announced at the Council's meeting on Tuesday. He said it was "good news".
He said people had raised the Papakura stop as "one of the reasons why the current service isn't quite good enough".
But the council's partners do not appear to be on the same page, with KiwiRail saying nothing has yet been agreed.
Hugh Vercoe, chair of the Te Huia rail governance group and Waikato regional councillor, said that there had been some changes which would be announced shortly, as there were "some boxes to be ticked" before details could be confirmed.
"The multi-agency Te Huia rail governance group has recently undertaken market research to inform a number of staged improvements to our Waikato to Auckland passenger rail service over the coming months," he said.
"We're hoping the first of these improvements will roll out at the end of October. However, there are still some boxes to be ticked before we can confidently confirm any details.
Macpherson said he did not know why KiwiRail was being "circumspect", but added that The Strand would definitely be the final stop of weekday services.
" I'd eat my hat if that didn't happen," he said.
A KiwiRail spokesman pushed back on optimism from the councils, warning that its Auckland rail network had a number of pressures on it already.
"Any decisions will need to consider a number of factors, including that the changes would need to fit into the existing Auckland train timetable.
"Additionally, KiwiRail has temporary line closures in Auckland on many weekends to allow work to be carried out safely on the network. This work is critical ahead of the City Rail Link beginning operation.
"There is also a considerable amount of work to do on the Southern Line, with the electrification project between Papakura and Pukekohe and planned new stations around Drury," the spokesman said.
KiwiRail has recently copped criticism for what some councillors have argued is a bias against passenger rail in favour of freight.
Earlier this year Adrienne Young-Cooper, chair of Auckland Transport, and Daran Ponter, the chair of Greater Wellington regional council, made a joint pitch to Treasury secretary Caralee McLiesh to consider appointing more public transport focused people to fill vacant spots on the KiwiRail board.
The letter said KiwiRail would benefit from having asset management, rail safety, and metro rail operations skills on the board.
Ponter said that the voices of organisations focused on commuter rail were "somewhat lost" when it came to KiwiRail's decision-making, which was focused on freight.
"If we leave it to them they'll prioritise the need for investment based on a freight understanding of rail," Ponter said.
This article was originally published on 21 September 2021 in the NZ Herald.