New Zealand’s interregional rail network has shrunk, but could it make a comeback?

There are only two inter-regional passenger lines in operation, including Te Huia (pictured) between Auckland and Hamilton.
Photo: RNZ / Gill Beanie

Protesters have halted traffic around the capital for the past two weeks, blocking the urban freeway and Transmission Gully, as well as abseiling to the entrance to the Mount Victoria tunnel.

The group responsible is Restore Passenger Rail, whose members have ties to Extinction Rebellion.

They are campaigning for the national rail network to be restored to pre-2000 levels, to reduce reliance on cars and reduce carbon emissions – but what would that actually look like?

Indeed, the railway network of the 2000s was very different from what it is today.

It was owned by a private company called Tranz Rail and was only taken over by the government in 2008 with the creation of KiwiRail.

At the turn of the millennium, there were 10 interregional passenger lines in operation.

Today there are only two, the Capital Connection from Wellington to Palmerston North and Te Huia between Auckland and Hamilton – the others carry freight or well-paid tourists.

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Capital Connection, which runs from Wellington to Palmerston North, is the other remaining interregional passenger liner service.
Photo: RNZ / Emma Hatton

KiwiRail said a major driver of its predecessor’s decision to close these routes in the early 2000s was low ridership.

But in Western Australia, Andre Brett, a history professor at Curtin University, said that was not the whole story.

“Basically the rail network in New Zealand was so run down and the rail services so attenuated that of course there were so few passengers,” Brett said.

“It was the result of decades of policy that failed to take into account the needs of passengers, that did not seek to grow the passenger base or even to retain the existing customer base.”

The state of the rail network today was comparable to that of the 1930s, he said – if the state’s highway system were as it was 90 years ago, there would be a national outrage.

As passenger numbers and routes decreased between regions, commuter routes increased.

Data from KiwiRail showed metro services in Auckland grew from around 2.5 million passenger trips a year in 2003 to 22 million in 2019.

In Wellington, there were 10 million passenger trips in 2003. There are now over 14 million.

Waterloo Station.  New Metlink buses go into service on the first working day, some delays in services.

KiwiRail data showed that Tube services in Wellington have grown from 10 million passenger trips in 2003 to more than 14 million today. (file photo)
Photo: RNZ / Rebekah Parsons-King

Greater Wellington Regional Councilor Thomas Nash said work is planned in the region to replace signalling, introduce dual tracking at pinch points and replace the aging fleet with new trains.

“We have developed a business case for new trains, new rolling stock, which could carry many more people and could also run between Wellington and Palmerston North, as well as Wellington and Masterton,” Nash said.

A daily overnight service between Wellington and Auckland could also be considered.

Any new trains would likely be electric, Nash said.

“We have overhead wires on most of the North Island mainline,” he said.

“The new trains we are proposing to buy in the Wellington area would have batteries on board, so when there is no overhead power that battery would kick in.

“So you would have very low emissions.

“We could make huge progress in the next 10 years, if we decided to go now.

“I have a one year old, and when he turns 10 he should be able to hop on a train to lots of new destinations around the North Island.”

Two protesters from the Restore Passenger Rail group abseiled from the Hataitai side of the Mount Victoria tunnel in Wellington and hung a sign saying

On October 18, two protesters from the Restore Passenger Rail group abseiled from the Hataitai side of the Mount Victoria Tunnel in Wellington and hung a sign that read “Restore Passenger Rail.”
Photo: RNZ / Kate Green

But protester Te Wehi Ratana, who abseiled from a rope above the Mount Victoria tunnel entrance on Tuesday, said it was not going fast enough.

“My children’s future depends on us as a society solving this problem now, not 10 years from now,” Ratana said.

Around an hour later, Ratana was arrested, along with more than 20 other people who have blocked Wellington’s major highways over the past week.

The pace of government was frustrating for some, but work was underway.

Transport Minister Michael Wood said $8.6 billion had been invested since 2017 to replace lanes and install new culverts.

It was crucial work before considering whether to introduce more passenger services or more cargo services as well, he said.

Rail transport produces 70% fewer emissions per ton of freight than trucking.

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