The commuter train question

In Newsletter Editorial4 MinutesBy Gavin MyersAugust 12, 2022

‘Would you catch a train between Tauranga and Auckland? Parliament wants to know,’ was the NZ Herald headline catching my attention yesterday. I live in Tauranga; I drive to Auckland and back often enough. So would I? Hmm, interesting question.

The NZ Herald’s senior political reporter, Thomas Coughlan, writes that Parliament’s transport and infrastructure select committee has opened an inquiry into inter-regional passenger rail in New Zealand to look at potential rail expansions and investment in specific areas, and, inter alia, the viability of operating passenger trains alongside freight.

The short answer is yes – in theory. Years ago, when travelling for work from Johannesburg to South Africa’s capital city Pretoria, I’d catch the high-speed express commuter train between the two, save myself about 25 minutes from what would be a roughly 80-minute journey, and use the time to work. Uber would get me from station to destination, and then I’d do it all again to get back home.

In my mind, the concept is a far better use of time for what can be a three-hour trip to Auckland – times two, including the return.

Since April 2021, the Te Huia regional passenger train has been running as a three-year trial service between Hamilton and Auckland. It’s not necessarily high speed, but if the journey takes a similar amount of time and you’re using the time productively instead of fighting traffic, I’d chalk that up as a net win. At this point I can hear the green brigade chiming in about reduced emissions. Indeed…

If Te Huia is used as an example, it would seem there’s some appetite for such a service. On average, 3641 commuters have used the train per month since launch, with monthly passenger numbers doubling in April and seemingly climbing. If memory serves, that was about the time the price of fuel did the same.

Positive signs, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. The dollar-shaped elephant in the room still needs to be addressed. Te Huia is funded by a mix of passenger fares and public funding from the Waikato regional and district councils as well as the National Land Transport Fund (NLTF) administered by Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency. No surprise that most of the funding comes from the NLTF – 75.5% or $85.8 million. (By my maths, there seems a discrepancy in the figures, but that’s what’s stated on the website.)

As we know, the NLTF is made up of revenue from the fuel excise duty, RUC, and motor vehicle licencing and registration fees. The Government Policy Statement on Land Transport for 2020/21 – 2030/31 (which ‘guides’ the NLTF) seems to apportion greater funding ranges to road than rail or public transport, but those numbers are still significant. And once again, we break out in an argument with cross-subsiding at the centre.

It’s a quandary unlikely to be solved anytime soon. There’s absolutely a place for all modes in a well-rounded transport system, but if the government wants to spend money on rail, its contribution must be proportionate.

Until then, I might just stick to the mode of transportation I pay for.

Take care out there,

Gavin Myers