Will We Ever Catch Up?


We’re making progress with public transport - new trains coming, station renewals, a new Manukau line, new LINK bus services….

But no-one could argue with the statement that we have so much catching up to do.

Or as a report before the Auckland Transport puts it: Much of the current performance of public transport relates to historic under investment in public transport infrastructure, lack of parking constraints, a sprawling suburbia difficult to serve by public transport.

Several friends have been telling me recently about their Europe holidays involving high speed trains. It’s a world far removed from our old diesels but even removed from the new electric trains we’re getting.

Even this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald has a travel article in which the journalists samples “warp speed” European trains and raves.

Sadly there is no big picture here for rail. And I can’t see one in the future.

Instead of thinking of Auckland and Wellington improvements, there should be a plan to embrace the latest rail throughout the country, not just settle for one step up.  For a country so dependent on tourism earnings, it defies belief that we are not offering such a travel option to attract people to see our stunning scenery in style.

The long journey of the Overlander to Wellington is an embarrassment when other cities offer “warp speed.”

So many other enlightened countries are thinking like this but as we know only too well, officials remain fixated on roads.

Can we have this please? Ankara to Istanbul high speed built by CAF

The trigger for this discussion is the ARA-commissioned public transport benchmarking survey , carried out by Ian Wallis Associates, which has only recently seen the light of day.

It was a damning report which I covered a few months ago and found among other things:

  • Auckland’s PT patronage is the lowest of cities canvassed including those with lower populations
  • It’s between 25% and 40% below those of Australian medium sized cities
  • Our bus mode quality of service was the worst in the survey
  • Our train services rated lower than Wellington’s
  • Average fares were 50% than in the US/Canada and double that of Australian cities

Auckland Council Transport Committee Chair called it “uncomfortable” reading. He said it showed the need for a transformation shift in Auckland’s Pt performance - quality and patronage levels.

Te Mahia: Auckland's train service is not all as flashy as Kingsland

In a report to this week’s AT Board, Auckland Transport replies.

It acknowledges the results of the study highlight the significant challenges ahead if Auckland is to achieve the Auckland Plan’s proposed transformational shift “to move to outstanding public transport within one network”, and to deliver on the vision of becoming the world’s most liveable city.

But it argues that whilst the comparisons provide a useful analysis of the public transport outputs,  comparisons between cities are “always problematic due to major contextual differences. ”

It cites as examples:

  • Auckland  is a large region containing low density rural areas 2.61 persons per hectare and urban areas 23 persons per hectare making comparison difficult. Its topographical shape also lends itself less to effective public transport systems. For example the Auckland region at 4,894 km is 64% larger than the Vancouver Translink service area of 2,977 km.
  • This results in Auckland having a sprawling suburbia difficult to serve by public transport. Further the central isthmus of Auckland increases the transport challenges and associated costs.
  • Integrated fares have been introduced in several of the comparison cities. The current transfer penalty between modes or operators suppresses multimodal or multi operator trips reducing the boarding count. It costs $1.80 to board a bus even for part of a stage. To transfer between two different operators this is paid even if remaining within the same stage. The 2012 roll out of the Auckland Integrated Fares System will improve service integration and ease of transfer.
  • Most of the comparator cities have had extensive modern electrified rail systems for many years while Auckland’s redevelopment of rail is still underway.  Melbourne has 12 rail lines, 27 tram lines, Brisbane 10 rail lines and 3 busways, Perth has 5 lines, Adelaide has 6 train lines a tram line and a busway (o-bahn), Auckland had 3 rail lines until the recently opened Onehunga line and 1 busway.
  • The Manukau, Eastern and Onehunga lines are relatively short branch lines compared to the full length radial lines that exist in many comparator cities. Auckland needs to more than double its rail lines to match these cities.
  • There is a fundamental difference between how New Zealand and USA, Australia and Canada treats taxation of employer provided parking and public transport and this creates some of the disparity in outcomes.
  • Several of the cities used for benchmarking have long standing CBD parking levies not applied in Auckland.

In defence of the Wellington comparison, it’s argued that:

  • Wellington rail has been electrified for some years. The operating and maintenance costs of electric trains are cheaper than those for a diesel fleet as used in Auckland
  • Auckland’s costs include insurance premiums for rail assets (rolling stock and stations). KiwiRail (Wellington) has traditionally self-insured its assets and only taken out public liability insurance.
  • Wellington has a strong CBD which is the dominant employment centre in the region. In contrast Auckland’s employment is dispersed over a number of centres which makes provision of PT services less cost effective.
  • Wellington’s urban form has been confined historically to valley lines resulting in linear catchments suited to linear rail services.

There are lots of improvements and plans ahead which are going to make a difference. We are excited about the new CAR electric trains.

And comparisons with other cities involve some tricky measurements which may ignore the fact that each city has its own peculiarities.

Mike Lee is so right in his comments on the the report by saying “it is essential to resist the temptation to brush them (the conclusions) off.”

But let’s not get into the typically parochial inter-city comparisons that only hold the country back.

We need to have the serious conversations other countries are having about reinvigorating rail using the latest technology and develop a bold plan on how we can upgrade train travel in this country along the same lines as much as is realistic considering our difficult terrain.

It’s such a neglected opportunity.

And how else will we compete with the potential international tourism spend in years to come?

Benchmark survey Final report





  1. James says:

    Europe is years ahead of us or we are years behind. I could catch the train from Amsterdam to anywhere in Europe and chance is it is a high speed train. And it is cheap as well. When i came here it surprised me to see that Auckland-Wellington has a slow old train and no high speed train…Maybe in e few years (30 years)

  2. millsy says:

    There is only one way for things to improve.

    Take the buses and trains and have them publicly owned, maintained and operated by Auckland Transport.

    Plain and simple.

  3. Matt says:

    I have to say, having recently done the trip, inter-city rail in Europe isn’t necessarily cheap. We caught the inter-city express between Berlin and Frankfurt, for EUR113 each, and the distance is < 500km. That's well over double the cost (NZD129 each for a ticket purchased at the station on the day) for Auckland-Wellington, despite the latter being further.
    Of course it's also only a bit over a third the duration, but largely across flat ground so significantly cheaper to construct.

    For better comparison look at Vienna-Berlin, which at its quickest is a 9:40 trip and covers a distance of around 600km. The cheapest available fares for 15 December (picked at random) for a daytime 2nd class seat are EUR49, which is significantly more than the NZD59 fare available for a seat on the 15 December Overlander. That journey, from Auckland, will take 12 hours, but it's further and a lot cheaper.

    NZ's much bigger challenge for real high-speed rail is our narrow rail gauge. If we wanted to have services running at 200+ km/h, we'd need to have a standard gauge line constructed.

  4. joust says:

    there is no silver-bullet single decision that will fix it all. What is needed is a wide and vocal public demand from voters and ratepayers, sustained investment and commitment from national and local governments. ad-hoc single projects and cuts have happened for decades. Had the same commitment to building our highway and local road network been applied to other modes during that time we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

  5. Matt L says:

    I don’t see it being economically viable to build high speed lines in NZ for quite some time for a number of reasons.

    What could be more practical is improving the speed and capacity of our existing network, especially between the ‘golden triangle’ of Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga. Queensland has some trains using the same gauge as us that are capable of up to 160kph so if we were to get some trains like that combined with things like better track conditions we could dramatically speed up travel between those two cities.

    Just as a comparison, Auckland to Hamilton via the existing network is about 140km, if we could get the average speed to around the 120kph mark we could see travel times of around the 70 minute mark. Hamilton to Tauranga is just under 100km so about 50 minutes at that speed making an Auckland to Tauranga trip only about 2 hours, much faster than you could legally drive that in even though its actually a longer journey.

    Whats more is this could be extended pretty much right into Mt Maunganui which could be potentially quite popular with tourists and would probably have benefits for freight traffic as well.

  6. Tim says:

    I don’t ever think that tourism should be the reason for infrastructure improvements - like the bike trails that our leader (John Key) has forgotten about, the improvements should firstly improve the lives of the locals, and as an effect, the tourists will also benefit.

  7. Paul in Sydney says:

    @Matt L

    Spot on - improve speeds up to the 160 mark, improve capacity, and improve rolling stock. Not only good for freight but passenger too

  8. Nick R says:

    While it would be nice if we had buckets of cash to spare, New Zealand doesn’t really need full high speed rail.

    I agree with the plan of upgrading tracks to 160 or even 200km/h in places. The main north island axis (Whangarei, Auckland, Hamilton, Tauranga) is only about 320km long, or a line north and south from Auckland each roughly 150km in length.

    This is on par with many medium speed regional commuter services in Europe (the real high speed stuff tends to be on major intercapital routes), and is also very similar to Melbourne’s recent regional fast train project. They upgraded four lines between 100 and 200km long, bought new DMUs etc and run them at up to 160km/h.

    Something similar for the upper North Island could be piggy backed on the end of the NIMT works from the turnaround plan. Even if they could get average speeds up to a fairly leisurely 80km/h, thats still only 2h45m to Tauranga which would be very competitive with car or air travel.

  9. Rob says:

    The priority is to get a decent suburban rail service going in Auckland first - a service that then gets its southern terminus extended from Papakura to Pukekohe.

    Once the AKL suburban train network has been in place for 10 years (from 2015) - including the Pukekohe extension, there may be enough sensible people in local govt by that stage, to pressure central govt to get electrification completed between Pukekohe and Hamilton. It is freight movement as well as passenger numbers that will get this link done. If we’re damn lucky, Auckland-Hamilton electrification for freight/pasenger may be in place by 2035.

    Having lived in Japan for many years, high speed rail can certainly run on narrow gauge track - Japan is predominantly 3 foot 6. There are many, many intercity express trains that run at 120kph and its absolutely fine speed/time-wise. NZ therefore certainly does not need standard gauge in order to say operate an express train between Auckland & Hamilton.

    That said, I can’t see any need for high speed trains in NZ other than an electrified commuter express (and an ordinary stop-at-every-station service) between Auckland & Hamilton in say 25 years time. We don’t/won’t have the population to justify HSTs and even an express service from Auckland to Hamilton requires extra track at certain stations to enable express trains to either pass or interchange with ordinary trains.

    Given NZ’s inherent slowness to get anything done, let alone done properly (planning & delivery), electrification to Hamilton, Auckland-Hamilton electric train passenger services and maybe even an express service by say 2035 will be an unbelievable achievement by our standards.

    I’d therefore put my money on a AKL CBD rail loop and electric train services extended as far as Pukekohe by 2025. That’s all our tiny, narrow, pathetic little minds can achieve unfortunately.

  10. Jeff H says:

    Fast Tilt Trains (140 kph) might be a solution to reviving intercity travel in New Zealand. Rail may never compete with air on distances greater than 300 kilometres here, but where rail can beat car /bus there’s a good chance it will be successful. Track improvements may make this possible and tilting trains are designed to perform on networks where curves are the norm. We should have asked Sir Richard Branson for a Pendolino when he was in town.

    On CBD loop - Were investigations and costings made on an elevated track instead of a tunnel (eg Hobson/Pitt St)?

  11. MrV says:

    What actually is the fastest speed safely obtainable on narrow (cape) gauge track?

  12. Matt says:

    Rob, high-speed rail is generally 200km/h+, and that’s never done on anything less than standard gauge. The only standard gauge in Japan is for Shinkansen, and those are also the only trains in Japan that are considered to be proper high-speed rail.
    120-160km/h is quick, but it’s not high-speed.

  13. Matt says:

    Jeff, I doubt any consideration was given to elevated because the grades required would be quite nasty (think about the topography from Britomart to K’Rd to the Western Line at Mt Eden) and there’re also some very significant challenges to trying to engineer an elevated heavy rail line through an already-built cityscape that places a premium on sight-lines.

  14. Jeff H says:

    Thanks Matt. I was sure there must have been some reason for that.

  15. Matt L says:

    Jeff - The grades up from Britomart will push the limit of what is possible with heavy rail and even then some of the stations will be over 40m below ground level.

  16. Paul M says:

    It is always surprising when people compare services in Europe, population 857 million according to Wikipedia, and services in New Zealand, population 4 million, without demonstrating an understanding of the economics that underly the provision of such services.

  17. Nick R says:

    Who cares about Europe as a continent, no one is talking about international services here. There are many countries in Europe with only 4 or 5 million people. They manage to have their own intercity train services quite comfortably.

    Croatia is a little less populous and a touch poorer than New Zealand and it has six busy intercity lines within its borders.

    Croatia has the ‘economics’ to run Bombardier ICN tilt trains on three return services a day between the cities of Zagreb (1.1 million) and Split (180k), a journey of 409km.

    Maybe I don’t demonstrate an understanding the economics that underlie such service provision, but why can’t NZ run a similar route on the 230km line between Auckland (1.4 million), Hamilton (143k) and Tauranga (114k)?

  18. Jeff H says:

    Air New Zealand recently expressed enough confidence in a growing regional market to commit $340 Million ordering 12 new European made ATR600 planes with options on 5 more. This is on top of it’s existing domestic fleet.

    Auckland to ever growing Tauranga - 35 minute flight time. Few trains could beat that. But factor travel time/cost to and from Mangere, traffic congestion, 30 minute check in requirement, wait for luggage, etc then it starts to look like a different story. Just $519 return if I book right now for a day’s business in the Bay tomorrow.

    Bombardier may have lost this round in the air to ATR but could it compete on the ground?

  19. George D says:

    Best comparisons in Europe are with Portugal, Sweden, Finland and Norway. The distances, population, and geography are similar enough in either case that we can consider them models for what is realistic.

  20. Pim says:

    If we’re comparing NZ to Portugal, Portugal has a few semi-hsr between Porto and Lisbon, operating at 200+ km/h. Portugal has 10 million, we have 4, soon to be 5-6 by 2050. I’d say that an intercity network with train going between Hamilton, Tauranga, Rotorua, and Auckland going at speed up to 150 km/h is viable and possible, and I think that I’ll probably see it in my lifetime (I’m 15). It’s more of a matter of time than anything. All it needs is for a bit of an upsurge in fuel prices, and perhaps a different economic climate, but I don’t think it will be long.


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