TE HUIA, the “fast train” to “Auckland” has been a subject of some contention in my family. My brother-in-law thinks it’s a great thing. His sister (my wife) thinks it’s the worst sort of white elephant – the eye-wateringly expensive kind. I agree. Te Huia represents the very worst kind of compromise: the sort that saps the strength of the original proposition by confirming the strongest arguments of its detractors. This train isn’t fast and it doesn’t take you to Auckland. The best that can be said for Te Huia is that it reminds us of what we should have – but don’t.
In a sensible country – a grown-up country – Hamilton would be linked to Auckland by the sort of rail services New Zealanders encounter (and travel on) overseas. Trains like Trenitalia’s alta velocita (high speed) service that took my family from Venice to Florence – a journey of 260 kilometres – in just 2 hours. Hamilton is 93 kilometres from Te Huia’s destination, Papakura. The journey takes 1.5 hours! Hamilton to Papakura by car is a journey of barely an hour. To put it bluntly: Te Huia is not a serious rail service. A serious rail service would take passengers from downtown Hamilton to downtown Auckland in half-an-hour.
A serious rail service cannot be delivered to New Zealanders, however, unless and until our narrow gauge railway tracks are replaced by the much broader gauge required for high-speed trains. That New Zealand engineers weren’t permitted to opt for a broader gauge at the time the tracks were laid is just another example of those idiotic penny-pinching decisions that have plagued this country’s development for more than 150 years. The narrow-gauge “solution” was cheaper and allowed more track to be laid, but the long-term consequences were dire. New Zealand’s railway tunnels are as narrow as its railway tracks. Opting for a broader gauge would necessarily entail widening those tunnels – an eye-wateringly expensive proposition.
Too expensive. For New Zealand governments of all complexions it was easier to just go along with the conventional wisdom that dismissed railway transportation as yesterday’s technology. The private motor vehicle and the heavy lorry were deemed to have done away with the whole economic rationale for a comprehensive rail network. Investment faltered, efficiency declined, and the public lost faith in the state-owned New Zealand Railways.
This suited some people just fine. For the Right, railways had always smacked of socialism. Capitalism may have made billions out of railways in the nineteenth century, but in the twentieth all the smart money was on cars, trucks and aeroplanes. Even on the Left, arguments in favour of rail transport tended to be dismissed as the grunting of technological dinosaurs. Rail’s glory days, it was confidently assumed, had come and gone.
In New Zealand, this dismissive attitude was further entrenched by the gauge problem. The arrival of high-speed trains in the 1960s and 70s may have altered the financial calculations in places like Japan and France, but not here. New Zealand’s narrow gauge could not accommodate the new “bullet trains”, and no one was prepared to invest the sort of money that would allow the country to begin again with the new and improved rail technology.
Matters were not improved by the decision of the neoliberal Fourth Labour Government to turn NZ Railways into the poster-child of inefficient public ownership. Story after story was fed to the news media about the rail network’s extraordinary stuff-ups. Heavy machinery was said to have simply disappeared – only to turn up months later on some forgotten railway siding. Even worse, the whole organisation was described as over-manned. State ownership permitted workers who would otherwise be unemployed to have a job – or, as Richard Prebble might have said: "If sitting around brewing tea and smoking cigarettes can be called a job!"
The 1993 fire-sale of the once proud NZ Railways to private American interests was thus presented as a sort of mercy killing. At least the New Zealand taxpayer was no longer on the hook for its costly inefficiencies. A decade later, however, it was clear that New Zealand simply couldn’t do without a functioning railway network – not if Kiwis wanted highways they could drive on safely. What had been TranzRail became KiwiRail, as, once again, the network was brought under state control.
Just as well. The looming threat of Climate Change meant that the fossil-fuel powered transportation systems of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries could no longer be permitted to carry the lion’s share of passengers and freight. Though no one was brave enough to come right out and say so, New Zealand (along with many other countries) was objectively required to completely reconfigure and upgrade its rail network.
KiwiRail needs to become an all-electrically-powered, broad-gauged, and comprehensively re-equipped state-owned enterprise with state-of-the-art locomotives and rolling-stock. An infrastructure project of massive proportions and prodigious expense is required. But, when it is completed, New Zealand will have a sustainable, twenty-first century transportation network, capable of carrying both passengers and freight at high speed from Cape Reinga to Bluff – and all important points in between.
This new KiwiRail would make it possible for a commuter bound for downtown Auckland to board the high-speed Te Huia service in the heart of Hamilton at 7:45am and meet his business contact in Aotea Square at 8:20am for breakfast.
My brother-in-law should not settle for the present service’s very, very poor second-best – and neither should the rest of us.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 20 April 2021.
I can't even begin to imagine what turning the current narrow gauge (3 ft 6 inches into the international standard (4ft 8inches) would cost. Every track, every tunnel, every bridge, all the rolling stock, including all the new urban electric trains, to be replaced. At least $40 billion, maybe more than twice that.
For a comparison you could put a modern 4 lane road Whangarei to Christchurch for about $30 billion. It is 1,227 km, but about 250 km has been already been built. Based on the recent contracts, each 30 km segment costs $1 billion. It would be vastly more efficient than rail, given that it is catering for both trucks and cars. It would be much better to convert the entire vehicle fleet to electric with huge service charging centres every 100 km or so. Truck manufacturers are now just shifting into electric. New Zealand incentivising that would be so much better.
Going back to the Auckland Hamilton train. Yes, it should go right to Britomart, and yes, it should be electric. The whole main truck line should be electric. With better grades, and corners, even with the current gauge, it should be possible to do an average speed of 100 km to 120 km. That would mean about 1 hour 30 minutes for the centre of Hamilton to the centre of Auckland with a few stops on the way. It would probably require $1 billion of investment, in fact the costing work on this has been done. I reckon people would actually use such a service.
At least this would be a practical rail infrastructure project, with advantages running into decades to come. Labour governments are supposed to do things like this. They should get on and do it, and stop wasting time with silly virtue signalling projects. If Muldoon could electrify from Hamilton to Palmerston North, why can't Jacinda and Grant complete the job. They are wasting their time in government.
No government in New Zealand in the last 50 years has got more than 9 years. The current government have already used nearly 40% of such a term, with not a lot to show for it (Covid excepted). Don't waste the next 60%. If the standard government cycle is to be repeated, it will be 2035 before the next Labour government.
I would merely like to quote the cost estimates for the British HS2 proposal. That is a high speed, broad gauge train service proposed to run from London to Birmingham where it would split into 2 legs which would run to Leeds and to Manchester.
The cost in 2010 was estimated at 20 billion pounds. That rose to 33 billion in 2013, 56 billion in 2015 and then up to 107 billion in 2020.
Double them to get to New Zealand dollars.
Now tell me just how much you are willing to pay to provide the train network you appear to want? How many years worth of our total GDP would be appropriate?
We really don't have the density of population to justify these gigantic high speed rail proposals.
"This new KiwiRail would make it possible for a commuter bound for downtown Auckland to board the high-speed Te Huia service in the heart of Hamilton at 7:45am and meet his business contact in Aotea Square at 8:20am for breakfast."
And if by 2100 there is 3-4 degrees of warming and a metre of sea level rise - a degree of change that is quite possibly already baked in:
- will the business that requires this 35 minute rush to Auckland still exist - or will it have gone the way of many other bullshit jobs?
- how much of the beautiful wide gauge infrastructure you envision will be destroyed by rising water tables and seawater intrusion?
You are dreaming of the thing we should already have, the thing (as you have frequently pointed out), that should have been begun in the 1950's, so that in 2021 we would be in good shape to transition away from it. There is no earthly use in building it now.
Trains run in Queensland on narrow gauge same as here in NZ at 160kmh. Its all about track maintenance and getting the curves right. But reality is we are up against the farming and transport sector coupled with a hefty combination of flawed ideology, self interest and political expediency.
Keep the topics coming Chris, sooner or later the levee's going to break.
I took the cabbage train from Picton to Christchurch once. I think it took about 13 hours.
Kenneth Cumberland and George Andrews covers the main trunk line here
Queensland has tilting trains on narrow gauge tracks that can do 160kmh. Not quite the same as true high speed rail but better than we have at present
Wayne, I hear what you say about cost. I might suggest that we invert the argument and cost not doing it.
Very quickly there are big physical elephants in the room. These are researched elsewhere.
First there is no equivalent power to weight to energy output alternative to deisel, nor is there likely to be. That puts paid to future economic road transport.
Second, where does the electric energy come from? We are at hydro capacity, the real costs of solar and wind in terms of energy returned from energy expended make this a dubious prospect to replace fossil fuels. Nuclear ditto.
At the heart of Chris argument about trains is the need for lower energy alternatives as fossil reserves diminish. Rail and shipping fit the bill of current feasible technology, as opposed to future fantasies which confuse technology for energy. We must do as much as today with far less energy.
Hey Kat and Joe - Look what a ground-breaking post from Chris has brought in. Sounds like those Queensland trains would be worth a look. As far as the cost of what Chris has suggested, now would be the time to build a new high-speed train track with low interest, and a moribund economy, and raising money for Development Bonds in this infrastructure at a fairly low interest but stable, would take some money out of the hoooouusing bubble.
But then as AB says - this would be a long-term service system, and we don't know what will happen in the short to medium term. Earthquakes - the SI Alpine Fault movement would start off a bunch of reactions around NZ that would go on for decades. And how will business change? And will the finagling financiers have reduced us to India-like class conditions so that many people can only travel by clinging onto the side of the train. We wouldn't want one that went too fast for them. We have to try and think our way through this problem.
And would everyone please absorb as their guiding principle, the wise words of Ernest Rutherford when confronted with problems - 'We've got no money so we've got to think'!
And to throw a couple more into the pot for good measure:
'We're like children who always want to take apart watches to see how they work.'
'I have broken the machine and touched the ghost of matter.' https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Ernest_Rutherford
Both those are relevant to more than his findings, but to ourselves and our drives, and how we form ideas, conclusions, make decisions and plans, and find ways to carry them out. The why and how needs to be studied if humankind is to change so we have a better and sustainable future as children of the earth, which we are - surprise!
So many coner dairies had to close for your economic theory.
@Wayne Mapp, to start a journey one must begin. Quite simply we can achieve a workable and reasonably fast rail system suitable for terrain here in NZ utilising the existing gauge. It just requires the paralysis by continual politically expedient analysis to be pushed off the main line and onto a permanent siding.
"when the train left the station
It had two lights on behind
Whoa, the blue light was my blues
And the red light was my mind.............."
Sam Can you give us the whole thought? Just half or even a quarter, does not elucidate.
And as far as coner dairies are concerned, can you not get icecream in cones now?
To expand on the point about 9 year terms as being the norm for governments in New Zealand since 1950 and when they can do stuff.
If a government wants to do something that is basically irreversible they have to cement it into place in the first 6 or 7 years of their government. For instance Working for Families or Interest Free loans or Kiwisaver as done by Helen Clark's government. Or the letting of motorway contracts as done by John Key's government. Not just the reports, the planning and the consents, but the letting of construction contracts with work seriously started. Labour has honoured all the construction contracts, but they cancelled all projects where only the planning and consents had been done. For instance Warkworth to Wellsford.
So if Labour wants to electrify the main trunk and put on modern trains that go the the centre of Auckland, the contracts to do all of this need to be done this term. Surely that can't be too hard, the railway already exists! Just get on with it!
This will clearly put light rail in Auckland at risk. By the next election, I would be surprised if things have got beyond the planning and consenting stages. Maybe in 2024, after the next election and assuming Labour wins, the first construction contracts will be let. I would hope it will be a sensible enough project to integrate with the current urban rail, maybe a line paralleling the north west motorway, or if Labour is really ambitious, a rail tunnel under the harbour, with rail right to Whangaparoa. Contracts let in the last year or so of a government can be bought out, since only a small amount of work will have been done.
I think the Te Huia trial is set up to fail and is a waste of money.
A minimum for this trial should at least be direct from Hamilton to Britomart.
As an Auckland public transport user, I turn to using a car for a journey if the journey by public transport requires a break in the middle to transfer from 1 bus route to another bus route.
Te Huia is doing this to passengers where they have to get off Te Huia at Papkura and wait to catch a Southern commuter train - it really makes for a nasty commute so it will turn off lots off potential users.
Very good article.
My long held belief is what has kept NZ a poor nation is the fact that we're infrastructurally poor.
Easiest answer to the rail issue, lay a 2nd single piece of track to the outside, making moving to a more efficient wider gauge easier.
Although Wayne Mapp's idea of charging stations & helping road freight to shift to electric is also something that should be pursued... sadly it's something NZ won't see for well over a decade as the people running the show are clock punchers & PMC company men
Well I'm saying that NZRail should be spanked by Grant Robertson just in the same way he sends letters to Air Aotearoa because I want the King to be, fully clothed.
Now we only have NZRail. New Zealand doesn't have a Merchant Fleet of it's own and who knows if AirNZ will recover to pre corona levels.
A neutral government budget would have denied ideology, focused on regulations and maintaining institutional knowledge, the plumbers, carpenters, rail maintenance, health and education and so in to save for a rainy day.
This is what I dislike about corona, it's saying let's close the economy, reduce competition, let's get rid of some freedoms and human rights.
And oh we don't like Chinese or American policy so let's try and isolate them and prevent them from competing. Oh and we don't like Syrian Predident Assade why don't we send hit men to try and assassinate them.
The tragedy of this public health crises is its all about shying away from debating the idea.
So here we have an error made in good faith by Richard Prebble to sell NZRail while at the same time we have to much larger systemic errors in the logestics chain by Ports of Auckland and the NZ merchant fleet as well as AirNZ and Land Transport. These 3 sectors by design was given generous incentives . These are not good faith errors, they're instead the result of a holly corrupted process designed to misleading the public and legitimise banrupt ideology.
So we have to take a whole bunch of nonsense hestirics from all the unemployed armchair economics proffesors like the good as the doctor Wayne virtue Mapp by giving his bankrupt ideology nonsensical nothingness and then say his entire pile of nothingness is worth another shot.
I view both Labour and National as key components that performed alchemy from an industrial base to a rust belt. New Zealand's logestic chains could not have been rusted through with out the complicit efforts of both parties.
It's mendacity the result being that Jacinda will have to forgo ideology and centralise the system. Long may she rain.
I believe Auckland's passenger rail has to be sunk beneath the surface and cycle ways raised above ground. An Auckland tunnel crossing and then replace the Harbour bridge with something that can take heavy rail, move the ports of Auckland to Thames and move Devenport Navy base to Whanagarei with an auxiliary base in Greymouth for southern Ocean parols. There's much more that needs bone. Like $400 billion of projects and we have to get government and the Super funds in doing the heavy lifting.
Not enough really. Muldoon's rise means that Auckland is preserved in the 1950's. Complete with Arkwright and his cat.
The actual truth is that it would not cost all that much to reopen a third main trunk with 160km hr operation from London to Edinburgh via Leichster, Nottingham, Sheffield, Bradford, Carlisle to Edinburgh. You just reopen the old great central, Waverley route, Woodford tunnel for the branch to Manchester. The route path still exists almost unobstructed except for a bit thru Leicester and Nottingham. So in many ways the cost of reopening and expanding British rail is low as their are many closed rail corridors, eg the withered arm a second route Exeter-Cornwall and to Plymouth. New Zealand doesn't have the available closed rail and tram corridors of UK/US or even LA where light rail is laid on the old yellow and red team corridors. It isn't difficult if you want 100 mile per hour operation but if you want 200mph you need a new Railway that was the point about TGV and even Tokaido.The famous Mistral two electric trials in France in 205mph proved that really you new Railways system, that incremental improvement with diesel and even electrifying really didn't improve on what Steam was capable of Chapereon or Norfolk and Western designed to run at 145mph and indeed NYC Hudson's, the Pennsylvania Duplex and Milwaukee Pacific's and Atlantic's did actually run hundreds of miles at DC3 speeds of 120mph. But by 1951 a DC6 or Constellation on the 400 mile air route from NY to Detroit and Chicago to Minneapolis St Paul had already destroyed on those business routes. But the steam hauled trains at that time were vastly faster than any Amtrak train today on any route.
Very true. And in NZ the belated introduction of the double deck bus has really replaced most rail transport options I. Auckland and Wellington and intercity. That is never commented on, but is the fundamental actual change. Plus the retention of the ridiculous roundabout North Auckland railway has eliminated real transport option such as light rail as the corridor from it's Kyber Pass, Newmarket start on Broadway was essential to any actual light rail development.
Undersea tunnels are risky in areas where liquefaction might occur - says engineer in this link.
“Probably the most common source of difficulty with underground construction, is from liquefaction,” says Jonathan Stewart, UCLA professor of geotechnical engineering.
Liquefaction happens when damp, sandy soil loses its load-bearing strength during an earthquake. It can cause the ground surrounding tunnels to shift, with potentially severe consequences.
In 1995, the deadly Great Hanshin earthquake caused liquefaction that contributed to the collapse of multiple underground structures, including a subway station in Kobe, Japan
Also Eion Musk is boring again with some special machinery he has got. NZ will be wise to keep away from this master salesman of New Ideas. Think Simpsons and the Springfield Monorail disaster. Don't laugh too much it could be us. https://simpsons.fandom.com/wiki/Springfield_Monorail
Anyway why would we need a tunnel in Auckland in the near future - all they have to do ip there is get more mass transport going which is sustainable, and tax cars as heavily as cigarettes. No-one has actually got it that we are a poor country, after a brief period of euphoria in the world's financial casino, paying for our chips by selling our houses to rich people who are virtually our pawnbrokers.
Sam 21.56 Richard Prebble - good faith! What a sweet forgiving nature you have.
To ease congestion. The engineering is known. People said the same stuff about the Habour bridge, the inner city link, the tunnel. Meh.
Sam 19.31 Those areas that you mentioned having large engineering projects. They weren't underwater. It will make a huge cost difference for a city that is only 1 million odd people and getting odder! And it also has a number of volcanic cones scattered around, which indicate past upheavals. Let us have a little chant, 'We are only a small country, with a small population and can't afford everything we want'. Followed by the Rutherford rhetoric “We haven't got the money, so we'll have to think”.
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