Today I accompanied a group of Norwegians on the 830am InterIslander ferry from Wellington. After a short stop Picton for lunch we boarded the Coastal Pacific bound for Christchurch at 1pm.
Without doubt the Coastal Pacific is a superb rail journey. Fantastic views of rolling green hills, snowy topped mountains, surf-swept beaches, and braided rivers avail themselves along the entire length of the trip.
The recently refurbished KiwiRail carriages were an unexpected but welcome treat – comfortable chairs, good lighting, wood paneled ceiling, and generous over-head luggage storage capacity. The outdoor viewing area was a relatively unique kiwi addition and provided not only fresh air but also reflection-free photo opportunities.The best innovation, in my humble opinion, were the extra windows incorporated into the ceilings of the carriages, which ensured we were bathed in copious amounts of natural light.
In my opinion, the worst part of the Coastal Pacific experience was navigating oneself from the ferry to the Picton Rail Station. To provide some sense of the navigation challenge facing your average traveler you should check out the station on Google Street View. I have inserted the general view as one approaches the station below.
Here we have what I call a “camo-station”, that is a train station that tries to hide from the world (Te Mahia in Auckland being the best example). It is not until you actually pass the vehicle entrance to the Picton Train Station that I could see a sign indicating the station itself – and this sign is somewhat ironically designed for vehicles.
Nonetheless, my overwhelmingly positive experience on the Coastal Pacific got me pondering (as one does) the future of passenger rail in New Zealand. Note that when I say “passenger rail” I am not referring to the urban rail networks that operate in Auckland and Wellington (which are the usual topic of conversation on this blog); instead I am referring to inter-city, long-distance rail journeys of the type that is more common in Europe.
New Zealand also confers some natural advantages to passenger rail. Our beautiful but tortured scenery makes driving difficult. Moreover, many visitors to these shores come from countries that drive on the right side of the road, for whom the thought of driving long distances a rather intimidating prospect. On the other hand, it’s important to acknowledge that passenger rail in New Zealand will rarely compete with cars and planes for short and long distance trips respectively. Moreover, outside of the upper half of the North Island our densities are generally too low to warrant considerable capital investment, of the type found overseas.
Passenger rail’s competitive advantage therefore seems to be for relatively scenic trips over distances that are sufficiently far that driving is onerous, but not so far that it’s worth the hassle of getting yourself to/from the nearest airport. And when you look at New Zealand’s existing passenger rail network (illustrated below), we find that the two most successful services, namely the Coastal Pacific (Picton-Christchurch) and Tranz Alpine (Christchurch-Greymouth), tick all of the aforementioned boxes. Both services offer spectacular scenery and take about 4-6 hours.
The recently re-launched Northern Explorer is actually the exception: It takes 12 hours to complete a trip between Auckland and Wellington. I have taken the Northern Explorer twice and both times were, shall we say, not particularly pleasant. The trip is long and not particularly scenic compared to the Coastal Pacific.
For this reason I’d like to suggest that KiwiRail consider terminating the Northern Explorer at National Park. The “leftover” service could then be reinvested into a new service that would operate between Auckland and Rotorua or Tauranga. Truncating the Northern Explorer at National Park and reinvesting the service in this way has several interesting implications:
- Doubles frequency between Auckland and Hamilton;
- Justifies re-opening Hamilton’s downtown/underground rail station (which sits under the current bus station); and
- Provide rail service to reasonably large and new rapidly growing cities in the Upper North Island.
The down-side is that locations between National Park and Waikanae receive no service. There is also a potential downside in terms of network structure: Abandoning service south of National Park effectively segregates New Zealand’s passenger rail networks in the North and South Islands.On the other hand I suspect few passengers actually travel through by rail from South to North Islands and the few that do might be convinced to use a bus and/or plane.
I’d be interested to know what others think about the merits of such a change. Is the new service a better option than the southern section of the Northern Explorer? It seems to me that the latter ties up a lot of passenger rail resources that could be better used elsewhere, but I’m happy to be corrected.