Not long ago Patrick outlined a proposal for gradually extending the proposed Pukekohe to Papakura shuttle train into the Waikato, to eventually end up with a Hamilton to Auckland service. That is a great idea.
The simple reality is that big and useful transport projects almost always start small and get expanded piece by piece. It’s not like any one of our motorways were built in one go, let alone the whole network. Indeed Spaghetti Junction was constructed in stages over thirty years. Similarly the rail network has gone through much iteration to get to a fully electrified network. First refurbished diesel trains, then Britomart, then Western Line double tracking, then the rest of project Dart, then suburban station upgrades, then electrification and new trains. Soon, hopefully, the City Rail Link will top it all off. Where the former big rapid rail schemes failed, inch by inch progress has succeeded.
However it is a slow and often painful process, particularly when other very expensive projects seem to get funded so easily. In this post I wanted to look at the big bang option for intercity rail across the Waikato and Bay of Plenty.
What if a package of funding for regional development suddenly appeared? What if some cabinet minister decided to buy votes with a high profile infrastructure package (please be my guest!), or indeed if they wanted a cheaper rail project for rural areas to obfuscate the delays for delivering the killer app for urban rail in Auckland?
So this is an estimate of how we might do an upper North Island rail service if we had a bit of money. I’m not talking fantasy land levels of cash for high speed bullet trains, but rather what might be realistic with a relatively small, but significant, funding package. What would work, and how much would it cost? (note, this post is a bit wordy and nerdy, so feel free to skip to the end).
First of all we need to work out what sort of train service we should be delivering. A simple but not always understood fact is that all good transit lines do many things at the same time. A line that serves just one market never gets particularly efficient or well used, it’s too stuck to the ebbs and flows of a small pool of customers. Take the Northern Explorer for example. It’s now targeted squarely at a luxury tourist market who have time to sit back and take in the scenery… and now it only runs a couple of times a week.
Rather any good rail line needs to be several things to several people to ensure it stays well used day to day. My view of the various markets that should be simultaneously targeted, and their transit needs, are:
- Regular commuters from Hamilton to Auckland, who want quick and reliable peak-time trips timed to serve business hours in Auckland on weekdays. So it needs to be quite fast, timed to arrive and depart Auckland at the right times, and probably needs a range of departures as commuters can’t guarantee they will always make a given service.
- Regular commuters from the towns of the Waikato to Auckland. They want the same things as above, but naturally the thing they would want the most is to be able to catch the train. This means that the service has to also stop in the Waikato towns and can’t just run express from Hamilton to Auckland. Here we might also consider university students who want to live at home in a small town, they’re similar to work commuters but would tend to have later starts to their day (and often later finishes too).
- Non-commuters from Auckland and the Waikato to Hamilton, and vice versa. These people might be business users, tourists or just local residents wanting to get to the big smoke for shopping, events, healthcare or whatever. These groups might not want to be on the train at dawn for a regular commuter, but would rather have some options for travel across the day and evening.
- Tourists, both domestic and international. Tourists are the reason I think we should consider trains through to Tauranga and Mt Maunganui as well as Hamilton. International tourists expect to be able to catch trains instead of flying for relatively short distances, and enjoy the scenery and comfort along the way, and the Bay of Plenty is a big market for this. Likewise local tourism is a big but untapped market for trains. A weekend away at the Mount becomes an easy option when you can sit back on the train rather than spend hours behind the wheel. This suggest a daily return train between Auckland and Mt Maunganui is a good inclusion (if not as frequent at the Waikato leg), not least because it would connect Hamilton and Tauranga too.
Service delivery requirements
If we put these requirements together, there is a relatively long list of service characteristics needed to serve them all. We need multiple peak time departures from Hamilton to Auckland in the morning, and back again in the evening peak. We also need regular departures in both directions across the day, and fairly late into the night. We need a train that can take people from Auckland down to Tauranga and the Mount and bring them back again.
Furthermore for the idea to work we need to do it all efficiently and cheaply. It has to be cheap and efficient to keep ticket price down to a level that is competitive with driving and flying, but likewise it has to be fast and frequent enough to do the same. It also has to be a comfortable and enjoyable experience, and a reliable and convenient one. It also can’t rely on a heap of new infrastructure or capital investment, because we’ll never have hundreds of millions to throw at this.
So can it be done? I think so.
The key to intercity rail is to work with what we have already, and design efficient operations from the outset. Then the money can be spent where it counts, probably on new vehicles and a few new stations.
Basic network characteristics
Let’s start by blocking out some basic characteristics to estimate a timetable, stopping pattern and the number of trains needed. The old Waikato connection did the Hamilton to Auckland run in two hours. I’m going to assume that with some new trains and careful planning we can do the same still (this might need the third main in Auckland to ensure a decent run time). On the other side, the trip from Hamilton to Tauranga was about an hour and a half. Here I’m going to assume we could extend the train to Mt Maunganui and still do the run in an hour forty-five. At the end of each run there needs to be some layover for timekeeping, crew breaks and a quick service, I’ve assumed 30 minutes there.
That might not be perfectly accurate but for the purposes of discussion that makes everything fall into convenient two hour blocks which helps us easily conceive the timetable. So four hours plus layover return Auckland to Hamilton, three hours plus layover Hamilton to Mt Maunganui, which also means three and a half hours from Auckland to Mt Maunganui and vice versa. It’s also simple for understanding crew requirements, each crew could do two short return trips or one long one to complete an eight hour working day.
I’m also going to assume that one intercity train each hour into Britomart can be accommodated with the current timetable. That’s obviously fine across the day and on weekends, but might be a bit tight for two or three peak time arrivals on weekdays. The main constraint is that with a thirty minute layover at Britomart the intercity trains would more or less need a platform to themselves, leaving only four for the suburban services. I think that should be fine. Twenty suburban trains an hour across four platforms is only five an hour each at the busiest time of day, hopefully quite achievable with our quick new EMUs.
Base of operations
Now to consider where the trains are based. Given that Auckland is the only place in the upper north island that has passenger trains it seems the logical choice for the home depot, but on closer inspection I don’t think that’s the best place to keep them.
Recent proposals for Waikato trains have been lacking because they propose to use Auckland based trains and crews. The problem here is that the first job of the day is to get Waikato commuters up to Auckland. That means you end up running trains down to Hamilton empty at about four in the morning so that they are in place in time to pick up the first northbound commuters. And in the evening after dropping the commuters home in the Waikato, you have to run your trains back up to Auckland again. As nobody wants to go from Auckland to Hamilton at four in the morning that’s a big wasted expense already: paying to run empty trains back and forth between cities. For that reason, I’m proposing that all the trains and crews be based and stabled in Hamilton. That way they are there and ready to take the first run north each day, and are back at home base after the last return back in the evening. So I’m assuming that a suitable stabling and staff facility can be accommodated at Frankton yard.
What more? Well there will need to be some stations. In Hamilton I’m going to assume the existing stop at Frankton, plus a stop in the mothballed city underground station to be nice and convenient for business users (this would need refurbishment). However, because the city underground station is only one track on the main east coast line you couldn’t terminate trains there without blocking the freight line to Tauranga all the time. So I’m going to assume a new twin track station should be built east of Hamilton central at Claudlands, this gives a good place to terminate Hamilton trains after calling at the central station and also provides a good place to get on and off. While we are at it lets also assume a new station at The Base in Te Rapa to serve the north of Hamilton.
So in Hamilton that’s new stations at Claudlands, Hamilton Central (refurbished), Frankton (existing) and Te Rapa.
In the Waikato, I’m suggesting stations should be delivered at all the towns and larger villages: Ngaruawahia, Taupiri, Huntly, Te Kauwhata, Mercer, Pokeno and Tuakau. Some of these already exist, in various states of repair from a full station to the space where a platform used to be. For example, the station in Huntly, although not especially pretty, looks like it could be bought into service immediately.
On the Bay side, I’m thinking new stations at Mt Maunganui and Tauranga CBD, one at Omokoroa to serve the growing area there, One at Waharoa to serve Matamata ( unfortunately just a few kms off the line), and at Morrinsville.
All up that’s sixteen new or refurbished stations, and one existing.
I was recently down in Tauranga and it really is just crying out for rail. The way the line passes through the CBD waterfront along The Strand presents the perfect opportunity for an ideally located station right in the middle of town. Likewise over at the Mount, the tracks actually run right up to the corner of Rata St and Totara St, at the foot of the Mt Mauganui CBD and retail/entertainment strip. It’s a perfect location, and there is even a disused fire station on the corner which might even be used for the station building.
For now let’s forget freight locomotives, refurbishing old carriages or the leftover suburban sets and assume we have the funds to purchase some new trains. My suggestion would be to follow the lead of Melbourne and their VLocity trains, which were brought in fairly recently to run a revitalised regional network and have been doing stellar service.
These vehicles are diesel multiple units (not locomotive hauled carriages) specifically designed for long distance use. Double ended means no need to turn them around at any point. They are modern, quiet and fast. They would have to be diesel powered to go where we have no wires, but could easily do well over 100km/h where the track allows. The interiors have spacious high back seats, luggage racks, toilets, water fountains and all the things you’d expect on a long distance train. Now Melbourne’s trains are indeed broad gauge so we couldn’t run exactly the same ones, but there are plenty of equivalent examples of narrow gauge intercity DMUs.
So I’m suggesting brand new purpose-designed trains that are efficient to operate, cheap to run, and very comfortable and civilised for hours long journeys. While it is true that brand new trains will cost about five million each, we shouldn’t need that many of them.
Right, so what would the timetable look like? Well starting from the start, for a useful service I think we need at least three departures from Hamilton to Auckland in the morning peak and three back in the evening peak. This is to give a reasonable range of options for regular commuters, including students and business users.
However given the four-and-a-bit hour round trip from Hamilton to Auckland and back, five trains and crews would allow an hourly service to be maintained. We also wanted to send some trains out to Tauranga and back, so we need another vehicle for that too. That brings the total to six.
So I’m going to use this to define the fleet and limit the timetable to six trains in service at any one time (In reality that requires seven trains, six trains in service each day with the seventh on rotation for breakdowns and routine maintenance).
I’ve suggested that the trains start early in Hamilton at quarter to the hour, and make the two hour trip up to Auckland also arriving at quarter to the hour. They would stay at Britomart for a half hour layover, then return back to Hamilton at quarter past the hour. A fairly decent layover is need to ensure they can keep to schedule even with some delays or disruption, plus having them arrive at quarter to and leave at quarter past makes things convenient for work times and appointments starting on the hour.
That means we have return trains from Auckland to Hamilton departing at 5:45, 6:45, 7:45 and so on, arriving at 7:45, 8:45, 9:45 and so on. In the other direction, the first service departs Auckland for Hamilton at 8:15, then 9:15, 10:15 etc.
That’s the morning peak taken care of, so on to our other trip demands. Well if we keep that hourly back and forth going all day long that takes care of most of the general trips. Effectively it’s the same service levels all day, that means the peak trains will be nice and full while the off peak ones probably less so. So be it.
But recall I was trying to continue some service both ways between Auckland and Hamilton across the day, but also get in some return trips between Auckland and the Bay of Plenty. My suggestion is the first departure from Auckland, the 8:15am, continues through Hamilton and on to Tauranga and Mt Maunganui, arriving at the latter at midday. It would sit there for about an hour while the crew take a break, and then return back to Auckland via Hamilton and carry on for the rest of the day. Also I have scheduled an early morning departure from Hamilton to Tauranga. This could be useful for some commuters, but the main purpose is to position a train for an 8:15am departure from The Mount to Auckland.
To give a good spread I’ve also suggested the last arrival at Auckland also be a Tauranga train. If you work back that means the 1:15pm departure from Auckland arrives at Tauranga at 5:00pm, then returns back to Auckland leaving the Mount at 6:15pm and arriving at 9:45pm. This then goes on to return to Hamilton and as the last service of the day, departing at 10:15pm and arriving at a quarter past midnight.
Right, got all that? No? Ok, well to summarise we basically have this:
- A train every hour across the day, both ways between Hamilton and Auckland. These start early from Hamilton for the commuters, and return late from Auckland for people going to shows and events.
- One train each way between Tauranga and Auckland and vice versa in the morning, and another each way in the afternoon. A fifth service runs back from Tauranga to Auckland in the late evening to make day trips work.
That’s the full schedule for weekdays. For Saturdays, Sundays and Public Holidays we can probably drop things a bit to save costs. For the weekend schedule I’ve dropped down to a train every two hours between Hamilton and Auckland, and vice versa, and dropped the early Tauranga to Auckland train. I have however kept the morning train from Auckland to Tauranga, the afternoon train each way, and the evening train back from Tauranga to Auckland.
So the schedule should work for commuters, tourists, business travellers and general travellers alike.
Putting that all into a timetable it looks something like this. On weekdays both the black and blue services would run, on weekends only the black would be operated.
The beauty of having all the trains and crews based in Hamilton is that you can easily manage your staffing schedules. The nice return legs of about four hours each means each crew can do to two shifts to complete a days work, with an hour or so break between. I’ve allowed one hour breaks at Tauranga for those crews, while the rest would rotate, hopping off at Hamilton for their break and get back on the next scheduled service an hour later.
Adding up that timetable we get 27 shifts a week, each four and a bit hours long. If we assume a crew member can do ten shifts a week, 48 weeks a year, we have the need for fourteen crews.
Each crew would need a driver, and an on board train manager. I think that’s all that is needed. If there were café services and the like there would need to be more staff, but hopefully that would pay for itself. For now I’m going to keep things cheap and efficient with only one driver and one other crew member to check tickets and look after the customers.
So how much would it cost to set up? Time for some sums.
The timetable would needs seven vehicles, six in service and one on rotation. At $5m each that is $35m for vehicles.
The other significant capital cost would be the stations. These need only be fairly basic platforms and shelters for the most part, with a little lighting and passenger information. I’ve not assumed any big park n rides or anything as part of this.
At Mt Maunganui, Tauranga, Claudlands, Hamilton Central and Te Rapa there is a fair cost to build a new and fairly substantial stations, or in the case of Hamilton Central to refurbish one. Allocating a million dollars each gives $5m. At the other ten new stations I’m allocating half a million each for a more basic facility. That’s another $5m, or $10m in total.
Assuming that the existing rail network can handle these trains, and that they can be stabled in Hamilton, brings the total capital investment required to $45 million dollars. That’s not much compared to many other strategic transport projects, well within the realms of reason for an election bribe!
It’s also small enough that sharing it between the councils of Auckland, Waikato and Bay of Plenty could be a realistic funding programme, even without central government help.
Operating costs and ticket prices
Capital costs for trains and setting up is one thing, a one off cash injection… but operating expenditure is for ever. The bigger question is how much would this network cost to run, and how much tickets would have to cost for it to break even.
Starting with the staff, fourteen crews consisting of a driver cost of $120k a year and a train manager of $60k works out to $2,520,000 per annum in crew costs.
To that I’m going to add another $1,000,000 a year for management staff, corporate overheads and marketing.
The third main cost is fuel. Using those Melbourne DMUs as a benchmark, they consume 1 litre of diesel per km. The current price of $1.50 a litre multiplied across the proposed timetable and route distances results in $2,760,480 per year in fuel costs.
All up this gives an estimated operating cost of about $6,280,000 per year. The one major thing missing from this equation are track access charges. I’ve got no idea what they might be or how to estimate them. For now let’s assume that they are waived for the first year while we are getting up and running.
All that translates to an operating cost per segment of $483 dollars. By a segment I mean a one-way trip between Auckland and Hamilton, or Hamilton and Tauranga, or vice versa. A return run from Hamilton to Auckland and back would therefore cost just a touch under a grand to operate.
So what does that mean for tickets? I’ll assume an average ticket revenue of $15 per segment. A return ticket from Hamilton to Auckland and back would be $30, while a return from Auckland to Tauranga would be $60. In reality you’d set the actual cash price a bit higher, paying GST and the like, and offer discounts for regular commuters, students and what not. Likewise shorter trips from the smaller towns would be a bit cheaper.
Specifics aside, at that nominal price you need to achieve an average of 32 fare paying customers per run to break even. That doesn’t sound like that much at all. Given that those trains can seat 215 customers, that’s only an average occupancy of about 15%. In reality you’re unlikely to see an even average like that, rather you’d probably have the peak runs filling right up while the off peak runs would be fairly empty.
But what does that mean in people terms? Given that most people will make a return trip, and that the long distance tickets would cost about double the Hamilton to Auckland ones, we can do a bit more figuring. After a little fiddling with the numbers I estimate the break-even point on operating cost works out to be about 420 return trips a day between Hamilton and Auckland and another 80 return between Tauranga and Auckland, on a normal weekday.
All up, 500 daily passengers (making 1,000 trips) seems to be about right for cost recovery. More than that and it starts to turn a profit.
Of course if we were happy to subsidise operations by a few million a year and only require a farebox recovery ratio of 50%, then we’d only need about 250 passengers making 500 trips a day across the network.
The bottom line
For an initial outlay of $45 million we could have brand new trains running every hour all day between Hamilton and Auckland, plus morning and evening trains to and from Tauranga and Mt Maunganui. These trains would serve simple, but functional stations at a dozen towns in the Waikato and Bay of Plenty, plus Auckland, central Hamilton, the Tauranga CBD, and Mt Maunganui. Compared to what we spend on intercity highways and suburban motorways, $45 million ain’t much capital to outlay on a system connecting half the population of the country.
Trains would take two hours to travel between Auckland and Hamilton, and three and a half hours Auckland to Tauranga. Those times are competitive with driving, particularly at peak times, especially if your interested in enjoying your time (or working) instead of holding the steering wheel. They’re also time-competitive with flying between the main centres once you factor in airport hassles.
To get thirty-two departures each weekday and a few less on the weekends would cost $6 million a year to run. Without any subsidy it would take around 500 fare paying passengers each weekday to break even, which translates to a fairly measly 32 customers on each run, on average. Is that really so far fetched with new trains giving frequent all day service?