Looking at a number of separate but current issues got me thinking about the possibility of the return of passenger services on the existing rail lines through the Waikato. These include:
- The potential appeal of well connected and well designed satellite towns.
- The difficulty of retaining vitality and that appeal in many existing country towns.
- New challenges and opportunities for a number of Waikato towns caused by the rerouting of SH1.
- Population growth pressures on Hamilton and Auckland and the poor quality of recent ex-urban spread.
- The existing rail lines and legacy stations in the Waikato.
- The coming availability of Auckland’s current diesel passenger trains.
Starting with the last point I would like to stress that I am not proposing a Hamilton-Britomart intercity service. This idea has a great many practical problems in particular the crowded condition of both Britomart Station and the Auckland network, it is simply too hard to fit additional services through the Auckland network without more track and the CRL to free up station space at Britomart; so no time soon. But also the fact that the market for such a direct service is unproven and likely not large, especially as it would not be competitive with buses using the motorway for price or speed. The billions being spent in the Waikato countryside is speeding the road route there and even if the Auckland network can jam up at anytime for any number of reasons [I spent a loathsome hour getting from Otahuhu to the city on SH1 last week], it still will be hard for the existing rail route to be competitive. At least until such a time as it could run reliably and directly through the Auckland network at speed.
No I have another suggestion that is to embrace the available resource of the line by going instead for coverage and local connectivity. But it starts in Auckland still. The plan is for Auckland’s new electric trains only to reach as far south as Papakura so a few of the current diesel trains will remain as a shuttle service from that station south to Pukekohe. This system will be in place in late next year and Papakura station has been upgraded to facilitate its operation as a transfer point between the two rail systems.
So the first idea is simply to extend the coming southern shuttle between Pukekohe and Papakura south to connect with the towns of the northern Waikato already on the line. Even just extending those services south to Tuakau, the next town on the route to Hamilton, and then to the growing town of Pokeno would cost very little and offer an opportunity to test the idea. But I’m sure the people of Ngauawahia and Te Kauwhata would be pretty keen on the service too going on information from previous intercity proposals, and if a service goes that far it would be crazy not to continue into Hamilton. It would then have anchors* at both ends and not just be an appendage of Auckland’s system. On one hand then it would just be extending the Pukekohe catchment and on the other offering those country towns the chance to redevelop the areas around their stations as well as an additional way to travel within the wider region. Politically and financially it would require the Waikato Regional Council to work with AT and agree on the details. Let’s assume that’s not impossible.
As the line to Pukekohe is likely to be electrified and intermediate stations added this service could then terminate there instead of Papakura and become a much more intra-Waikato one, still linking into the big and frequent Auckland network at that network’s southernmost point for further connectivity. So the possibility arises to take the service south to all the points on the line to Hamilton and even beyond, so say:
- Tuakau [apparently has .5mil budget set aside for a station]
- Te Kauwhata
- Te Rapa [new station at The Base mall]
- Frankton [Existing Station]
- Hamilton City [The surprisingly already extant underground central city station]
- Claudelands [new station Hamilton East]
No new track. Simply station and safety upgrades or reinstatements of legacy stations and two new at grade stations in Hamilton.
By not trying to race between the two big city centres the added stops become an advantage rather than a disadvantage. It would be as much about travel between any points on the line as end to end and be a tool for regional placemaking. And of course there then is the option to include Te Awamutu to the south, and Morrinsville and Cambridge to the east for more of a pan-Waikato network.
The Waikato District Council could slowly build up a programme using the onetime opportunity of Auckland’s Diesel units in much the same way that Auckland did with Perth’s, assuming it works sufficiently. It’s a low risk chance to grow something new in the Waikato in part taking advantage of Auckland’s proximity by plugging into that bigger network but really focussing on its own region. Particularly to do something for the towns along the route.
Below is a strangely nostalgic map from NZTA designed to promote their massive programme of highway building through the Waikato countryside all this decade; trying to make costly heavy engineering seem all cosy and approachable like something in a kid’s book [particularly 1960s- just like the whole RoNS idea].
Other than the attempt at cute and the apparent use of the current SH1 entirely by cyclists in the future [!], the key thing this map tells us is that pretty much all the towns on the current route are about to become bypassed. So in as much as they rely on passing traffic for business and vitality that game is up, or soon will be. But also of course in as much as their centres are severed and made unliveable by the heavy traffic speeding through them there is an opportunity too for these places. The scale of the works is more apparent in this version:
A reinvention for the likes of Huntly and Ngaruawhaia is going to be required, but this work usually never happens when NZTA leaves town, although surely there is an opportunity and a need to reorient these places from being focussed around the traffic that used to race through them. It will be up to the local communities and the District Council to unlock the possibilities made available by SH1 going. The chance to restitch their mainstreets back together, calm the remaining traffic; in short make place; to build a new identity and economy in these communities. Could the return of a rail service linking these places, anchored by the two big metropolises, have a role in this? The currently unused stations could certainly be a focus for redevelopment, cafes, information centres, markets etc. A focus for the rediscovery of place and character.
The rail line is less direct than the new road precisely because it connects all these old towns like pearls on a string; so I suggest don’t fight that essential characteristic of the route, use it for local interconnection and not as an attempt to imitate the highway which will soon completely bypass these towns as it expressly designed to avoid them to better serve interregional movement.
Above is a rough outline from Papakura south. It is clear that Tuakau and Pokeno could easily be served as Pukekohe extensions, then there is a bigger jump to the old towns south of Pokeno to Hamilton which would make it much more than an extension of the Pukekohe service. And finally a possible third stage east and south of Hamilton out to Morrinsville, Cambridge, and TeAwamutu. So three stages:
The first stage should gain support from those advocating country living. We are often told that Satellite Towns are a great way to get the best of all worlds; right in the country, but with the social hub of a village centre, and connection to the employment, education, and action of the big city. But to get this the detail matters enormously. Quality of place takes work; those three boxes all need to be properly ticked. Here, I suggest, is a mechanism to help achieve this work.
For example look how they are marketing the spreading little north Waikato town of Pokeno:
Note the mention of rail right in the same sentence as the state highways as a selling point for Pokeno, yet there is no rail service, and no plan for one either. I agree it would be great if there was. Not least because it would give the town an opportunity to develop as a real Satellite Town, not just a piece of displaced sprawl as it seems to be becoming now. The station and surrounding amenity could become a village centre of the kind at the heart of the successful country Satellite Towns around overseas cities.
The TVOne report linked to on the website above is worth a look. It is a good showcase of the often confused thinking, particularly by those that consider themselves experts, on the issues of urban form and the role of transport infrastructure in shaping those forms.
Here’s a quick look at the easily available Hamilton City Stations. Hamilton being the other anchor* of this line.
The triangle is the existing Hamilton Station at Frankton, the rectangle is Hamilton’s big secret, the country’s first underground urban station, never used. And the line a rough position for an East Hamilton station, around Claudelands, with good residential walkup and next to the Claudelands Convention Centre. These are about a kilometre apart. There is a good opportunity to add a station at the back of The Base at Te Rapa, and a more difficult option for one between that and these three city stops perhaps at Forest Lake Rd. Although the surrendering of rail land for a duplicate highway through there has squeezed the corridor and added to the severance both of which would make this more difficult and expensive. So it goes. However this little urban network alone could be quite useful; Claudelands to The Base certainly looks handy, nicely balancing Ngaruawahia to the city say.
While it is the case that the forces associated with the massive road build currently taking place in the Waikato have been strongly opposed to any rail revival in the region I think for them to continue that now this would be to misunderstand the potential and the purpose of this project. As conceived here it is complimentary to the huge highway system. It is to serve those communities left behind by the Expressway; to help them develop into stronger entities in their own right. To help mitigate the shock of the departure of the highway and to take advantage of the new possibilities that must be found for these places. This project is no threat to the vast sums being spent on highways.
This is a very different argument than that for improvement and extension of the Auckland network for which there certainly is growing demand of significant scale, but I can imagine local people getting behind such a proposal. So a good first step would to hear their views here and if supported then to work towards getting some real analysis done. After all this is not a detailed proposal more a bit of free thinking. After the low hanging fruit [and admittedly Auckland centred] first stage I concede it gets trickier:
- What sort of frequency would be required for a meaningful service?
- Could such a frequency be justified by the ridership?
- How to set the ticket price to stimulate uptake but also help fund operations?
- How do you balance economic value of place and social quality against financial costs?
- Is this the best stopping pattern?
- Are the trains available? Suitable? Affordable?
- Will KiwiRail be cooperative?
And finally is this the kind of thing that the people of the Waikato want?
Thanks to Jon Reeves and CBT for additional information
* Anchoring. Here is Jarrett Walker:
“So transit planners are always looking to anchor their lines. Anchoring means designing a line so that it ends at a major destination, so that there will be lots of people on the vehicle all the way to the end of the line. A line with strong anchors at each end will have more uniform high ridership over the whole length of the line, and a much more efficient use of capacity overall.”