Save Our Rail Northland campaign coordinator Alan Preston. Photo / Tania Whyte
With the rising price of fuel and our roads under a constant state of repair, it’s surprising that the discussion of a new functioning public transport system is one rarely had.
Northland road users have
previously described our roads as terrible, shocking, dangerous and a disgrace.
Currently, two sections of State Highway 1 remain closed. A timeline was just yesterday revealed for the reopening of the Brynderwyns yet the Mangamukas remain in limbo as repair work is ongoing.
Despite the poor state of the roads, there aren’t many alternatives for transport for Northlanders or the rest of New Zealanders.
There are no rapid transit metros and no remaining tram (light rail) systems active anywhere in New Zealand, except for tourist services. Auckland and Wellington are the only cities to have suburban rail systems.
For Northlanders, bus transport is currently the main form of public transport and they share the exact same roads that our cars drive on.
A University of Auckland report recently found that driving is associated with psychological distress, particularly anxiety.
It is unsurprising that we feel anxious on the roads when last year Northland had the highest annual road toll its had in 22 years, where 38 people died.
On average, one person is killed every day on New Zealand roads and another seven are seriously injured according to Northland Road Safety, which calls Northland roads “challenging and unforgiving”.
Driving change; The argument for rail
Save Our Rail Northland campaign co-ordinator Alan Preston describes his rail activism as an extension of his understanding of climate change.
“We are a remote island nation; we are totally dependent on imports for energy,” Preston said.
Preston said under the current cost-benefit analysis the Government uses, rail will never stack up, because it doesn’t take into account the impacts of climate change, such as the increasing prices of fuel and damage from events such as Cyclone Gabrielle.
“The engineers who are costing motorways or railways, actually need to include the idea that we are we are catering to a population that fuel is going to become too expensive [for].”
Preston made submissions and presentations to the New Zealand government since they opened up the inquiry into the revitalisation of passenger rail in October last year.
“If everybody accepted climate change and thought it needed something done about it, passenger rail would be a no-brainer,” Preston said.
Preston has experienced a functioning extensive network of trains after living in Japan for 10 years, so he knows it’s possible.
“It’s a matter of prioritisation. It’s not that we can’t afford it, we can afford to pay $25 million a day for fuel.”
Rail produces 70 percent fewer carbon emissions than heavy road freight.
We once had trains; The history of rail in Northland
It was all very different nearly a century ago on November 29, 1925, when the North Auckland Line linking Auckland to Northland was completed.
The passenger train service the Northland Express, also known as the Opua Express, ran from Auckland via Whangārei to Opua in the Bay of Islands.
The service operated thrice weekly in each direction and mixed trains also operated from Okaihau and Dargaville to connect with the Express.
There was an initial decline in passenger transport use immediately post-World War II, private car ownership and use increased rapidly in the 1950s, during a brief period of great wealth in New Zealand and the post-war baby boom.
By the end of the decade the goal of British and US car makers for the Western World of “a car for every household” was in New Zealand close to being achieved.
Large-scale closures of branch railway lines followed. In the 1950s the Northland provincial express was replaced with railcar services, then mixed trains until they were all ceased by 1976.
Where are we tracking now?
Roadsafe Northland and Northland Road Safety Trust chairman John Williamson said rail is extremely important to the future of Northland, just not for passenger transport.
“Passenger transport for rail has been very much a part of what we have had in the past, but that’s long gone,” Williamson said.
“I am old enough to have been to boarding school in Whangārei and lived in Maungaturoto and at 7pm on Sunday evening I could catch a railway car at Maungaturoto station and be dropped off just before Carruth House, which was in the early 60s.”
Williamson is much more optimistic about the future of rail when it comes to the transportation of freight in Northland, and how getting trucks off our roads could make it safer for drivers.
“I think the rail link to Marsden Point is absolutely a key project which needs to be completed,” Williamson said.
KiwiRail’s website states that the national rail system has experienced “decades of under-investment,” until the recent unprecedented investment in rail by the Labour Government.
In Northland, KiwiRail is improving Northland’s rail and providing freight connections with Auckland and the rest of New Zealand said executive general manager operations Paul Ashton
“KiwiRail still runs freight to and from Whangārei, and in recent years the Government has invested more than $178 million to substantially upgrade the line between Swanson and Whangārei, including lowering the track in 13 tunnels so that modern shipping containers can be carried on trains,” Ashton said.
This work is mostly complete, though the line is closed at the time of publishing due to a massive slip on the track north of Helensville following Cyclone Gabrielle.
The Government is also investing in reopening the mothballed line north of Whangārei to Otiria, which will extend rail services further into Northland and enable more businesses to transport their goods by rail.
Ashton said the establishment of new rail passenger services should be led by local councils that understand the needs of their people.
“KiwiRail is always happy to support councils with technical input, and we are able to run passenger services should they be established – as we run Te Huia and the Capital Connection,” Ashton said.
Te Huia is a new commuter service between Hamilton and Auckland that was introduced in 2021.
The service is a five-year trial with subsidies from the NZ Transport Agency and Waikato local authorities. The only competing public transport service is by InterCity bus.