A plan for a rapid rail network linking Auckland south east, to Hamilton, Cambridge, Tauranga and beyond, was unveiled last week by transport lobby group Greater Auckland.
The group hopes to receive government backing for the plan, which would cost up to $1.45 billion.
Known as “Regional Rapid Rail”, the plan aims to link together the “Golden Triangle” of Auckland, Waikato and the Bay of Plenty, which now makes up over 50% of New Zealand’s population and is expected to account for over 70% of New Zealand’s growth in the future.
The first stage of the project would involve a $10 million refurbishment of three 45-year-old Silver Fern railcars, which would provide basic services from Ōtāhuhu to Hamilton for a $20 fare, or onwards to Tauranga for $35.
Another $400M would be needed in the second stage, to extend the service south to Te Kuiti, and to include 17 high-speed tilt trains, which could reach speeds of 160km/h on existing tracks.
The final stage of the project would see this rapid rail transport linking Auckland to Tauranga, Rotorua, Cambridge, Hamilton and Te Kuiti, adding 15 more trains to expand the service to Rotorua, Cambridge and Te Puke, bringing the spend up to $1.45 billion.
Greater Auckland has sent the plan to various agencies of central government and local and regional councils, to Kiwirail, business groups, the railways union, and transport spokespeople in the major parties of parliament.
“We have launched the campaign to the public and consulted with a large number of groups, with a lot of support,” said Nicolas Reid of Greater Auckland, co-author of the proposed plan.
“As we note in the report, the only real way regional passenger rail can be delivered is with action and leadership from the central government. Therefore, the next steps are really for people to ask the government in Wellington undertake a business case and put RRR on the programme for funding and investment.
“We would also like to explore transport issues with the Cambridge community more,” he added. “To get the rail line back into Cambridge means putting the track back in on Victoria St. That would probably mean changes to intersections, maybe changes to the street network or removal of parking spaces. It would almost certainly require some level crossings. That’s something the community would need to discuss. Would residents and the business community accept losing some carparks around Whitaker and Lake Street in order to build the station? Are people happy to have the barrier arms coming down once an hour to get trains to Hamilton and Auckland once and hour? Stuff like that.”
Waipa Mayor Jim Mylchreest said Council had not yet received any formal request regarding the rail plan. “Once we see what the costs are, then local government can talk to their communities to see if they’re interested in, A, funding, and B, using the facility,” Mayor Mylchreest said. “I certainly wouldn’t want to pour cold water on the idea, any improvement to our transport system has got to be a huge benefit. But we would need to know more details about the costs and the practicalities of doing it.”
Hamilton and Tauranga Mayors were of a similar view, expressing their support for the positive benefits it would bring to the regions. Hamilton Mayor Andrew King said his council would back what they could and give support “where we can”. Tauranga Mayor Greg Brownless said the cost should be carried by government transport agency NZTA, which would benefit from reduced traffic on highways.
Already the Green party and the Labour party have pledged their support for the plan, with Labour leader Jacinda Ardern announcing on Monday their own $20 million plan for a commuter railway connection between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga. But Transport Minister Simon Bridges was quick to point out flaws in the plan, saying Labour has seriously underestimated the costs of operating and running a commuter line. “They’ve come up with something on the fly to get headlines,” he said. Hon. Bridges added that the existing freight line between the Port of Tauranga and Auckland is nearly at capacity, so the plan would require new tracks. “That’s billions,” he said, adding that roading projects can cost up to $30 million per kilometre, where as heavy or fast rail is more likely to be $100 million per kilometre.
“The Government is always open to considering new ways New Zealand’s transport system can be used,” said Hon. Bridges. “The Regional Rapid Rail proposal seems to have seriously underestimated the capital costs required for a fast commuter rail service. The Government continues to be open to considering new commuter rail services, like the Hamilton to Auckland route. Any proposal would need to be backed by a sound business case.”
Local MP Louise Upston said the Government is open to considering ways to improve the country’s transport system. “It is important that any proposal to link Auckland to Waikato and Bay of Plenty has a solid business case behind it and that taxpayers are not subsidising rail transport that is not well used,” Hon. Upston said. “If and when Auckland to Hamilton is running successfully as a commuter line, that would be the time to consider services further afield.
“A rail link would likely result in more people seeking to move to areas such as Cambridge. As the local MP, I would want to be satisfied that infrastructure to support increased population, such as schools and housing, are in place or well into planning before a rail link was built.”
Local figures, including Chamber of Commerce CEO Tania Witheford and Destination Cambridge manager Roger Gordon have expressed their support for the opportunities rail transport would bring to the town, but added that the plan would require effective investment and a sound business case.
A spokesperson for KiwiRail said the organisation had not been formally approached in regards to the Regional Rapid Rail proposal and did not have detailed costings or designs, but added, “We are keen to engage with parties who can bring credible investment and ideas to the table.”
A spokesperson for Waikato Regional Council said the organisation is already comitted to taking a fresh look at establishing a commuter rail service between Hamilton and Auckland, which will be discussed by the regional transport committee at its next meeting in Hamilton on September 4.
“During the meeting the committee will consider a report that recommends the development of a strategic business case to examine public transport connections, including rail, between Hamilton and Auckland,” said Wendy Valois, communications advisor for the regional council.
The Regional Rapid Rail plan is available to view at www.greaterauckland.org.nz/2017/08/17/introducing-regional-rapid-rail/