Rob Rattenbury remembers when there was a train station at Taupō Quay in Whanganui. Photo / Bevan Conley
The government has informed New Zealand’s transport sector that it wants a 35 per cent reduction in emissions from freight transport by 2035, 13 years from now. Not long, in the order of
This will cause major headaches for the sector, especially our aging rail system – under-resourced for years, still basically using the same network built in the late 1800s and early 1900s for different times and with different technology. It is a brilliant railway system when you consider the country’s topography. It was hugely challenging to build and is still hugely challenging to maintain.
I’m a bit of a railway nut – nothing like a good train on a fine day. Even better if it’s an old steam train. I can remember a time when New Zealand had an almost half-decent passenger train service. Other than in Auckland and Wellington, passenger trains are now an extinct species in New Zealand.
Yes, it was slow and never made money. But it provided another transport option than using cars or long-distance buses. Flying in those days was an exorbitant luxury. Who’s to say it won’t happen again in the future?
I can remember the old railway station on Taupō Quay. Yes, our CBD had its own train station. The railway arrived in Whanganui in 1878, but was only used for freight services from 1959. The good thing is that – with some passion, many millions of dollars and a will – it could come back.
A branch of the existing Castlecliff line to either where the old station sat or, even better, straight into Maria Place, perhaps under Cooks Gardens. Details, details, best left to engineers, but dreams are free.
Passenger trains should be considered a social service, never a monetary investment. Imagine a fleet of modern electric railcars and passenger trains connecting the provincial centers across the country, serving the small country stations again. Offers a service for travel between cities in the provinces. Gives us all an alternative to using the car.
Battery technology is evolving, and trains are now designed to be recharged during the journey through regenerative braking and at charging stations. In New Zealand’s case, the North Island already has an electrified main line between Palmerston North and Te Rapa. Why not extend the catenary system across both islands so that our trains become electric in time?
Whanganui could at least have a large park and ride facility in Eastown for commuter workers to Palmerston North, but also with a regular bus service from Eastown to the city if the idea of a new station in the CBD is a stretch too far. .
Regular bus services in cities and provincial towns will of course be essential to the success of passenger trains. Commuters and passengers do not want to walk miles from the train station to their destinations. This system has worked well in the Greater Wellington area since the 1920s. Why should it not be expanded nationally?
The costs will of course be enormous. But we are facing uncertain times where we really need to look at alternative forms of transport that are cheap, or even better, free for passengers, subsidized by increased and improved rail freight, and get the huge trucks off the roads in the process. A social service paid for by grants and taxes.
Imagine getting on the train either at a new CBD rail station in Eastown, gliding across the country in comfort and getting off at say Palmerston North, where you’ll be met by a decent bus service to get you where you need to go and back to the train station when you are ready to return.
Imagine being able to take the train to Wellington or Auckland for shows, sports or to see the family.
Our old railway system would need major works; doubling of main lines, reinstatement of old closed lines, construction of completely new lines. It is technically possible, but having the political will to do anything is another story.
But I still like the idea of a new railway station down on the quayside with people coming for sporting events, shopping and work. Perhaps in time, the reintroduction of a passenger service to Castlecliff, with stops on the road serving Gonville and Tawhero.
If any government is really serious about addressing emissions and the reduction and eventual elimination of fossil fuel use, it’s going to have a huge cost anyway. Why not take the opportunity, using modern technology, to rebuild our rail system and improve the services it can provide for us all?
It’s a new way of thinking. New Zealanders love their cars and their independence, but we can still have cars, of course. We can also have a cheap and alternative travel option.
I just hope we can still have steam trains as museum exhibits in running order.