The Hamilton - Auckland train, Te Huia

National and ACT MPs had a simple piece of advice to a host of local body politicians and even one of the country’s biggest home builderswhen they came to Parliament advocating more inter-regional passenger rail services.

The MPs said buses were cheaper.

Their comments came during a Transport and Infrastructure Select Committee inquiry last Thursday into inter-city passenger rail services.

National MP David Bennett said rail services could be subsidised — but only if they allowed for a new city of at least 30,000 people.

National MP, Simeon Brown, claimed that the Te Puia passenger rail service between Auckland and Hamilton’s daily load of 250 passengers was costing taxpayers $280 for each traveller.

That figure was contested by Waikato Regional Council’s Director of regional Transport Connections, Mark Tamura.

ACT MP Simon Court maintained the private sector could do the job cheaper.

“Are you aware that the intercity bus service, which is air-conditioned, has free Wi-Fi on board runs about 14 services a day, starting at 4:20 a.m., running through to 7:20 p.m. from as little as $20 between Hamilton and Auckland Central,” he asked  Tamura.

“They’ll get you there in 2 hours, which is quite a lot less than Te Huia.

“Is there any need for Te Huia if we already have the private sector delivering these services much more efficiently?”

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National MP Simeon Brown joined in.

“So do you think a $280 subsidy per person per trip for Te Huia is an appropriate level of subsidy, given the fact that the commercial world is able to provide the same service for as little as $20 per person per trip?” he asked.

Obviously, Tamura couldn’t answer “yes” to that question.

“Simeon, I absolutely agree it’s not cheap, but I think if we’re looking at long-term mode shift and getting people off the roads and also using public transport, that’s something we’re quite keen to work with government on,” he replied.

But in fact, other submitters to the Committee offered more substantial reasons for the Government to not only subsidise regional rail but to start commissioning more of it.

The other reasons fell into two main camps; that regional rail could stimulate economic growth and housing in the regions and also reduce emissions while it also reduced congestion.

Fletcher Residential, one of the country’s largest home builders, saw passenger rail as a valuable stimulant for new housing development.

“It is our view that inter-regional passenger rail is a major solution to the challenges for achieving New Zealand’s housing targets and delivering the country’s emission reduction,” said Steve Evans, Fletcher Residential CEO.

“It will be able to provide the reliable public transport routes that are a prerequisite for the sustainable mixed-use, medium and high-density developments that are becoming priorities for government.”

Evans said inter-regional rail was not necessarily a simple choice between diesel or overhead electric wiring; battery or hydrogen systems were now viable alternatives.

That could be important because the cost of electrifying rail lines is high.

“The electrification between Papakura and Pukekohe and Auckland, about 20 kilometres, is around about a $400 million investment, so electrification is not cheap,” Transport Minister Michael Wood told the Committee.

Wood said he had asked officials to look at a joint battery-electric train service as part of a Greater Wellington Regional Council service which would run from the DC-electrified Wellington urban train network to the unelectrified section of the line on to Palmerston North.

“That would basically result in an increased frequency of service, but also a largely decarbonised service,” he said.

But if the National and ACT MPs were critical of the Te Huia service between Auckland and Hamilton, they were positively hostile to any money being spent in Wellington.

Waikato list MP, David Bennett, addressed his comments to two executives from the Greater Wellington Regional Council though whether his fellow National MPs from Wellignton, Nicola Willis and Chris Bishop, shared his view would seem questionable.

“The Wellington region has received far too much funding over the years compared to other regions,” he said.

“No other region has a rail and road network of the scale of Wellington, and the percentage that you’ve received from Government is much higher than your percentage of population, whereas Auckland has been subsidising that and the rural communities being subsidising it for decades.

“How do we even that up now and give places like Tauranga, which have a far faster growth rate, the ability to share in some of that government money that Wellington’s taken a higher percentage of than really their population would have entailed in the past generations. “

The Council’s General manager of Metlink, Samantha Gain, said she wouldn’t want to be reducing the Council’s transport funding at present.

“We wouldn’t want to be reducing the amount of funding to the extent that would see a cannibalisation of the existing network,” she said.

“We are really confident that our Wellington public transport network serves our community well and the rail aspect of it is a really important part.

“So it may be that there needs to be additional funding to support other parts of the country.

“But in Wellington, we will definitely need to continue with the funding we have. “

The North Island Main Trunk rail line runs right through the Ruapehu District Council’s area from the infamous railway stop for pies and a cuppa at Taumarunui to the legendary Raurimu Spiral and down to Ohakune.

The Council’s mayor, Wes Kirton, said residents wanted train services across the main trunk enhanced with more services and more stops.

“We’re talking about people,” he said.

“We want to connect with the cities and regions.

“And I think this is time to step up and get people off the roads, those who have cars because many in that district do not have cars and the affordability of running a car, for example, is prohibitive for them, and they now have no option.”

Kirton said the study of inter-regional rail was a step in the right direction.

“We should be talking about connecting regions together for a purpose, and that is to get people out of cars and into rail transport.

“And it’s very, very important for the climate.

“It’s very important for people that have access to transport.

“I would suggest that the Government should be stepping up.

“That suggestion of whether we should be subsidising is a nonsense when I say that it should be subsidised on the basis that you cannot expect rail transport to be fully funded by the users.

“No country in the world does that.”

Bennett, once again, countered the proposal with his scepticism about subsidising rail.

“Both the Te Huia and the Capital Connection are projects that don’t work in the sense that they’re very expensive and attract a very small number of people and all those things,” he said.

“I’m just worried about the concept of what you’re proposing.”

Bennett said that any subsidised rail system needed to be based around a centre of growth to make it a viable economic option for the Government.

He then proposed a somewhat improbable target for a region whose largest centre, Taumarunui, has a population of 4840.

“Can you rejig what you’re saying?” he said.

“Because the concept is great, and as you say, you want to be able to have that network, but it needs to have a growth focus where you build a city of 30,000 people that actually accommodates that rail network to make it worthwhile for the government.”

Kirton, presumably well aware that the prospect of 30,000 people choosing to live in a city somewhere between Waiouru and Taumarunui was as remote as much of the district itself, told Bennett that he appreciated his hard-nosed approach.

“But can I suggest to you, you cannot afford to not pursue this rail option,” he said.

“There are various reasons; one is that you cannot afford to build more highways, to increase cars.

“And you’ve got issues with the climate change.

“Then there are emissions acts, for example. You’ve got issues with that further down the track.

“And one of the modes of transport that will help you over the line with it is rail.”

 Later Bennett told the Waikato Regional Council that any subsidising of rail would need to see a city come out of it.

“If you’re going to put that rail network, it needs to be 30 or 40,000 people,” he said. “No, it’s not going to come out of Horizons Council (centred on Palmerston North); it’ll be more the north where the growth is.”

“We want to see you give us some numbers and say, hey if you actually did it from Otorahanga o Auckland, we could put another 50,000 people in that area.

“That’s what we need to see to make it work, rather than the broad concepts, because we all get those.”

The Committee seemed nowhere near resolving the issues raised by Court, Bennett and Brown.

But one member, Auckland list MP Helen White, raised one other consideration; the romance of rail.

“When I was a little girl, we had the trains overnight; I’d love to do that every time I come to Parliament.”