Change through trial and adaptation

A national passenger network will take time and money. How can change occur when there are limited resources available?


Fiona Christeller

6/14/20233 min read

selective focus photography of white arrow signage
selective focus photography of white arrow signage

Firstly, I’d like to commend the research, work and campaign information being provided by the communities who support regional passenger rail transport in New Zealand. It is a no-brainer that if more people use public transport, cycling and walking instead of cars, they will be contributing to reducing the effects of Climate Change, even in a small way.

I strongly support the campaign objectives set out in Save Our Trains (The Future Is Rail) submission to the Parliamentary Inquiry into the future of inter-regional passenger rail in New Zealand Aotearoa. The campaign outlined the need for a national strategy for passenger rail services, followed by a roll-out of a more comprehensive and integrated public transport network.

However, it all sounds like it will take time, …. and be expensive …. and inevitably have adversaries, particularly around cost. I am a baby boomer: I’m partly responsible for the mess the planet is in, and I would like to promote ways to act urgently, …., at an affordable cost!

While I agree with delivering a long-term strategy and developing options to achieve this through a business case process, this blog is to promote a complimentary action plan to get started quicker. Nationally Councils are being encouraged by central Government to trial street changes by reallocating space to more sustainable modes of transport, e.g. bike lanes, using low cost, high impact and quicker changes. The consequence is less upfront cost and with the opportunity for adjustment leading to better outcomes, letting user experience and practical issues which present themselves to inform and provide evidence for a plan to implement the long-term strategy.

Here are two such trial ideas which mesh with the objectives of those promoting regional trains, but which could be implemented quickly and would encourage mode-shift using current services:

The Great Journeys trains

These trains are infrequent and expensive, presented as a travel experience and often need to be booked ahead. As a first step to getting more passengers Kiwirail could:

Keep the first-class tourist carriages, providing first class amenities as shown above, and add economy class carriages as well, at reduced cost, for those willing to travel with a sandwich or use a vending machine. In New Zealand, Intercity buses offer a standard or a gold seat option. Internationally there are examples of trains offering economy, first and business class options. Affordable fares are also available: Germany offers a 9-euro public transport ticket to encourage their citizens to travel everywhere by train and Denmark has an orange ticket system encouraging early purchase of reduced-price tickets.

Keep the luggage cars – this is essential to carry bikes as well as other luggage – so many people of my generation (and others) are travelling all over NZ, in cars, to bike various trails. Get them onto trains.

Let’s challenge Kiwirail to double their Great Journeys passenger numbers within 2 years by marketing the service to non-tourists and adding capacity.

If the trial gets locals onto trains, then the case for extending the service to Dunedin, Whangārei, and Tauranga, and adding a night train becomes easier to argue.

Mixed trains

The Save Our Trains (The Future Is Rail) submission suggested a mixed train option on regional routes, using passenger trains to carry freight. This is a really great solution and is used overseas but requires the introduction of new services (including feasibility, cost analysis etc). I suggest flipping this and building on what is already available.

Instead, in the short term, on some existing freight trains, at particular times, a passenger carriage or two is added. This trial would get people moving, without huge expenditure or a major change to current systems. According to Kiwirail, there are 4,128km of railway lines and 1,350 railway stations around NZ, and there are 900 freight trains per week. Why not use some of them?

It would get me, my family and friends and our bikes to destinations around the country without using a car or plane. It could provide a low-cost, high impact, quicker mode shift opportunity.

The real benefit of making change through a trials process means that there is an opportunity to test ideas, tweak and adapt to solve practical issues which arise, get feedback from all parties, and feed into good permanent outcomes. I encourage us all to continue to work towards the vision of a connected, reliable and frequent passenger rail service connecting Aotearoa, but also to initiate change SOONER.