Modern Passenger Rail for New Zealand: Part 1

Reinstating national passenger rail is logical, it really should be as simple as purchasing a fleet of new trains and progressively upgrading or building new stations - there are of course a number of other things which must happen beforehand, all of which require political will, pragmatism, investment and commitment.


Michael Nicholson

5/30/20238 min read

Reinstating national passenger rail is logical, it really should be as simple as purchasing a fleet of new trains and progressively upgrading or building new stations - there are of course a number of other things which must happen beforehand, all of which require political will, pragmatism, investment and commitment.

It is not that long ago that New Zealand had a passenger rail network with good national coverage, most of the network was injudiciously dismantled in the early-to-mid 2000’s. Since then, our population has grown, our roads have become busier and more dangerous, greenhouse gas emissions from the transport sector are high and have continued to increase year-on-year, our regions have become less connected with a serious lack of transport options to choose from, and public consciousness has intensified around climate change and what this means for our future.

There is a growing call for modern passenger rail to take a more fundamental role in New Zealand's transport. The recent Select Committee Inquiry into the future of inter-regional passenger rail, and research by 'Save Our Trains', clearly shows strong support for national passenger rail, and that support crosses the political spectrum.

Most countries are improving and expanding their passenger rail networks as a means of climate action and to better connect their people. Passenger rail systems around the world are seen as basic public infrastructure and are enjoying increased investment in new equipment, modern night trains, high speed and fast rail, new and expanded routes.

In recent years the government of New Zealand has invested in rail track and infrastructure rehabilitation, following a prolonged period of neglect. Now it is time to advance transformational improvements which will permit the development of modern passenger rail. Long-distance trains are needed to help reduce New Zealand's reliance of road and air travel, trains are an excellent way to affect mode change, reduce emissions, connect cities and regions, improve transport resilience, save lives and rejuvenate regional economies. Trains which connect our regions are the missing link in New Zealand’s public transport system.

KiwiRail's passivity and indifference towards long-distance passenger rail for public transport, sets the scene for passenger rail In New Zealand. KiwiRail is the rail industry leader - government, organisations and people listen to them, their institutionalised ‘can't do’ attitude is not helpful and undoubtably influences general perception. To be fair, KiwiRail is juggling a few balls, freight and ferry operations, major unplanned events, catch up maintenance on infrastructure, and some big upgrade projects. The constraints of being a State-Owned Enterprise also come into play. At this time, it is likely easiest for KiwiRail to preserve energy by suppressing the development of long-distance passenger rail, for public transport needs.

On a brighter note, KiwiRail has aspirations to develop an important area of passenger travel, high end tourism trains. They are currently progressing some exciting plans in this area.

Presently one of the biggest problems for re-establishing a national network is the lack of centralised planning and co-ordination. Central government needs to provide planning leadership and capital funding, in much the same way as state highways - this is a matter of consistency. Passenger rail development needs a triple bottom line approach, considering social, environmental and economic benefits. It is unrealistic to expect individual regional authorities to advance trains which cross multiple regional boundaries, the process for starting new long-distance trains (if you can call it a process) is incredibly convoluted and delivers few results. There is also a gap in government policy around funding the operation of cross boundary passenger services - systems to fund capital improvements and operations need to be developed, impediments need to be removed.

It seems likely the best solution for advancing a national network is to take passenger rail off KiwiRail, then form a separate centralised not-for-profit passenger rail agency.

The agency needs clear expectations around developing a masterplan for improvement and expansion, with a schedule of work for staged and managed development. The masterplan needs to include a standard fleet of modern low emissions trains for use on services across the national network, also modern night trains for the Auckland to Wellington route. The agency would investigate, analyse, consult and plan network development, then project manage and operate /or contract out operations to standards set by the agency. A national network approach, rather than an ad hoc services approach, has advantages of scale and big picture insights. Standardising equipment, infrastructure, maintenance, training and processes, along with better utilisation of equipment and staff will provide efficiencies.

The last chapter of Andre Brett's book, 'Can't Get There From Here' is well worth a read on its own, it is a real gem! Ideas in this chapter around how New Zealand's future passenger rail network might look are refreshing and exciting - "We could have it all".

What could modern passenger rail with national coverage look like in New Zealand?

Identifying Some Benefits of National Passenger Rail

  • Safe travel and reduction of the risk of people dying on New Zealand's roads.

  • Connected cities, regions and communities.

  • Improved transport options and improved quality of life, for those who cannot / should not / do not want to drive. Important when considering NZ's aging population.

  • Reduced emissions pollution, working toward carbon neutral NZ by 2050.

  • Reduced and avoiding road traffic congestion, train travel is also an efficient use of time which enables people to work, read, relax or sleep whilst travelling.

  • Reduced reliance on air and road transport, improving transport resilience.

  • Provides additional travel options on corridor routes (Capital Connection & Te Huia), new national trains will feed into existing corridors.

  • Helps to reduce the need for households to own additional vehicles, saving families money and reducing carbon emissions.

  • Provides a sense and feeling of linked-up nationhood, national pride.

  • Good for New Zealand's reputation internationally, presents a modern country with 1st world infrastructure which is taking positive action on climate change.

  • Helps to rejuvenate smaller regional centres, making them realistic living alternatives through improved access to education / employment / healthcare / entertainment and family.

  • Increased regional New Zealand's economic and tourism potential through improved access.

  • New trains can (and should) be assembled in New Zealand, with a high local content for the manufacture of trains. This will flow onto economic and employment opportunities for local New Zealand businesses.

  • Provides professional and skilled employment nationwide, assembly facilities and long-term maintenance can be sited in regional centres, as can operations depots -once train assembly is complete staff can be transferred to long term train maintenance, providing long term regional employment opportunities.

Modern Booking and Payment System

Ideally a modern, simple to use, app-based national booking and payment system.

This should include timetables in real-time, up-to-departure ticket purchase for travellers and bikes. Tickets should be prepaid before boarding trains and automatically include frequent-user discounts based on the emissions reduction of travelling by train.

Traveller information could automatically be relayed to train staff and provide information on where trains needed to stop, and how many passengers are boarding.

Long-distance and inter-regional passenger trains should be included in the national public transport ticket system.


Railway stations are an important part of the passenger rail experience, they need to be attractive, safe and where possible placed close to central/CBD areas - they should become community transport hubs, by integrating trains with other modes and other transport systems. An assessment of location should be made before upgrading takes place. Consideration needs to be given to ease of access, parking, bike access, passenger shelters and facilities, new stations could be of a prefabricated design to help to simplify work, hardware, signage and timetable display should provide a uniform network image. Larger stations should provide nice waiting lounges, luggage stowage (lockers) and possibly some form of catering.

There should be an investigation of the potential for bike and scooter hire facilities, where passengers can reserve and guarantee availability of a bike upon arrival. This feature might be attached to the new passenger rail booking app.

Some considerations:

  • Not all smaller regional stations need to be of city metro station standards. Trains can be adapted to use stations which are built to lesser specifications, making inclusion of smaller regional stations more viable.

  • New electric or hybrid trains would allow Te Huia and other inter-regional trains to access Britomart station, using two central terminating platforms (currently) 3 & 4.

  • Investigate relocation /or additional new stations at more central locations, such as: Levin, Featherston, Hamilton etc. Where stations cannot be made more central, efforts should be made to incorporate bus routes (local and longer distance) to existing stations.

  • Upgrade the Strand station in Auckland, to make it more attractive and pedestrian friendly. Once upgraded it will be a good station for night trains and trains which pass through Auckland to/from Northland. The Strand has good levels of operational flexibility and network access, whilst allowing for trains to stand for extended periods.

  • Investing in a new passenger rail platform at the upgraded Cook Strait ferry terminal in Picton would be desirable.

  • Establish a new central Christchurch station for use of long-distance, inter-regional and local commuter trains, possibly close to the previous Moorhouse Avenue station location.


Our new national network now needs a fleet of modern trains. New trains will greatly improve passenger rail performance, modern trains are typically low-to-zero emissions, self-propelled, lighter, flexible, designed for bi-directional operation, fast accelerating, possibly of tilt train design (becoming more common) and designed for fast boarding and detraining of passengers to reduce station dwell times. A standard fleet of modern trains will reduce maintenance, training and operational costs, they can be outfitted as required for specific needs and should be assembled in New Zealand, with a high local content requirement built into the manufacturing contract.

First and Standard Class should be considered, this provides a natural split between expectations around comfort and cost.

Recently approved new trains for the Lower North Island could be used as a template for standard Inter-regional trains and potentially on long-distance routes across New Zealand. These new trains are proposed to be of a tri-mode design, with the ability to operate as AC electric / DC electric / battery / small combustion backup engine and can be adapted to the individual needs of each route, such as AC electric traction which would allow Te Huia to access Britomart station /or AC, DC and battery operation for trains over the Auckland to Wellington route. Interiors can be fitted out to include better seating and catering on longer routes.

Orders for additional trains of this standard design could subsequently be placed as the national network develops and grows.

Tilt Train technology is becoming more common and should be considered for New Zealand. For many years Tilt Trains have played an extensive part in longer distance passenger train operations in Japan, which uses the same "cape gauge" track (3.6") as New Zealand. Tilt Trains, in some cases, can travel around curves up to 35% faster than conventional trains. This increases average speed over a route and reduces travel time, without the need to alter the track infrastructure significantly. Tilt Trains could be ideal on routes such as Wellington to Auckland (daytime express), Wellington to New Plymouth, Wellington to Napier, Auckland to Whangarei and Opua.

Opportunities may exist to trial Tilt Train technology; Japan has a fleet of Tilt Trains (HOT7000 series) which may soon become available for purchase, or lease. These trains could be rebuilt and tested over different routes in New Zealand.

Night trains should be fitted out with sleeper compartments, lay flat seats and standard sit-up seating, showers, and a lounge car. They could be either modern multiple unit style trains /or more conventional carriage trains. Brand new sleeper carriages have recently been built for the State Railway of Thailand, a fleet of these attractive and modern sleeper trains would be an excellent option for New Zealand.

​In part two of this blog, I will delve more deeply into the types of services that could be offered in New Zealand.