Te Huia now, Te Huia in 2035

Imagine a modern fast electric train offering onboard wifi, areas to work in, fully accessible for mobility scooter users, serving great coffee and food, and having on board toilets with parenting facilities. This is normal overseas; it shouldn't be a fantasy here.


Paul Callister & Michael Nicholson

4/30/20245 min read

white and red train during daytime
white and red train during daytime

Imagine a modern fully electric train, travelling at up to 160km per hour, with regular departures, seven days a week, from Waitemata (Britomart) station, with a stop in Hamilton but then finishing its trip in Tauranga.

Offering fast on board wifi, areas to work in, being fully accessible for mobility scooter users, serving great coffee and food, having on board toilets with parenting facilities, and, if we follow the lead of Finnish and Swiss railways, an onboard play area for children.

This should not be a fantasy. This is not some return to the past. It is a moderately bold vision for the future drawing on currently available rail technology.

We know there are countries in the world similar to ours that already have great railways. Finland is an example. But we are now seeing passenger rail being improved in places where trains had fallen out of fashion. Car mad California is investing in fast passenger rail to Las Vegas, oil rich Texas plans a fast rail service, the Middle East continues its major investment in passenger rail, and the Canadian state of Alberta has just released an ambitious passenger rail plan.

In contrast, Aotearoa New Zealand’s lack of passenger rail ambition by all recent governments, but especially by the current coalition government, looks very shortsighted. But we can dream….and plan!

The idea of faster regional rail linking Auckland, Hamilton (now New Zealand’s fastest growing city) and Tauranga (the second fastest growing city) was first promoted in a Greater Auckland blog in 2017. As a baby step along the way, Te Huia commenced operation in April 2021, the start of a promised five-year trial. In getting even this first step it required much groundwork, over a number of years, undertaken by local and national passenger rail and public transport influencers.

Te Huia’s early days were challenging with the covid pandemic and an inability to travel all the way into Auckland (for a history see Wikipedia). But passenger numbers have been growing as new services have been introduced. Now, a two-year review shows “it has delivered or is close to delivering all the targets set by the NZ Transport Agency Waka Kotahi Board (NZTA).

However, now Te Huia is being forced to fight for its life.

The baby steps should have been the first part of a transition to a much better service. We still dream – and plan. For instance, in early 2024 Ben Ross, urban geographer and transport advocate, drew on the original concept of regional rapid rail, but presented his own version of the idea. Ross proposes that overseas expertise be brought in to enable the building of a rapid rail service to Tauranga. He lists 10 goals of regional rapid rail.

  • Connect major employment and population centres, including central business districts, growing metropolitan areas, employment areas and satellite towns in the Upper North Island.

  • Deliver a fast and competitive rail service with a target travel time of 90 minutes from Hamilton to Auckland and under 2 ½ hours from Tauranga to Auckland. The emphasis is on quality of time and maintaining consistent and reliable speeds.

  • Provide a regular and frequent rail service, scheduled to suit a range of travel times and trip purposes, serving commuters, tourists, students and residents alike.

  • Make complementary improvements to the rail freight network. All upgrades should, at the least, not disturb KiwiRail’s ability to move freight now or in the future. Passenger rail network upgrades should also seek complementary improvements that also enhance the efficiency and capacity of the Kiwirail rail freight network.

  • Assist the creation of affordable housing supply that is well connected by congestion-free transit. Use transit focused residential development to catalyse the local economies of northern Waikato towns, which face potential economic decline by being bypassed by the new Waikato Expressway.

  • Link regional transportation to well-planned communities with good urban outcomes. This should not just be a rapid train network but the means to create vibrant, liveable towns and cities that are economically and socially sustainable.

  • Integrate directly with local public transport, walking and cycling networks, such as the Congestion Free Network 2.0, to maximise coverage and usefulness.

  • Deliver environmental benefits by limiting the growth of long-range traffic and reducing pollution and CO2 emissions, assisting New Zealand to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement.

  • Reduce road traffic injury and deaths, to assist New Zealand in reaching Vision Zero.

  • Ensure value for money for taxpayer investment by optimising investment in infrastructure where it is most effective, regardless of mode.

Ben’s vision takes the train to Tauranga, a great goal. But in the shorter term what would need to happen to make Te Huia a much better service?

A simple change would be to operate Sunday services. That way Aucklanders could spend a weekend, or just Saturday night, in the Hamilton area. Perhaps taking their bikes to explore the local cycle trails, including visiting the famous Hamilton gardens. With Sunday services, those from Waikato could equally spend a weekend in Auckland.

But a wider plan for staged improvements and investment needs to be developed for the Hamilton to Auckland rail corridor as this will also benefit rail freight and Auckland commuter rail.

Improvements are already happening, in the form of the new third main line in south Auckland, however, adding a fourth main is essential, as this would provide additional capacity for growth and operational flexibility, including the ability to operate inter-regional (and local) express services into the CBD, once the City Rail Loop opens.

Te Huia will become less affected by network shutdowns when electrification is completed between Papakura and Pukekohe. This will also provide an opportunity to reduce travel times.

New inter-regional trains are needed that will be able to access Waitemata (Britomart) station in Auckland's downtown CBD area. These could be a version of the hybrid trains which are currently being developed for lower North Island inter-regional trains – Waikato Regional Council has already proposed that it join forces with the lower North Island to purchase these hybrid trains and has placed money in its 10-year budget (Year 4) to support this.

They would operate as electric trains, using overhead lines, between Waitemata and Pukekohe, then using battery power south to Hamilton. New trains would be faster and more comfortable meaning that additional stops could be included and travel times reduced.

Additional stations should be added at Claudelands and Ruakura in the east of Hamilton, a central Hamilton station (planned under Centre Place by its Tainui owners), Ngaruawahia, Te Kauwhata, Tuakau, and Waitemata (Britomart - which already has four platforms, two terminating in addition to two through CRL platforms).

Services need to be included as part of the National Ticketing System

Electrification should be finished between Pukekohe and Hamilton. This would also improve and speed up rail freight operations. This will take time, during which the battery hybrid mode will be used.

Over time services should be extended to Cambridge (about four km of track needs to be re-laid, along the existing, preserved, corridor), Tauranga, Otorohanga/Te Kuiti, and Rotorua (tracks re-instated east of Putaruru).

A plan of staged improvements between Auckland and Hamilton would eventually result in a modern, well-functioning, passenger rail system. Providing attractive first world transport options for both Aucklanders and Hamiltonians, a realistic alternative travel choice without being forced to use increasingly busy and congested roads. Better passenger rail will also increase access to affordable housing, improve regional economic growth, and lead to improved productivity through the ability to work / rest / eat / read / sleep whilst on the move.

Acknowledgment: We are grateful to Dave Macpherson for helpful comments when preparing this article.

white and red DB train subway
white and red DB train subway
grayscale photo of bikes on rack
grayscale photo of bikes on rack
person using macbook pro on blue and white chair
person using macbook pro on blue and white chair
a person wearing a mask and sitting on a train
a person wearing a mask and sitting on a train