Trains to Queenstown?

Are trains to Queenstown pure fantasy, or could it be a way to decarbonise tourism?


6/12/20236 min read

people walking on sidewalk near brown bare trees during daytime
people walking on sidewalk near brown bare trees during daytime

Queenstown Airport has recently released its masterplan. While other sectors of the economy are facing up to the need to decarbonise, Aotearoa New Zealand airports, including Queenstown, are proposing another growth spurt. Yet, at the same time they promise a path to decarbonisation.

There are those who oppose the expansion of the airport. In fact, one Queenstown based organisation, FlightPlan2050, propose closing the airport.

They are part of a wider group that have been working towards the Queenstown area transitioning to a low carbon economy. Their research shows that the model of drawing international tourists from all over the world in our current manner is unsustainable if we are to significantly reduce emissions. Others, including the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, have come to similar conclusions. FlightPlan2050 suggest:

“Queenstown Tourism’s Carbon Zero by 2030 commitment results from a three-year regenerative tourism consultation among all the industry’s local stakeholders.

Their Discussion Paper (May 2023) celebrates that “Queenstown Lakes is primed for district-wide decarbonisation in a way that few places are.” And they identify “adjusting visitor volume [and] visitor origin” as the first two levers of change toward decarbonising their visitor economy. These levers unequivocally target fewer international and increased domestic/regional visitors.

Queenstown airport claims it has listened to and learned from the intense community pushback to its failed expansion plans of 2018. It claims alignment with the tourism sector’s new Travel to a Thriving Future and Destination Management Plan’s Carbon Zero by 2030 commitments.

But its actions speak louder than its rhetoric. The draft Masterplan increases the airport’s international and private jet capacity and ramps up flight numbers.”

Queenstown Airport suggests that passenger numbers will increase from 2.4 million in 2023 to 3.2 million by 2032. This is an increase of one third. Helicopter and private jet traffic are also projected to increase.

So, what are their decarbonisation plans? They are very vague. They state:

‘Technology is advancing rapidly. In the draft Master Plan, we’re allocating space and resources to support the airlines and general aviation operators to transition to alternative fuel sources such as sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), electricity and hydrogen."

However, the photos in the masterplan look more like air taxis rather than the large jets that bring in people from Australia or Auckland.

FlightPlan2050 are supporters of building Tarras airport. This is despite mounting opposition to this plan, including from the group Informed Leaders. This option has a number of challenges, notwithstanding it is a completely new airport and would put more pressure on the roading network to get visitors through to the Queenstown basin. It would also likely increase emissions rather than reduce them through increased tourism.

But FlightPlan2050 also suggest investigating the development of “a high-speed railway connection between Queenstown and Invercargill to link with Invercargill Airport.”

Is this a fantasy idea or potentially possible? Could Queenstown become like a Swiss village, reached by rail?

Queenstown is one of the few areas of reasonable population, a population that can swell with visitors to over 100,000 at the peak travel season, in New Zealand without a rail link.

Queenstown Airport is now New Zealand’s fourth busiest Airport after Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch with also many international flights a day from Australia. This is a real problem for the essence of Queenstown going forward. What to do?

Queenstown is geographically challenged for transport routes. All three land transport routes into Queenstown have their own unique characteristics and challenges:

  • State Highway 6 (SH6) from the East and North has the Kawerau Gorge and numerous other challenges such as the connecting State Highway 8 (SH8) over the Lindis Pass from Christchurch and SH8 the Clutha River valleys being also difficult from Dunedin.

  • The Crown Range is steep and has a very high elevation over its summit (over 1,000 metres) making it unreliable in winter.

  • SH6 to the South has a very tortuous route along the east side of Lake Wakatipu – Think “Devils Elbow” north of Kingston.

Of course, until about 1980 there was a predominantly freight railway line from Invercargill to Kingston at the southern end of Lake Wakatipu. There was also a connecting railway across the Waimea Plains from Gore to Lumsden via Riversdale until 1971 making a more direct rail route from Dunedin to Kingston. Further back still there was the lake Steamer service run by NZ Railways (The Earnslaw) that connected passenger and freight rail services at Kingston to Queenstown via the lake. Some seasonal passenger rail services travelled these routes right up to the 1950’s (Daily rail passenger services having ceased earlier in the 1930’s when the lakeside road between Kingston and Queenstown was opened). The Kingston Flyer historic steam train also plied much of the route from Lumsden to Kingston from 1971 to 1979 as shown in this film “Train for Christmas” from 1975. To this day the rail corridor formation north from Invercargill can still be discerned through the paddocks via Winton, Lumsden and Garston to Kingston. In fact part of it, between Fairlight and Kingston, is still used by the historic Kingston Flyer today. Further still, most of the rail corridor north of Lumsden is also used by the “Around the Mountains” cycle trail.

Of note here is that Invercargill Airport is an internationally designated airport and at over 2,100 metres is the third longest civilian runway in New Zealand (actually longer than Wellington's runway) thanks to Sir Tim Shadbolt, former mayor of Invercargill. It is also suitable for widebody jets under load restriction –It could likely be upgraded further with ease to reduce the load restriction for these bigger jets.

A bigger airport at Invercargill could then be connected by rail to Kingston (140km distant) by investing in modern zero carbon emitting electric fast trains using electricity generated at West Arm (Deep Cove) at Lake Manapouri. And all this without having to raise the lake and dam and hurt the fantail bird. In fact, the train service could be named after that bird much like Te Huia was named after an iconic bird. A connecting fast ferry from Kingston to Queenstown (a further 45km distant) would complete the journey. This upgrade to the Invercargill airport would also create wider benefits for Southland and Invercargill as well.

This would not be superhigh speed rail but fast rail that takes say about 60 minutes from Invercargill to Kingston – a very fast Kingston Flyer - assuming the bandits don’t hold it up as in this video of the Kingston Flyer in the 1970’s recreating the 1870’s.

An electric fast ferry could link to Queenstown from the Kingston train using the oldest, most green and flat transport corridor there is – Lake Wakatipu itself from Kingston to Queenstown. Problem solved and hopefully a ferry wake that should be able to be managed of course.

The cost to rebuild on the old corridor alignment (or close to it with some deviations) into a 160kph 140 kilometre fully electric fast railway (a fairly straight-line route almost due north of Invercargill with no tunnels or very heavy earthworks required) would likely be in the vicinity of about $NZ2 Billion. A further $NZ1 Billion for rolling stock, facilities and stations – say a $NZ3 Billion project all up. A new fast electric ferry with Infrastructure for lake Wakatipu would say add another $200 Million for two ferries plus a further bit for terminals wharfs etc – the project overall probably would be somewhat under $NZ 3.5 billion – maybe not so bad for potential benefits to the lower South Island and less than the $NZ3.9 billion currently proposed upgrade cost for Auckland Airport. Estimate total transit time from Invercargill including transfer time to the ferry could be just under 2 hours – faster than by car or bus. Passenger numbers could also be quite large as many thousands of passengers a day fly into and out of Queenstown – well over 2 million passengers a year currently. On some days over 6,500 passengers a day use the airport – that’s a lot of train loads of passengers potentially to Queenstown. Connecting passenger rail services to Dunedin from Invercargill could also be a possibility in due course – or even rebuilding the Waimea Plains line to Gore for a faster route from the east.

But what about ‘sustainable aviation fuel’ for the big jets arriving full of tourists in Invercargill? There are three main ways proposed for replacing fossil fuels. One is biofuel, another Power to Fuel (P2F), and while subject to much debate about its feasibility, in the much longer-term hydrogen powered planes are being discussed.

There are many problems with biofuel, so an option is P2F. To simplify the process of making it, an electrolyser produces hydrogen using lots of renewable electricity, carbon is captured using a significant amount of renewable electricity, then the fuel is created using even more renewable electricity. If this is the route for producing SAF, then Invercargill is the perfect place to do this.

To decarbonise our economy, we need bright new ideas. This is an example of the kind of opportunity that an investment in rail in New Zealand can create that is sometimes overlooked. Utilising an upgraded Invercargill airport with a surface route railway line to Kingston with a connecting fast ferry on the lake to Queenstown could be one of them.