What we're missing out on by not having long distance passenger trains in Aotearoa

Rail could offer travelling a more tranquil way with young children, a safe and social journey through to a productive, work-as-you-go journey.


Lindsey Horne

9 min read

Earlier in March, thousands of people took part in the nationwide strike, calling for more action on climate change. Failure to act will cost us billions and will put us further at risk of more extreme weather events, similar and worse to what we’ve seen this last summer. So where and how can we start to act? After agricultural emissions, transport is one the major contributors to New Zealand’s emissions.

Transport is a major contributor to NZ's greenhouse gas emissions footprint, and it’s evident at all levels. Nationally, road transport contributes to over 15% of all gross emissions. In Auckland alone, road and air transport together represent over 36% of emissions. And domestic emissions have increased too, with transport now accounting for 37% of the average household carbon footprint; up 1.6% on the previous year.

Rail, on the other hand, is one of the most efficient modes of transport available, alongside walking and cycling. Data from the UK suggests that taking a train instead of a domestic flight could reduce your emissions by ~84%. Similarly, using a bike instead of a car for short trips reduces travel emissions by three-quarters. It’s not surprising that a growing proportion of New Zealanders are calling out for low carbon alternatives to flying and driving.

There is a crucial opportunity with a national passenger rail service. One that is frequent, affordable and well connected to major hubs in New Zealand. Not only would this help us towards lowering our emissions, but there are many other benefits to New Zealanders as well. From travelling in a more tranquil way with young children, to a safe and social journey through to a productive, work-as-you-go journey.

As part the recent parliamentary enquiry into inter-regional passenger rail, Women in Urbanism sent out a simple survey to New Zealanders, asking them to share their stories of what long distance trains mean to them. They received more than 330 stories, submitted by 130 individuals and the stories highlight what we’re currently missing out on by not having national passenger rail.

This included stories and experiences from:

  • Those who had previously caught long distance trains in New Zealand

  • Those who had caught long distance trains overseas

  • Those who currently take long distance trains in New Zealand (e.g. the Capital Connection, Te Huia)

  • Those who would like to travel by long distance trains in New Zealand

The sample was diverse, and included a spread of (1) different ages (from under 18 through to over 75), (2) geographic regions around New Zealand, (3) ethnicities, and (4) household structures.

Taken together, these stories paint a picture of a different – but achievable – New Zealand. One which doesn’t always prioritize the private car. One in which transport is more equitable and affordable, comfortable and safe, sustainable and future-proof. Have a look at the 12 key themes that we found in our analysis of these stories.

Providing an alternative option for those who cannot or prefer not to drive.

For many, driving or flying is not an option, therefore, trains open up new opportunities to get around.

“I went from Christchurch to Greymouth on the Trans Alpine on my first ever solo bikepacking journey. It allowed me to solo travel and feel safe. I also felt like I would have never visited the West Coast because I'm not a confident driver crossing the Pass. It was a peaceful journey where I felt I enjoyed a new part of New Zealand I'd never seen before.” 35-39 Female, Wellington

“My preference is always to avoid driving because I loathe it.” 40-44 Female, Auckland

A comfortable experience

Access to toilets, dining carriages, bringing food on board, comfortable seats, smooth journey.

"In 2009 I travelled around Europe with my mother on a six-week Eurail pass. For a New Zealander, this was a revelation…Above all my strongest memory is how pleasant the journeys were, and how we were able to arrive in a city after a rail journey of several hours feeling refreshed and relaxed, ready to explore. If we had been travelling by car or bus, the trip would have been much more stressful and I would have needed time to rest after each leg of the journey." 30-34 Female, Wellington

"In the early 2000s, when I worked in Salisbury, I regularly caught the train to London and points in between to see friends, visit theatre, etc. I love train travel as it is fast, convenient, has services on-board such as food & drink and toilets." 75+ Female, Otago

Stress-free and efficient journey

Especially compared to driving (dangerous, stressful, uncomfortable) and flying (checking in, difficult with children).

"For me, being a train passenger compared to driving or flying is much more peaceful, relaxing, and safe, as well as being less likely to induce anxiety, as I don't have to worry about traffic, hazards, or falling out of the sky!" 25-29 Female, Wellington

"…No one was exhausted by experience of the train travel, no stress of driving, finding routes (navigating one-way streets), the stress about parking, security of the vehicle, driver fatigue and safety. The hassles of flying everyone knows, no matter how seductive the 10 Euro fare from Ryanair, the hours queueing and camping out at the airport and the security!" 70-74 Male, Auckland


It’s perceived that trains used to be affordable or are affordable overseas and there is a real desire for affordable long distance trains in New Zealand.

"I love the train! I used to live in DC and the train network around there was so affordable and accessible that I was able to regularly visit family. It was cheaper than driving and took the same amount of time." 30-34 Female, Auckland

"I'd love to go all sorts of places on a train in NZ. Auckland to Wellington would be most convenient, with all stops, but also down the South Island, Picton-Chch-Dunedin-Queenstown maybe? It would be great if it were frequent and affordable - not geared solely towards tourists with lots of money, but a pleasant affordable everyday experience." 40-44 Female, Auckland

"I would love a train to take us to the capital. To Tauranga/Mt Maunganui, Taranaki. So many kids sport events take place in Tauranga/Mt Maunganui and Taranaki. Do you know the cost of flying a school sports team to those places??? Much easier for everyone to just travel by train." 45-49 Female, Auckland

Safe way to travel

"The freedom trains afford is very important to me as a woman. Planes or cars still feel relatively unsafe. I get tired of driving out of Wellington and seeing the same landscape when we go to Napier or Whanganui so trains would keep domestic travel interesting and affordable." 35-39 Female, Wellington

"Safer and more pleasant than driving." 40-45 Female, Auckland

"When I was a child in the 1990s the family would regularly take the train from Kapiti to Hawkes' Bay, where we had a holiday property. We would meet my Dad who had driven up by himself at Waipukurau station for the final drive. I always enjoyed the train much more than the car journey, which was often nauseating and scary." 30-34 Female, Wellington

Easier way to travel for caregivers

People looking after small children found train travel a much more convenient and comfortable way to travel compared to driving or flying.

"We travelled Auckland - Wellington - Auckland. It meant we could travel as a family with young babies (at the time). Walk up and down. Look out windows etc, without some air hostess telling us to sit down or to stop loitering around the toilets. So much easier to feed the children too." 45-49 Female, Auckland

"When I was a child, we once caught the Southerner from Dunedin to Oamaru to visit my grandparents. My mother wasn't so keen on driving with two young children at the time, and presumably my father was busy, so it gave us another vital transport option. It was interesting for children, and much more comfortable than the bus." 35-39 Female, Canterbury

A fun experience

People can read, sleep, play games, work, chat etc. while they travel.

"I regularly caught the Napier - Wellington train for work and pleasure. I prefer it to flying and don't want to drive. The amount of work I could complete really gave me great opportunities to get stuck into my job as soon as I arrived. Sometimes I caught the Wellington - Auckland train, just for pleasure. I prefer it over flying/ driving less carbon footprint. Also, by the time you've got to the airport, waited for the plane, and luggage, it seems so much more pleasant, and fun to catch the train." 65-69 Female, Hawkes Bay

"My first overseas experience on a long-distance train was on the TGV in France. I was 13. My younger brother and I found it thrilling. I loved the romance of the stations and the multiple carriages including a dining cart. We would run through them all finding empty carriages to play in and shoot movies…It is far more comfortable than flying or driving but maybe it's also that feeling of trains physically connecting one place to another through tracks. The brain can conceptualize the feeling much more than flying. I think many people would resonate with that in New Zealand and we have the added advantage of a truly beautiful landscape." 30-34 Female, Wellington

Connecting New Zealanders and visitors to new locations

Visiting parts of the country they wouldn’t normally visit. Seeing the beautiful scenery and connecting with New Zealand.

"Passenger rail helped us spend more time and dollars in rural New Zealand towns. We used to take a day time train to Taihape, stay the night there, then cycle for a couple of days to Napier, then back by train to Wellington. A lovely low-carbon, low-stress mini-break." 55-59 Male, Wellington

"My family are lucky to have access to a bach in the far north. A train going north would mean we could finish work and catch a train to the nearest station, without having to drive, be stuck in traffic and contribute to emissions." 35-39 Female, Auckland

Sustainable and low carbon way to travel

Especially compared to flying and driving.

"It would mean that I could reduce my carbon emissions further." 50-54 Male, Canterbury

"It would be so great to have the opportunity to use a low carbon travel option. I fully support long distance trains becoming more efficient so that our cities are connected across New Zealand." 25-29 Female, Wellington

It would be so great to have the opportunity to use a low carbon travel option. I fully support long distance trains becoming more efficient so that our cities are connected across New Zealand. 25-29 Female, Wellington

Sustainability and climate change wise it is a no brainer to have alternatives in NZ to flying or driving, whether for work, tourism local or international. 75+ Female, Canterbury

"I wish I could travel by train in Aotearoa! I've chosen to live without a car, mostly because of the environment, which is fine within the city - there is plenty of public transport to get me around. But when I want to go anywhere else, I either have to fly (which is expensive, and the emissions make my reason for not having a car pointless), catch a bus (which are slow, uncomfortable, and make me motion sick), or hire a car (expensive again, incredibly wasteful if it's only me travelling, and all the stress of driving). On a train I could read a book without feeling sick, get up and walk around to stretch my legs, and relax and watch the scenery go past." 50-54, Canterbury

Easy to travel with bikes

People can bring their bikes to connect them to other parts of their destination.

"Trains + bikes = low-carbon tourism. NZ Cycle Trails are booming in popularity, but let's not force people to drive or fly to them. Passenger rail services will enable people to travel to Te Kuiti, ride the Timber Trail to Taumarunui, then train home. Passenger rail to Rotorua will enable mountain bike tourism to grow. E-bikes are super-popular but you can't fly with a lithium battery. Passenger rail will enable people to access trails without flying. Here's an easy win - add luggage space for bikes. The Northern Explorer has a paltry two bike limit." 55-59 Male, Wellington

"I travelled throughout western Europe and Eastern Europe by train, and travelled in the UK by train, bringing my bike with me for weekend adventures. I once moved house via train from the south of England to Scotland, with my large backpack and bike in tow." 40-44 Female, Bay of Plenty

Making social connections on board and travelling as a group

A friendly environment that allows for people to connect and socialize.

"I trained from Auckland to Dunedin to attend Otago University. It was fantastic and gave me an appreciation of our geography as well as providing new friends made en route." 60-64 Female, Canterbury

"When I was a teenager, my parents and four siblings travelled on The Ghan through the middle of Australia…This Christmas, three of our family members are travelling to Australia to join my parents and do the long distance train trip from Adelaide to Melbourne. One day, we’d like to do the train trip to Perth, too. My parents, my own family and my sisters have travelled on trains all around the world - sometimes for fun, and sometimes as the most efficient way to get somewhere - and our fascination never ends. Trains are a great way to travel!" 40-45 Female, Wellington

Connecting New Zealanders through social visits

Visiting friends and whanau.

"I returned from a trip to Europe (visiting family and holiday with friends and family) yesterday - 19 October. None of the great experiences and time with people would be possible without train travel." 70-74 Male, Auckland

"I would love to have some long-distance trains here in the South Island. I live in Christchurch and have family in Invercargill who I rarely visit because the trip is so long. I would happily take a train instead of the car to visit them more regularly if they were cost effective and comfortable. I’d probably take more trips to visit other family in Timaru etc if there was an enjoyable train trip to take." 35-39 Female, Canterbury

Lindsey Horne is a member of The Future Is Rail national coordination group.