Wednesday, July 26, 2006

End to long distance rail travel in the North Island (updated)


I am slightly sad that the Overlander (Wellington-Auckland train) is ceasing to operate from 30 September, if only because it is the end of the era of long distance rail travel in the North Island. Since 1908, when the main trunk line was opened, business, tourism and simple access between Auckland, Wellington, Palmerston North, Hamilton and numerous communities in between was facilitated by train. It took two days back then, but was down to 16 hours and today 11 hours. It has gone from 3-4 trains a day to only 1, and reached it peak in the 1960s, before the Boeing 737 and cheaper cars and better roads saw people drift from the rails. Businesspeople increasingly flew and families went by car, and with competition in the air from the 1980s, more people flew. Air fares have continued to plummet as Air NZ has worked to increase the size of the market and ironically - the state owned transport operator has killed off the operation of a privately owned one running on government owner track. However, the killing off has been due to demand - neither Air NZ's main trunk operations nor the Overlander are subsidised.
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I caught the Northerner and the Overlander, and its predecessor the Silverfern, several times as a student and as a child, as well as trains to and from Napier to visit relatives. It was a relaxing way to travel, and in recent years has been air conditioned, with reasonable food and comfortable seats - but alas, no more passenger trains on the Main Trunk line (outside Auckland and Wellington commuter runs).
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It is for good reason it is ending. It's unprofitable, and newer more comfortable buses undercut the train at the budget end, and cheap airfares at the top end. Certainly I've not thought about catching a train from Wellington to Auckland for around 14 years or so. The trip is also not really scenic enough to attract tourists, there are some great scenes in the central plateau but most of the trip between Wellington and Hunterville and Te Kuiti to Auckland is dead boring.
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The Greens are claiming that "peak oil" will bring it back, but they are dreaming. For starters, Toll can run the Palmerston North-Hamilton service with electric locomotives but it is not worth it. As I blogged about a few weeks ago, the high price of petrol is benefiting buses because they are newer and more fuel efficient - but there simply isn't enough people travelling Wellington to Auckland on a budget willing to take an 11 hour train trip. Flying is such an enormous time advantage that it is beyond belief that one would do anything else. Fortunately the Greens aren't asking for a subsidy but that the infrastructure be retained - since the main trunk line is one of the most profitable sections of railway for freight (on average a train every hour), I doubt it is at risk.
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By the way, do the Greens take the Overlander every time they travel between Auckland and Wellington and the centres in between? Honestly, do they?
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Anyway, if you want to take a trip before it goes, just to see the scenery or show your kids what its like to go on a big train (because you can be sure the last trips will be filled with rail nuts and Sue Kedgley catching the train for the first time, like she did with the Bay Express a week before it stopped), go here and get a ticket.
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UPDATE: The RMTU chief Wayne Butson wants you to subsidise his members’ jobs and those who want to catch the Overlander. Given you don’t subsidise the bus or airline companies that compete with it, why the hell should you subsidise the train? (the train was subsidised from the 70s through till 1988, when Prebble told the Railways that the government wasn’t into subsidising long distance passenger train travel, and suddenly the service improved dramatically, and it stopped losing money).
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Butson claims “We have a rail network which is supposed to pay its entire cost of operation through the operator at the same time as we have a national roading system which is available for any commercial entity to use at minimal cost when the vast burden of the infrastructure is paid for by the private motorist.” He is talking nonsense. The government is pouring taxpayers money ($200 million) into the rail network, which is hardly being paid by the operator. Given the train has largely lost out to airlines, the road network is only part of the competition and bus operators pay road user charges (which are not “minimal cost”) to use the highway. That RUC easily pays for the damage caused by the buses to the highway, a review carried out five years ago proved that.
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Fortunately, the Greens aren’t calling for it to be subsidised, which is surprising but good.
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UPDATE 2: The Waikato Times reports Hamilton East MP, David Bennett (National!) saying the government should intervene to ensure the Overlander continues! What sort of muppets are National getting selected as candidates? If Labour and the Greens wont "intervene" what the hell is a National MP asking for? Is he is in the right party?? Shouldn't Don Brash be giving him a right bollocking?
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UPDATE 3: Ruapehu District Council's Mayor wants you (through the government) to be forced to pay to subsidise the train, because its loss will cost jobs in the district. Yes it will. However, it is a privately provided service. Presumably the councillors concerned used the train several times a year? There is nothing stopping anyone else wanting to start a service on the route once Tranz Scenic has withdrawn. It is one reason, after all, why the government renationalised the rail network from Tranz Rail. So roll up, roll up, if you care, put your money where you mouth is - either invest in another train, or use it between now and September enough so it is worthwhile for Tranz Scenic to keep.
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UPDATE 4: Stuff report the subsidy Tranz Scenic sought to keep the Overlander was $1.75 million p.a. with a $0.5 million capital injection! That's over $32 per passenger. Dr Cullen was smart enough to say no. Jeanette Fitzsimons says the $120 million spent on maintaining the rail network is peanuts compared to roads - no shit sherlock - got a railway going to every house, every shop, every farm and every town?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That was an interesting read, thanks for that

Sal
http://www.ultimatestupidity.com