06 April 2021

Te Huia - a nice idea, but a lot of money to achieve very little

The launch of the Te Huia commuter train from Hamilton to Papakura has obtained a lot of publicity today, showing how journalists love an excuse for a train ride, and the lack of any high profile easy to understand positive news in New Zealand.

It is easy to see why some would be convinced this might be a good idea.  After all, there has been a daily commuter train from Palmerston North to Wellington (the Capital Connection) since 1991, running until very recently, as a commercial (unsubsidised) service, although it carries more people from intermediate stations like Levin and Otaki especially, than from Palmerston North.  However, experience for passenger rail travel from the Waikato to Auckland has been not so good.  The last time this was attempted was in 2000, commercially, by the then private TranzRail with a train called the Waikato Connection.  It ran once daily from Hamilton to Auckland, but had most of its passengers boarding at Pukekohe (which then had no service) and Papakura (because it basically offered a faster/non-stop more luxurious option than the basic diesel commuter trains), so that at the end less than a seated bus load of passengers used it from Hamilton. 

The latest attempt is not even a train from Hamilton to Auckland, it is from Hamilton to Papakura, to connect with the electric commuter train to Auckland, so it actually takes 2.5 hours from Hamilton to downtown Auckland.  This isn't exactly competitive with driving, which is around 1hr 40-50 minutes from station to station (and realistically almost everyone isn't starting or finishing their trips at either) although congestion can worsen that towards 2hrs.  The train has two stations in Hamilton and one in Huntly, with no other stops, so it offers nothing for any commuters in Ngaruawahia, Taupiri, Mercer or Pokeno for example, although those in Ngaruawahia or Taupiri might drive to Huntly to leave their cars.

The cost is eye-watering, at $67.6m in capital spending, $58.5m from road users' taxes and $9.1m from local authorities. Another $29.3m in being spent over 4.5 years in subsidies, mostly $22.1m from road users' taxes.  Over $1m has been spent to make Huntly Station operational in itself.  Given $55.1m is being spent on public transport subsidies for all other Waikato services in 2018-2021, this is a lot of money to take from road users and ratepayers for one service, operating two times a day weekdays.

The media reports indicate it could remove 73,000 cars off the road... a year.  The train has capacity for 150 people (not much at all bearing in mind that the Capital Connection has 448 seats).  Now given there are 262 working days a year, this means it should take 279 cars off the road each weekday return. Page 16 of the last Household Travel Survey 2015 indicated mean NZ car occupancy per trip is 1.51 so if we optimistically assume this is car occupancy for potential users of the train, that means that the train need to carry 421 people per day (which is significantly above its capacity of 300) to remove 73,000 car trips a year.

Media reports today variously indicated 90 people arriving or 70, but even if 90 all drove a car each, for each service (and don't now) it would still only be around 47,000 car trips a year removed from the road.  However, it is highly unlikely 90 all drove or would drive separate vehicles, so it all seems a bit far-fetched.

Even if it DID do this, at what cost? is it worth nearly $100m to take 279 cars off the road a day? In emissions terms it is meaningless, because the ETS means that the emissions from cars simply get consumed by someone else (and if the cars still drove someone else wouldn't be using those emissions).  In congestion reduction terms it might make a small difference to travel times, but it isn't worth $100m