Capital Connection appears doomed
It looks like it could be the end of the line for the Capital Connection.
As reported in yesterday's Manawatu Standard, KiwiRail has said if Horizons Regional Council and Greater Wellington regional council don't agree to subsidise the Palmerston North to Wellington rail service with ratepayer funding, it will stop running "midyear".
The service has been under threat since the capital's metro services extended to Waikanae in February last year, giving many Capital Connection commuters the option of a competing service that runs more frequently.
KiwiRail said it would monitor the impact the extended Wellington commuter service had on the number of passengers using the Capital Connection to assess its long-term viability, and it seems the verdict is now in.
While not all hope is lost, it's incredibly unlikely that Horizons and Greater Wellington will be able to save the day. Even if the two councils can muster the political and ratepayer support to subsidise the Capital Connection, both agree the NZ Transport Agency would also have to make a contribution to get a deal over the line – something the NZTA says it won't do.
Palmerston North MP Iain Lees-Galloway has led a public campaign to keep the rail service running, and the region has voiced strong opposition to axing it. However, the stark reality is that positive public sentiment has not translated to more bums on seats.
As the travelling public has failed to support the Capital Connection in a practical sense despite extensive publicity around its precarious future, it will be difficult for Horizons to convince ratepayers they should stump up to save it.
Even if ratepayers were on board, it's questionable whether KiwiRail was ever genuinely committed to retaining the service, which might go some way to explaining the incredibly tight "midyear" deadline it's given Horizons and Greater Wellington to come up with a plan to save it. The Government-owned company has been far from candid with the public about how the Capital Connection was being affected by the competing Wellington service, and gave mixed messages about its long-term future.
It's also curious to note that KiwiRail has called on Horizons to subsidise the rail service only now the regional council's long-term plan process is well past the point it can seek ratepayers' views on the matter. Horizons won't be able to properly consult the public on a Capital Connection subsidy until next year's annual plan process – long after KiwiRail's "midyear" time frame.
Unfortunately for this region, there is little chance the rail service can be saved, and it now seems clear that there never really was.