Do trains have a future here? Four routes that could come back

Adrian Halliday of Kamahi waves to the last Southerner Train in 2002. His family had been receiving their newspaper via ...
John Hawkins

Adrian Halliday of Kamahi waves to the last Southerner Train in 2002. His family had been receiving their newspaper via the train for decades. Could it come back?

It's no secret that the golden era of trains in this country is over.

In 1965, New Zealand trains carried 25 million passengers. In 1998 that number was down to 11 million - and almost all of that was suburban travel, not intercity. It used to be illegal for a truck to carry freight long distance, now its pretty much the norm.

But does it have to stay that way?


The current train landscape - although some of the freight-only lines are not currently in use, and some tourist trains occasionally re-use freight tracks. Credit: Wikimedia

Train services are experiencing something of a renaissance in the northeast United States, where many are happy to trade the speed of an airplane for the convenience and cost-effectiveness of an Amtrak train.

In other countries trains still present many advantages over air or car travel. You can sleep on them - with your legs outstretched - or watch the country roll on by, and instead of depositing you at an airport a half hour drive from the CBD, you go right from centre to centre.

Now, with the Kaikoura earthquake taking out the Picton to Christchurch route, some are calling for the "Southerner" service between Christchurch and Dunedin to be reinstated.


The rough Southerner rail route is seen in this rail map from the 1870s. Credit: Alexander Turnbull Library, Alma Collection

The service was closed in 2002 amongst public outcry. During it's 32-year lifespan it ran between Christchurch, Dunedin, and Invercargill. The trip between Christchurch to Dunedin took about six hours.

Like many other older passenger routes, cargo lines are still in operation on the tracks.

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The Southerner isn't the only passenger route that could make a comeback. It is one of several train services which were shut by the then commercially-owned Tranz Rail company in the late 1990s and early 2000s amongst falling usage, cheaper airfares, and the dominance of private cars.


The old rail route between Auckland and Rotorua is seen in this 1902 map. Credit: Alexander Turnbull Library Alma Collection

The Geyserland Express between Auckland and Rotorua, which shut in 2001, was one of them. News reports at the time indicated just 30 to 40 people were taking the four and a half hour train trip by the end.

While the train tracks remain, even freight trains are not currently using the route - making a resurrection rather unlikely, as a lot of investment would need to go into making them usable again.

Still, a Trust has been established to fight for the Geyserland Express's rebirth as a luxury tourist option. They made a large push in 2008, just after the rail infrastructure was re-nationalised, but didn't make much headway.


The rough route Bay Express between Napier and Wellington is seen in this 1877 map. Credit: Alexander Turnbull Library, Alma Collection

Another route that shut in the early 2000s was The Bay Express between Wellington and Napier. This five and a half hour service was frequented by roughly 45 passengers when it shut down.

While some protested the end of the Bay Express, there haven't been many calls to reinstate the railway. Freight still travels on the track.

Finally, the Kaimai Express between Tauranga and Auckland also closed in 2001. The three and a half hour route is still in frequent use by freight services, but there appears to be little appetite for passenger services to be resurrected. 

 - Stuff

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