Central North Island towns ‘out of loop’ on rail services

Faint hope is being held for any resumption of Central North Island commuter passenger services in the near future.

Passenger trains stopped calling at Te Kuiti and Taumarunui in 2012 when KiwiRail changed its business model to focus on trains for tourists instead of commuters.

A recent Zoom call between Central North Island mayors, regional councillors and KiwiRail was a case in point – with Waitomo District mayor John Robertson reporting to councillors that restoring commuter passenger services to Te Kuiti is a “huge and difficult project”.

“Getting there requires patronage and the sums don’t work so it requires substantial subsidy,” he said.

The launch of the Hamilton/Auckland commuter service this week parallels serious discussion about setting up a Palmerston North to Wellington commuter service, Robertson said.

The issue in the longer term would be how to connect Palmerston North and Hamilton with a train service that would serve locals.

“Going to polytechnic or uni from Te Kuiti to Hamilton would be great, but it’s not as simple as that,” Robertson said.

“It gets complicated when you have 19 potential stations between Wellington and Auckland.”

The existing three-day a week Auckland-Wellington passenger train makes seven stops of about one minute each and the trip takes just under 11 hours. The previous service stopped at every station and took about 13 hours.

Horizons regional councillor Weston Kirton unsuccessfully petitioned Parliament in 2019 to have the Taumarunui stop reinstated.

Until 2012 Taumarunui had been serviced by some form of long-distance passenger rail service for over 100 years. The nearest station where trains still stop is National Park, about 40km away.

“It was no surprise to me that KiwiRail are reluctant starters in providing commuter services, they focus on freight because that’s where the demand is,” Kirton says.

“I actually argued the point on the basis that they seem to be working independently from the Government initiatives on carbon credits and the like, trying to get people to use rail more, commute more on public transport in general.

“I don’t believe KiwiRail are in line with the Government’s objectives while they are suggesting that rail is the way to go in terms of carbon. I think there needs to be major overhaul with KiwiRail and passenger service needs.

“Rural areas like Te Kuiti, Taumarunui, and Marton along the way have been left out of the loop and are not being considered when it comes to creating better and more relevant passenger services for the region. Probably Te Kuiti is a good example along with Taumarunui.”

Taumarunui is now reliant on a single bus service that arrives at a time out of tune with people wanting to go to work.

It is a stop-gap measure that doesn’t cater to the needs of the community that Kirton says is a result of KiwiRail’s reluctance to provide any meaningful passenger service that caters for the local people.

“It is more to do with tourism, it was always regarded as a tourist train and they are saying that the tourists are demanding a more reliable, comfortable, in some cases high value train service that could be overnight,” He says.

“That’s KiwiRail’s position. I don’t agree with it. The community doesn’t agree with it.

“Over a year ago I delivered a petition to parliament and they could see that KiwiRail was dragging the chain and we should be negotiating and talking with them, but they haven’t changed their position. In fact is it probably more entrenched.

“I think it’s more the KiwiRail board is basically operating independently from government direction. The government seems to be happy for KiwiRail to proceed making a profit, giving a dividend.”

The Te Huia commuter run from Hamilton to Auckland was not KiwiRail initiative, it was all but a directive from the Government and an election promise to link the two areas up, he said.

“You see now that KiwiRail is crowing, but they got nearly $100 million, all that money came from land transport budget, the government propped it up and regional councils may have popped in a little bit as well.

“But it was led by regional councils, particularly Waikato, paid for by the Government as a one-off in a punt that it would actually pay off. That’s been tried before and not succeeded.”

Particularly galling for Taumarunui residents is the fact the Northern Explorer does stop there, to change drivers. The locals see the trains stop.

Those on board hear an announcement that the train is stopping to change drivers, but that passengers are not to get off, Kirton says.

It forces Taumarunui passengers to disembark at National Park, or drive the half-hour journey to National Park to catch the train.

“That’s the nonsense happening. We are just appalled that they won’t stop for two minutes at Taumarunui because the tourist market demands an express type train.”

Transport minister Michael Wood’s press staff were on leave this week and unable to respond to inquiries.

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