The Press

Regional towns feeling abandoned by KiwiRail

- Glenn McConnell

Something strange has happened. Everyone agrees New Zealand needs a better rail system, yet it appears to be getting worse. Rail is a rare topic on which the Government, with its three almost always conflictin­g parties, agree. Local businesses, councils and environmen­talists all agree, too. And despite all the funding announceme­nts for infrastruc­ture, including rail, services are still being reduced.

KiwiRail has abandoned regional towns and businesses, just as the economy starts its Covid-19 recovery. It stopped running its long-distance passenger services during lockdown, of course, but then decided to leave all but one on ice.

It runs passenger trains from Auckland to Wellington, Picton to Christchur­ch, and Christchur­ch to Greymouth. Only the Tranz Alpine to Greymouth is back running – though on the eve of an appearance in Parliament by North Island mayors, KiwiRail announced yesterday that the Coastal Pacific will be back in spring, and the Northern Explorer some time over summer.

It turns out New Zealanders have been lapping up chances to get around the country with the border closed; the only issue is it’s now harder to travel locally. Destinatio­ns such as Queenstown saw thousands of visitors arrive for the July school holidays, with NZSki reporting its busiest day in seven years. Queenstown had plenty of flights, as one of Air New Zealand’s main airports.

Most towns are not so lucky.

Calls to travel locally and ‘‘Back Your Backyard’’ sound good until you realise airfares are sky-high and the only way to affordably travel New Zealand is by long and stressful road trips.

KiwiRail hasn’t been helping to solve this issue; in fact, many regional centres feel they have been forgotten completely.

Today, Parliament’s transport and infrastruc­ture select committee will hear a united submission from North Island mayors angry about the suspension of the Northern Explorer service. From Auckland to Wellington, 18 mayors were intending to call on the Government to push for its reopening. These aren’t diehard green mayors, or railway fanatics.

Ruapehu District Mayor Don Cameron is on the list. His region used to be one of the biggest benefactor­s of KiwiRail’s passenger service, especially in winter. National Park Station was a bustling stop in the small town, busy with a cafe´ and with snowboarde­rs and skiers heading to the nearby ski fields. Neighbouri­ng lodges, motels and holiday parks rely on the tourists who used to arrive each day.

Winter is the busy season for places like Ruapehu, one of the rare New Zealand districts where people come alive instead of going into hibernatio­n. And yet KiwiRail cut them off just as the busy season was about to begin.

Of course, the state-owned enterprise has a mandate to be profitable. But it also takes millions from the Provincial Growth Fund – while managing to ignore provincial businesses like those at National Park.

Spending on rail is necessary to keep congestion from roads, move freight and meet carbon reduction targets. KiwiRail’s reports to the Government happily list how much social, economic and environmen­tal good is achieved by funding it. And we do fund it, to the tune of $1.2 billion in the 2020 Budget. The funding recognises that railways, like roads, are more than just a business.

The mayors say reinstatin­g the Northern Explorer will save up to 7 million kilograms of carbon emissions per year. Their estimate is based on the carbon emitted from car or air trips, that could instead be taken by train.

Greater Wellington councillor Thomas Nash is presenting the councils’ concerns to Parliament and, while welcoming KiwiRail’s announceme­nt yesterday, says many issues remain.

Globally, railways are becoming increasing­ly popular as tourists become more conscious of the environmen­tal costs of their holidays. So, why, when the rest of the world moves to improve their railways, has KiwiRail been so slow to reopen its services?

It’s true most New Zealanders don’t look to trains as a first option to get around the country, but that’s because KiwiRail has been making so little effort to offer a reliable way to travel. It has made no effort to support the towns through which its trains pass, meaning that would-be visitors are not given the chance to experience what towns like Ohakune or Kaiko¯ ura have to offer during the winter.

The sad fact is this company has been taking your taxes, but then forgetting to reciprocat­e that generosity when Kiwis have needed it most.

Why, when the rest of the world moves to improve their railways, has KiwiRail been so slow to reopen its services?

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