JULIE ANNE GENTER: Time for passenger rail to the regions?


OPINION: Julie Anne Genter 

Is it time for passenger rail to the regions?

On Thursday I visited the Manawatū Gorge where the road has been closed indefinitely by yet another massive slip.

People in Manawatū are understandably frustrated. A similar slip happened back in 2011, but in the intervening six years almost nothing was done to prepare for another potential closure.

The alternative route, the Saddle Road, hasn’t been properly upgraded and is now literally crumbling under the strain of heavy vehicles. The formerly sleepy town of Ashhurst has become inundated with traffic.

In the short term Ashhurst needs a bypass, and the Saddle Road needs upgrading. But it’s the long term that I want to talk about.

In Palmerston North the Green Party proposed a new passenger rail service, connecting Palmerston North and Napier, as part of a long-term solution to the Manawatū Gorge route. We even proposed a name for the service – the Ruahine Runner.

We made this commitment because we have a long-term vision to revitalise regional passenger rail in New Zealand to connect major regional towns.  this is an opportunity to get it started in Manawatū and Hawke’s Bay.

We’re talking about developing a modern, comfortable, and fast passenger rail service on which you can take in the expansive views of New Zealand as you travel the country.

The Capital Connection train already connects Wellington to Palmerston North, so the Ruahine Runner would extend passenger rail from Wellington right up to the Hawke’s Bay.

Regional passenger rail make sense. First, the time spent travelling on a train is time well spent. You can spend your trip catching up on work, a good book, or catching up on a few Zs.

Second, passenger rail is an incredibly practical solution to our transport challenges. As our roads get more congested we need to think about other ways to move both people and freight. Rail is simply the most efficient way to move large numbers of people and large volumes of freight and, of course, it’s the least polluting.

We estimate it would cost about $3.7 million to get the Ruahine Runner service up and running. That includes the cost of purchasing carriages, refurbishing them and upgrading a rail way station in Woodville. To put that in perspective, the Ruahine Runner would cost less than 0.3 percent of the proposed $1.8 billion proposed tunnel replacement for the Manawatū Gorge.

A passenger rail service is something we could get running through the Gorge well before the road is cleared. Right now we have passenger rail carriages sitting idle and unused in Taumaramui. These could be refurbished in a couple months and be up and running.

With a bit of forward planning and new investment in the rail network New Zealand could have a functioning regional rail network right across the country. We just need a government willing to make it happen.

Julie Anne Genter is an MP with the Green Party