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Transport emissions have been skyrocketing, up 88 per cent since 1990 to 3.3 tonnes of CO2 per capita, nearly twice that of the United Kingdom.
Car ownership has also soared, to a point where it is now the highest in the OECD, leading to excessive waste, congestion, and pollution, and spoiling the active transport modes – walking and cycling – that are an important part of healthy lifestyles and desirable cities.
An almost purely car-based system also puts an extra burden on people who can’t drive. A transport system needs to serve everyone.
While the Covid-19 crisis will affect emissions in 2020, there is strong pressure from some quarters to return to ‘business as usual’. But to meet our emission reduction targets, transport has to adopt a very different trajectory. Reaching net zero emissions of long-lived greenhouse gases by 2050, as now required by law, will require urgent and sustained reductions of transport emissions.
The obvious options for cities, better public transport and more cycleways, are now receiving attention. Over time these have the potential to significantly reduce car use and also to allow more households to reduce their number of cars.
However, this leaves a gap in regional travel, for New Zealand has no intercity public transport. Instead, most new transport infrastructure spending goes on regional roading projects, especially new motorways. In fact, the Government surprised everyone on 31 January with a huge $12 billion infrastructure package called the ‘NZ Upgrade’, which included an additional $5 billion for motorways.
While regional air travel links the cities, for smaller towns and rural areas the only two options are driving or catching a long-distance bus. For those who do not want to drive or cannot drive, the only remaining option is a bus, most likely operated by the near-monopoly InterCity group. Unlike most European buses, these coaches generally have no toilets, with much of the off-bus infrastructure also being substandard. Most buses are not well set up to carry bikes or to cater for disabled people.
New Zealand once had a high-quality passenger rail system that linked most cities and small towns.
But since the 1960s, the network has decayed. Increased car ownership and an expansion of domestic aviation started the decline. But successive governments’ hostility to rail, including a period of privatization, was the death knell. Regional rail is now limited to a couple of substandard commuter trains and three infrequent and expensive tourist-oriented services.
Newly elected Greater Wellington Regional Councillor Thomas Nash is one of those keen to see the overnight sleeper Wellington to Auckland train service restored.
In contrast, regional rail is making a comeback throughout the world. In Europe, much of this revival is driven by concerns about climate change, with regional lines reopened and night trains restored to service.
Before the 2017 general election, the lobby group Greater Auckland promoted fast rail between Auckland, Tauranga, and Hamilton. This ‘golden triangle’, containing more than half of New Zealand’s population, currently has no regional rail service. The idea is now being explored in detail by the government. 160 km/h tilt trains, like those currently operating in Australia between Brisbane and Cairns, would run on existing tracks, travelling the 120 km between Hamilton and Auckland in an hour. In the meantime, a twice-daily weekday slow passenger train, originally intended to start service on 3 August, is in preparation.
Another focus of advocates and politicians is the once-daily commuter train between Palmerston North and Wellington, kept alive on a series of short-term lifelines since 2011. There have been proposals for new engines, carriages, and more frequent services. As part of the government’s infrastructure funding announced in early 2020, the Capital Connection will receive some minor upgrades. But it will not be a frequent service nor will it be fast. In contrast, along its route billions of dollars are being spent on regional expressway extensions.
People waiting at Morningside train station in Auckland. Better rail is needed between cities, say climate advocates.
The last overnight train in New Zealand, which ran between Auckland and Wellington, ceased operation in 2004. There is now a campaign to bring it back. While the current infrastructure would not support rapid rail, the length of the journey is ideal for an overnight trip. It would join regions in which 60 per cent of the New Zealand population live.
The Government is currently consulting a draft rail plan. While signalling new investment in rail infrastructure, it has relatively little to say about recreating a high quality, low carbon, regional passenger rail network.
Then, in the midst of the level 4 lockdown, the Green Party announced a regional rail plan even more ambitious than Greater Auckland’s. While framed as a “green recovery” project, the public response has not so far acknowledged the need to cut emissions.
Thanks to the Zero Carbon Bill, New Zealand has a framework in place to address its still-rising emissions. The Climate Change Commission is still on track to present its first carbon budget early next year. Regional rail can be part of an overall strategic plan – a plan that does not yet exist – to improve transport options and reduce emissions.
*Paul Callister is Adjunct Fellow at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington. Robert McLachlan is Distinguished Professor at the School of Fundamental Sciences, Massey University and writes on climate and environmental issues at planetaryecology.org.
This article first appeared on www.stuff.co.nz
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