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Trains arrive at the 11th hour

Everyone in Wairarapa should be relieved by the Government’s decision to fund 90 per cent of the $817 million needed for new trains.

Four years ago, Waka Kotahi, Horizons Regional Council and Greater Wellington Regional Council put together the business case that outlined the urgent need to replace the 50-year-old trains, which reach their end of service life in 2028.

Procurement of new trains takes five years, which is why the regional councils put together the business case well in advance of the 2028 deadline.

Last year central government rejected the business case, despite promising between $1.50 to $3.10 of benefits for every dollar spent.

This year was the last year for funding – if it hadn’t come, Wairarapa commuters would be walking to Wellington in 2028. So, what changed?

The business case for new trains has been urgent and compelling since it was put together in 2019.

Central government rejected it once; in the same year it continued to fund the SH1 Otaki-Levin expressway, which is estimated to make a measly return of between 22c and 37c of benefits for every dollar spent.

Is this a cynical election-year move, where the government has waited until now to fund basic public transport?

Finance Minister Grant Robertson said the new trains would support growth along the rail corridors and boost productivity in the regions and the country as a whole.

But he didn’t say that if they hadn’t funded new trains this year, then in 2028, Wairarapa residents would lose a basic piece of infrastructure they had enjoyed since the 1890s, when Masterton’s population was about 4000.

Rail is so underfunded in this country that the government can trot out an announcement that, at the 11th hour, it will let our ageing trains expire.

People will continue to be able to move freely between Wairarapa and the capital – including people who don’t own cars, can’t drive, or don’t feel like it.

That includes commuters, kids, old people, poor people, young people, and even perfectly functional drivers who don’t feel like taking on the dangerous Remutaka Hill Rd.

I’m glad that we have a government that funds normal stuff like new trains, but it doesn’t reflect well on the decisions of successive governments that let our infrastructure decay since the 1980s.

It should not be impressive that Masterton residents can continue to take a train less than 100km to Wellington.

Despite its minuscule population and geographic isolation, New Zealand has the 52nd largest economy in the world, and the 21st largest GDP per capita.

Passenger trains are a really normal thing for a civilised society to have – there’s a reason our ancestors built the tracks.

But it is impressive – no government has made any significant improvements to our service in generations.

Maybe the driver for change was the government’s desire to lower carbon emissions from cars, or maybe it was the common sense decision that poor people, sick people, young people, old people, and daily commuters should be able to move between towns without driving a car.

It’s a relief that common sense prevailed – even if only in an election year, at the last possible moment.

Flynn Nicholls
Flynn Nicholls
Flynn Nicholls is a reporter at the Wairarapa Times-Age who regularly writes about education. He is originally from Wellington and is interested in environmental issues and public transport.

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