Increased demand may leave Wairarapa train users feeling like sardines in a can. PHOTO/ELI HILL

More trains needed rather than electrification

MARCUS ANSELM
marcus.anselm@age.co.nz

Travelling on Wairarapa trains should be more like a leisurely lunch than a packed sardine can, say Greater Wellington Regional Council chiefs.

The novel release of their business case into the region’s rail needs included a tin of oiled fish. GWRC chairman Daran Ponter splashed out for 60 cans to make the point that commuters may face a squeeze in the next few years.

Deputy chairwoman Adrienne Staples, the board’s Wairarapa representative, said an exodus out of the capital due to rising real estate prices had been felt across the lower North Island.

Regional population growth had accelerated much faster than forecast over the past five years.

It had increased by 35,000 against an initial forecast of 24,000, according to census data.

This has had a knock-on effect for Wairarapa and other areas, in real estate and transport.

GWRC reported an increase of 800,000 passengers this year across the area compared with last year. A total of 14.3 million trips were made.

“There was plenty of fat in the fire for anticipated growth,” Staples said.

“But nobody saw the huge leap in property prices for Wellington so people have shifted further out as that’s what they could afford to buy.

“Patronage on the trains has gone up.

“And if we can get this additional rolling stock it won’t just be new trains for Wairarapa it will give us more capacity on the other side of the hill. So, it’s a really strong case.”

The business case details six options from a long list of 16.

These range from a minimum of maintaining existing Wairarapa services and ceasing Manawatu Line services – “the do-minimum option” – to electrifying services all the way from Wellington to Masterton and Palmerston North.

The recommended plan seeks to replace existing fleets with hybrid trains and improve service levels. It would come at a cost of $415m.

Staples said the cost of electrifying the whole line would be too much to address the immediate problem of capacity.

The money spent on electrical infrastructure would use the money needed for more capacity, she said.

“The cost of doing that, just to get electrification through the tunnel, we could buy trains for that. So, the cost of electrifying the lines wouldn’t buy us any more trains, and we need more trains on both sides of the hill.

“The new trains will run on electric in Wellington, and they will run on something else on this side of the tunnel. And I’m saying ‘something else’ as we don’t know what that is.

“The technology is changing so rapidly. The advances in the electrical vehicles mean that the work on that can be applied to your heavier track vehicles as well. We’re keeping a very open mind on other technologies on this side.”

An announcement on the line’s future came from Transport Minister Phil Twyford on Monday.

Twyford announced work on 2.7km of track between Trentham and Upper Hutt had begun.

The project, funded with $193 million from the New Zealand Transport Agency and $3 million from GWRC, is scheduled to finish in 2021.

New Zealand First list MP Ron Mark said the upgrade was welcome.

“This portion of the rail network is the only section of the busy Hutt Valley Line that is not double tracked. It can be extremely frustrating for our Wairarapa commuters who have to sit on a train and wait for the bottleneck to clear.”