Last week I rode on the Wairarapa line from Masterton to Wellington for the first time. The train left Masterton at about 6.48am and arrived in Wellington around 8.30ish. I found it an interesting experience, especially given the recent discussions on a rail revival in Christchurch. In a previous post, I talked about an idea for a commuter rail service between Timaru and Christchurch that had been floated some months ago. I think such an idea has much merit, and it would be a good first step to reintroduce Canterbury people to rail travel. I think a Wairarapa service type service applied to the Timaru – Chch route would work well, and it serves as a good example fo what can be achieved. I have to say, I was pretty impressed.
The first thing you immediately notice about the Wairarapa services is how comfortable it is (I even fell asleep for a period). The train ride was smooth, and the atmosphere quiet and relaxing. It made a long commute very tolerable, and people read, listened to music, used their laptops, slept, or just stared out the window. There was also space for big bags and bikes in the luggage van. Despite taking almost two hours, the service seemed quite popular and was quite full by the time it got to Wellington, although there still seemed to be a seat for everyone. Interestingly, the service was well used by people in the Hutt Valley as an express train, the Wairarapa service only stopping at the key stations within Wellington.
A rail service between Timaru and Christchurch could take no more than two and a half hours, possibly less (the railcar timetable from the 1960’s shows about 2 hours and 20 minutes, whilst the Southerner did it in less). Even with a few stops factored in, I see no real reason why a similar time could not be achieved today. At a minimal, from Timaru you might have stops at Temuka, Ashburton, Rakaia, Rolleston, Templeton, Hornby, and Addington. First buses of the day in Timaru could connect with the trains departure, say around 6.00am (the Capital Connection has a similar departure time, while the first Wairarapa train departs before six). It wouldn’t be too difficult to factor in park and ride, as well as cycle lock-up facilities (and a luggage van for those who wish to use their bike at the other end). Park and ride and cycle lock-up facilities could be provided at the other stops (particularly Ashburton and Rolleston) while at Hornby, Addington, and a new station at Moorhouse Ave, connections could be made into the Metro bus system. The real benefit of such a service is that it could double up as a local commuter service from Rolleston, Templeton, and Hornby, which could be a good first step towards further services.
Rolling stock will soon be available when the new Kiwirail AK class carriages enter service on the Tranzalpine and Coastal Pacific long-distance trains. Granted, the old carriages are well passed their used by date but they might just be up for one more role before final retirement (and, of course, for the forseeable future the same type of carriages are still being used on the Overlander, and on regular services on the Taieri Gorge Railway). They are well-appointed, comfortable, and even come with a snack counter to boot! They may just be the thing needed for a trial operation. Beyond that, train sets are available in Auckland from 2014, new carriages (adapted AK’s?) could be built or anything really. Timaru – Chch is pretty flat and straight, so further investment could lead to substantial drops in travel times.
As I said in my previous post, the train would run entirely within the jurisdiction of ECan, and so it should be relatively easy to integrate the service into the current Metro set-up, including fares. There would, therefore, be no reason why you could not use the metrocard on such a service, for example, which is a big plus.
So using the Wairarapa service was a bit of an eye-opener. To me, it showed what can be achieved with long-distance commuter rail services in a city similar in size to Christchurch. Yep, there is a pretty big hill in the way between the Wairarapa and Wellington, but I do think its role in the survival of the rail service is often overstated. I thought it was great, and I think it would be easy to bring a similar service to the Canterbury Plains. Now to get a campaign started…