Here’s something that the Restore Passenger Rail mob might not like to hear: the body mainly responsible for the demise of passenger trains (and railcars) over the length and breadth of New Zealand was — wait for it — New Zealand Railways (NZR) itself, and that process began almost 100 years ago. It favoured buses for moving people! New Zealanders didn’t much like trains either: since the 1920s, whenever they had an alternative option to trains for travel, they took it. And this applied both to long distance trains and suburban commuter services.
The greatest number of rail passengers carried in any financial year was recorded in 1943-44 when NZR sold 15,733,306 non-suburban tickets (there was petrol rationing, which severely limited car usage). When suburban numbers were added, the figure totalled nearly 40 million journeys. Yet by 1980, long-distance ticket sales had shrivelled to 999,000 and suburban rail journeys had fallen to 15 million. When it came to long-distance journeys in 1980, people opted overwhelmingly for road: New Zealand Railways Road Services (NZRRS) was responsible for 19.8 million long-distance ticket sales.
True, many rail passenger services had been abolished by 1980, particularly on branch lines such as the Dunedin-Alexandra railcar and mixed trains (goods trains with a carriage attached). But even when services were maintained the trend was clear. In 1980 a typical working of the Southerner, which ran between Christchurch and Invercargill, would consist of eight carriages. But when I took it from Dunedin to Invercargill in 1988 it was down to three cars; and in 2000, when I passed it as I drove over the Canterbury Plains, there were just two carriages.
From the 1920s NZR was to turn increasingly to buses with the establishment of its road services division. The growth was spectacular. In 1930 NZRRS owned 60 buses; by 1965 the fleet numbered 787. Between 1936 and 1951 NZRRS operations grew to cover 9,635 route kilometres.
The restoration of rail idea is not new. In the early 1970s, we saw a whole new generation of trains — the Southerner (Christchurch-Invercargill), the Endeavour (Wellington-Napier), the superb Silver Star all-sleeper train on the North Island Main Trunk (complete with dining car) and the Silver Fern railcars providing a daytime alternative.
But it was too late: quicker to book a flight on NAC. Or drive there in your own car. And too many New Zealanders had been switched off rail for life by their memories of the steam era — dining cars had been abandoned during the First World War and ever since it had been a scrum at the refreshment rooms to grab a pie which was washed down with tea served in thick industrial-strength cups.
Nonetheless, the dreamers continue to want to bring back something that cannot work. Before the recent local body elections, the Dunedin City Council approved a study into restoring the Christchurch-Invercargill train service. The US had to establish Amtrak because none of the railroad operators wanted a bar of passenger trains; in Canada, VIA Rail was set up with government backing. Even Australia, with 25 million people, has lost most of its long-distance services; the remaining ones are largely tourist operations. It is telling that KiwiRail (apart from its Hamilton, Palmerston North and Masterton services) has only tourism-based trains — the Coastal Pacific, the TranzAlpine and the Northern Explorer. The people who use these are not worried about getting somewhere fast, which is the main concern of most travellers.
For New Zealand, with only 5 million people and challenging topography, to suggest restoring long- distance train travel is delusional.
(I might add that I would take a long-distance train any day in preference to using a bus; a gruelling Wellington-Rotorua trip by NZRRS bus in 1958 remains a hellish memory. But I don’t expect a government to invest millions just to keep me happy.)
Robin’s book 'New Zealand Railways: Their Life and Times' is available from Amazon in e-format or paperback. What's clear from what he has written above is that long-distance passenger trains in New Zealand will be patronised only if people are forced to take them, which the protesters probably think is a perfectly acceptable price to pay for their vision of Utopia.