Wednesday, October 19, 2022

What history tells us about long-distance passenger trains

My Sydney-domiciled friend and former colleague Robin Bromby, a lifetime railways enthusiast, co-founder of Rails magazine and author of New Zealand Railways: Their Life and Times, sent the following comment on my post about the Restore Passenger Rail fantasists:

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. 


David Lupton said...

I appreciate Robyn’s perspective, but I differ in some of the details. When I was Manager InterCity sometime last century, we had I think about 400 long distance bus departure per day and 12 long distance trains. The number of passengers on each mode was about the same. We had both train and bus between Auckland and Wellington - the buses were well patronized throughout the journey but had far less end-to-end passengers than the trains. We had a bit of a resurgence in the late1980s when we recast the remaining services as tourist trains with on board catering – the biggest success being the Tranz Alpine. The Coastal Pacific, although not as big a success, carried far more passengers than its then competitor, Newmans Coachlines. The routes that worked were the tourist routes while the traditional ‘backbone’ of the network, the Northerner and the Southerner that served the domestic market died. The Southerner had real problems. The freight group removed almost all the passing loops between Christchurch and Invercargill with the result that if the train missed a scheduled crossing it often had to wait over an hour to cross the opposing freight train. Result very few repeat users.

But what killed domestic rail travel was not the bus, it was air travel. When I first joined Railways I had to travel regularly to Auckland, and I used to go one way on the train and fly the other. At that time, you had to book weeks in advance to get an 8am flight but the 8pm flight was always half empty. Then Air New Zealand discovered (or was allowed to practice) yield management and the fare at 8pm dropped to half the rail fare. I started to see all my former passengers on the plane. I do think there are still some markets for rail, particularly as Air NZ has abandoned regional services in favour of all direct services to the Auckland hub, but it would be very hard work.

Anonymous said...

I'm for trains! They just didn't try very hard to keep them. Now's the time to use a bit of gumption and restore train services before the lines are past it. They could do it perfectly well - just can't be bothered. Think I'll get in my car now and go out and buy some superglue and join the goodies.

Karl du Fresne said...

I love train travel too. It's my mode of choice when we're overseas. But there's no point in rebuilding the national railway network when there's no demand.

Anonymous said...

If we had an intelligent government who wanted to make the country run well - instead of busting a gut to achieve co-governance for no practical purpose at all (God help us!) they would take much of the freight off the roads and planes and onto the coastal shipping which is often floating around Aotearoa half-empty (call them waka), and then fill the rail-tracks overnight - as well as daily - and put on drinks and meals - and get real about the cost of buses and other road traffic. I could go on............I honestly don't have much respect for 'demand' because I don't have a lot for people's mental capacity to know what they want.

Ben Thomas said...

What nobody says is what would be the impact on the climate and rising sea levels if all the demands of the protesters were met. And do the protesters envisage forcing people to travel by train? Wellington has a great rail network but the roads are clogged with traffic. Outside peak hours the only train users appear to be Super Goldcard holders.

Odysseus said...

I'm forming a splinter group demanding the government "Bring Back Steam on the Main Trunk Line". You ain't seen nothing yet!

SPT said...

I'm in Odysseus,I took great pleasure watching the Glenbrook steam train hauling eleven carriages full of enthusiastic punters around Auckland during the weekend.The noise,smoke and steam was wonderful.As for the toot toot as the train went through stations and under bridges, lined with people,it took the whole experience to another level.

Don Franks said...

Yes, rail travel can be a joy. The overlander ride between Wellington and Auckland is one I've appreciated many times. You can get lots of reading and writing done in the elven hour journey if the scenery palls. It always paid to bring your own food, the stuff on offer was overpriced and insubstantial.

Karl du Fresne said...

I reckon the Wellington-Auckland run is at least an hour too long. By about Hamilton I've had enough, and by then the best of the scenery has passed too. A bullet train on that last stretch would be appreciated.