Train Time for Timaru?

March 20, 2020
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FOLLOWING on from last week’s post, the first thing I noticed when I arrived in Timaru, New Zealand, was the not-so-old railway station — now a cafe.

Apparently tourists turn up all the time expecting to catch the train. But there ain’t none, at least not since 2002.

Passenger trains did run from Christchurch to Dunedin via Timaru and Oamaru until 2002. Oamaru has an older wooden main station dating back to 1900, which had a huge dining room in its day and is still a well-regarded restaurant. In other words, the dining room remains in business even if the passenger trains are not.

Here’s a map of New Zealand’s railway lines at the present time, including the locations of Timaru and Oamaru.


In the past, there was also a branch line which went inland from Timaru via Washdyke Flat, Pleasant Point, Cave and Albury to a point just past the touristy inland town of Fairlie, at the foot of the Southern Alps. The Fairlie Branch line followed the approximate course of the modern highway that runs through the same locations. Here’s a map showing the locations of Timaru and the Mount Cook village in yellow boxes, and of Pleasant Point and Fairlie in reddish-orange boxes.

Background map data ©2020 Google

The Fairlie Branch closed in 1968. But before that it took travellers roughly halfway to Aoraki / Mount Cook, with the last part of the journey having to be completed by bus.

Old poster at the Timaru railway station

In those days transport was very strictly regulated in New Zealand, and private buses and trucks weren’t allowed to compete head-to-head with the state-owned railways. So the bus had to wait at Fairlie and couldn’t just pick people up at Timaru.

That policy was upheld for many decades on the grounds that if free competition was allowed, the railways would unravel and far too many cars, trucks and buses would end up on the roads.

Just about every town of any size in New Zealand was on a railway line in those days. And each line generally served several towns strung along it like beads on a necklace.

As long as the railways could be kept going — so the politicians of that era maintained — road traffic would be light and accidents infrequent, and the national burden of imported motor vehicles and fuel would also be kept to a minimum. Unlike cars, trucks and buses, trains were built locally from scratch, and powered by local coal and hydro-electricity.

Two and a half kilometres of the Fairlie branch line remain open at Pleasant Point, for excursions.

Freight trains still run through Timaru, servicing its local port.

New Zealand’s railway network is quite sparse and efficient. It only covers a part of the country, but because of New Zealand’s rugged topography, that’s the part of the country where virtually all the people live.

In the South Island north of Christchurch, the Coastal Pacific and the TranzAlpine normally run daily services, year-round in the case of the TranzAlpine but not in winter in the case of the Coastal Pacific.

The TranzAlpine (red) and Coastal Pacific (green). Map by Jkan997, CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s just that there isn’t anything like that at Timaru, which lies to the south of Christchurch, apart from the Pleasant Point railway.

The mayor of Timaru, and other local worthies, are agitating for Timaru’s main-line passenger rail services to be restored.

In a climate-change world, main-line passenger rail may well revive. Indeed, it’s perhaps all the more essential that it does in New Zealand, for our tourism numbers are constantly on the up and up, in ways that are leading to more road congestion and road accidents. We drive on the left; most of our tourists come from countries where they drive on the right and occasionally they forget what side of the road they are meant to be on, or get confused at intersections.

Traffic on State Highway 8, which follows the course of the old Fairlie Branch line and then on to Tekapo, the turnoff to Mount Cook, Ōmārama and points south and inland, is often extremely congested. So there’s a case for reviving not just the Southerner, but also the branch line as well. Perhaps.

At least the roads were congested before Coronavirus. They’re quiet now, as of the time of writing. But they will probably keep on becoming more congested after things get back to normal. Recent projections are for 5.1 million overseas tourists a year by 2024, up from 3.7 million in 2017. That is a 37 % increase.

But if it makes sense to revive passenger rail, what are the obstacles to doing so?

Perhaps the most significant is a bizarre funding anomaly which is well known, widely discussed since the 1960s, and yet, the subject of no political action at all.

The anomaly is this. In New Zealand, the railways, which are entirely owned by the New Zealand Government apart from some excursion trains, are expected to deliver a commercial return on capital.

This capital includes both the trains and the tracks, though not the land underneath.

On the other hand, New Zealand’s roading network, also owned by the New Zealand Government, is not expected to deliver any overall return on capital to the Government.

Neither on the value of the publicly-owned roads which is in the tens of billions, nor for that matter on the value of the vehicle fleet owned by the general public.

The value of New Zealand’s Government railways was written down from NZ $7.8 billion to only $1 billion in 2012, in order to reduce the crippling dividend burden.

All the same, the New Zealand railways remain “a Profit Oriented Entity.” They’re expected to make a profit, and any proposed investment that won’t add to profit gets the third degree. In practice this means that the New Zealand railways are oriented toward bulk freight and begrudge all passenger services as a distraction from the bottom line.

It’s been estimated that if the roads were run on the same profit-making basis as the railways they would need to find several billion dollars a year in additional funding to cover the cost of capital. That is, unless their value was drastically written down too.

Every couple of years, the government announces plans to invest billions of dollars more on roads but very little on rail, since rail is regarded as ‘unprofitable’ outside of its core function of shifting bulk freight.

The roads are unprofitable too. But the point is that they aren’t expected to make a profit. Whereas the railways are.

A level playing field between roads and rail would probably make the case for investment in rail more attractive.

There’s another issue too. In the past, the Government has often developed land close to railway tracks. The better the railway services, the more valuable the land becomes. This virtuous circle also makes investment in railway passenger services more attractive.

But since the 1980s, the state has largely bowed out of the real estate business.

So, here’s what’s needed to bring rail back to Timaru. First, a level playing field for road and rail funding. And second, a plan to develop housing estates and new towns close to the railway lines.

At the very least, it shouldn’t be too hard to run mixed trains with time-sensitive freight. It’s time New Zealand put its thinking cap on!

(The title of this post pays homage to John R. Stilgoe’s book Train Time: Railroads and the Imminent Reshaping of the United States Landscape.)


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