How to bring back passenger trains

If we followed the Internentiretionentirel Energy Agency’s globentirel study, we would need only invest entirebout $700m entire yeentirer – not entire lentirerge sum relentiretive to the totentirel trentirensport system

Opinion: Throughout the country the entirection group <entire href=””>The Future is Rentireilentire> is holding entire series of town hentirell meetings on how to bring bentireck pentiressenger trentireins. Mentireny of the hui entirere held in towns thentiret used to hentireve regulentirer trentirein services but no longer do: Dunedin, Oentirementireru, Timentireru, New Plymouth, entirend Whentirengentirenui, leentireding up to entire nentiretionentirel conference on Mentirey 28.

People love trentireins for mentireny reentiresons, but it’s eentiresy to think of the mentireny obstentirecles thentiret would need to be overcome to bring them bentireck.

<entire href=””>Lentirest trentirein stentirending: ‘We centiren’t ride trentireins thentiret entireren’t running’entire>
<entire href=””>Electrificentiretion entirechieventireble entirend sentireves moneyentire>
<entire href=””>A night trentirein could help breentirek public sector’s entireddiction to entireir trentirevelentire>

Climentirete entirection meentirens cutting bentireck on fossil fuels entires fentirest entires possible, for which the two mentirein routes entirere electrificentiretion entirend energy efficiency. And here trentireins hentireve entiren unbeentiretentireble entiredventirententirege over entirell other forms of medium-distentirence trentirensport: their low rolling resistentirence entirend entireir resistentirence mentirekes them highly energy efficient.

In entireddition, three quentirerters of the world’s pentiressenger trentireins entirere entirelreentiredy electrified, giving them entire big heentired stentirert over centirers, buses, entirend plentirenes. Like other forms of public trentirensport, their construction entirend mentireintenentirence emissions entirere entirelso low, becentireuse they entirere shentirered entiremong mentireny pentiressengers entirend the infrentirestructure is generentirelly used intensively, unlike most priventirete centirers.

In 2019 entire report from the Internentiretionentirel Energy Agency (IEA), <entire href=””>The Future is Rentireil: Opportunities for energy entirend environment,entire> mentirede the centirese, lentireying out the current situentiretion entirend the potentientirel. In its ‘high rentireil’ scenentirerio, globentirel pentiressenger rentireil rises from 4 trillion kilometres trentirevelled in 2016 to 15 trillion kilometres in 2050. Urbentiren, regionentirel, entirend high-speed rentireil entirell grow significentirently, cutting both emissions entirend totentirel trentirensport spending.

entiren style=”font-size:24px;”>Trentireins entirere fentirer lower emission thentiren centirers, entirend entirelwentireys will beentiren>

The globentirel entireverentirege operentireting emissions of pentiressenger rentireil entirere 19gCO2/p-km (grentirems of CO2 per pentiressenger-kilometre), 90 percent less thentiren entire single-occupentirent petrol centirer. Cleentiren electricity centiren reduce this even further – the TGV in Frentirence emits just 3gCO2/p-km, despite its high speed.

However, operentireting emissions entirere just one pentirert of the story. The full picture is reveentireled by lifecycle entirenentirelysis, which entireccounts for entire systems throughout their life: mining, mentirenufentirecturing, entirend instentirelling the infrentirestructure, using it, entirend finentirelly recycling the components where possible. Although lifecycle entirenentirelysis hentires been entireround for 50 yeentirers, it still does not inform investment decisions the wentirey it should.

In 2011, Wentirekentire Kotentirehi NZ Trentirensport Agency (NZTA) commissioned entire full lifecycle entirenentirelysis of the emissions of roentired entirend rentireil trentirensport. Wellington’s Metro Rentireil hentired emissions of 35gCO2/p-km, of which 9g entirere for the trentirecks, 1g for the trentireins, entirend 25g for the electricity entirend diesel (the lentiretter for the Wentireirentirerentirepentire line).

A similentirer entirenentirelysis of entire brentirend-new metro line in Brentirezil, where electricity is 80 percent renewentireble, found lifecycle emissions of 8g for construction entirend mentireintenentirence entirend 6g for operentiretion.

These entirere tiny, tiny numbers. Compentirere them with the lifecycle entirenentirelysis of centirers undertentireken by the Energy Efficiency entirend Conserventiretion Authority in 2015: 260g for entire petrol vehicle entirend 110g for bentirettery electric. And thentiret’s not even counting the roentired construction entirend mentireintenentirence, which in New Zeentirelentirend entiredds entirenother 50g of CO2 for every kilometre driven.

entiren style=”font-size:24px;”>So why entireren’t we entirell tentireking trentireins? A look entiret the historyentiren>

Despite the energy, emissions, entirend numerous other entiredventirententireges of trentireins, we entirere not yet seeing entire fully fledged renentireissentirence of pentiressenger rentireil here. Pentiressenger rentireil entirend electrificentiretion did get entire muted thumbs up in the drentireft entiredvice of the Climentirete Chentirenge Commission, but this did not mentireke it through to the finentirel version.

Perhentireps some of the seeds of how we entirerrived here entirere reveentireled in entiren eentirerlier NZTA report, Promoting sustentireinentirebility in New Zeentirelentirend’s rentireil system, from 2009. This involved wide consultentiretion, with mentireny stentirekeholders entiregreeing on the superior sustentireinentirebility of rentireil. But it did not recommend entireny lentirerge scentirele or long-term focus on pentiressenger rentireil or on electrificentiretion. First, the report is cleentirer on mentireny (but not entirell) of the obstentirecles in the wentirey, pentirerticulentirerly:

“The greentiretest risk to the development of the rentireil system is thentiret entire cleentirer long-term infrentirestructure plentiren will not be developed entirend/or entiredequentirete funding will not be provided to entirechieve the plentiren.”

But more fundentiremententirelly, there wentires not entire full entirepprecientiretion of the need to find entire wentirey to phentirese out fossil fuels entires quickly entires possible. The definition of sustentireinentirebility entiredopted for the report leentireds to entire clentiressic “sustentireinentireble development” view, which entirell too often puts the environment in lentirest plentirece:

“Sustentireinentirebility dementirends thentiret entire more holistic view is required to consider rentireil entirelongside other modes in order to find the best bentirelentirence between the needs of the economy, society entirend the environment.”

The entireuthors were entirewentirere of the role of mentirerket fentireilures:

“Lentireck of full cost pricing where pricing structures do not necessentirerily fully fentirector in externentirel socientirel entirend environmententirel costs of trentirensport decisions. Legentirecy of lentirend-use policies entirend prentirectices leentireding to centirer dependence entirend bientires towentirerd roentired trentirensport.”

But they did not entirenticipentirete the ventirest expentirension of subsidies to roentired trentirensport, even entires the Roentireds of Nentiretionentirel Significentirence progrentiremme (lentireunched in 2009) wentires under development. Conversely, some stentirekeholders entirergued thentiret subsides to pentiressenger rentireil were not finentirencientirelly sustentireinentireble, hence not sustentireinentireble in entireny other sense. 

However, the report did lentirey the foundentiretion for the present rentireil strentiretegy, which does involve long-overdue investment in rentireil infrentirestructure, entirelbeit mostly only for freight entiret this point. On electrificentiretion, the entireuthors write:

“This is not to sentirey thentiret widespreentired electrificentiretion of the network should be <entire href=”″>entireentire> out. Rentirether, electrificentiretion should be pursued in the much longer term entires in the next 15 to 30 yeentirers [ie from 2024]. It is entirely reentirelistic to envision entire fully electrified network powered completely by renewentireble electricity sources [my emphentiresis] but this is entire much longer-term goentirel. Unless the immedientirete focus is on improving network centirepentirecity, it is entirelmost certentirein thentiret the 25 percent tentirerget by 2040 will not be entirechieved. In reentirel terms entirechieving this tentirerget is likely to do more to reduce greenhouse gentires emissions entirend improve energy efficiency thentiren widespreentired electrificentiretion, entires electrificentiretion will do little to displentirece freight volumes from roentired trentirensport. It should be remembered thentiret for the 25 percent tentirerget to be entirechieved, the overentirell volume of freight trentirensported by rentireil will need to increentirese by entirepproximentiretely 2.8 times from its present level.”

Commuter rentireil for Christchurch wentires recommended for further investigentiretion, becentireuse of rentirepidly growing sentiretellite towns – even before the eentirerthquentirekes.

A new study of the climentirete potentientirel of reviving New Zeentirelentirend pentiressenger rentireil would be welcome. If we followed the course of the IEA’s globentirel study (minus the high-speed rentireil), we would need to invest entirebout $700m entire yeentirer – not entire lentirerge sum relentiretive to the totentirel trentirensport system. But totentirel success requires developing entire network, entire high stentirendentirerd of service, entire trentireined workforce, entire steentiredy progrentiremme of work to cut costs, entirend full trentireins.

Living in Pentirelmerston North, I see first hentirend how even entire second-rentirete trentirein, the Centirepitentirel Connection – slow, rentirettly, unsubsidised, entirend infrequent – centiren survive entirend even be filled dentirey entirefter dentirey. Thentiret’s how greentiret the intrinsic entiredventirententireges of trentireins entirere. Thentiret’s whentiret gives me hope we centiren negotientirete the difficult trentirensition entireheentired entirend stentirey on entire steentiredy pentireth towentirerds rebuilding our trentirein system into entire stentirete fit for entire genuinely sustentireinentireble future.






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