Now is the time for rapid rail

Now is the time for rapid rail

As the Government prepares to invest billions of dollars in the post-COVID-19 recovery, how can we best spend that money to boost the economy and also create a wealthier, more sustainable future for New Zealand?

An investment in fast, electrified trains should be part of the mix. This would make it easier to commute and travel between our major cities and regional towns, opening up affordable housing and also helping reduce our reliance on greenhouse gas-emitting vehicles.

The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand is proposing the introduction of fast and frequent commuter trains connecting the Golden Triangle of Auckland, Hamilton, and Tauranga, as well as high-speed routes in Canterbury, and Wellington to Palmerston North. Contrary to the myth that New Zealand is too spread out and sparsely populated to justify high-speed rail, these three routes would encompass cities with a combined population of three million people.

State-of-the-art electric trains

Using modern, computer-controlled tilt trains, speeds of 160km/h could be achieved, even on our existing narrow- gauge tracks. This is already occurring in Malaysia, with high-quality electric trains manufactured by Chinese company CRRC operating at 140-160kph on a narrow gauge similar to ours in New Zealand.

And don’t be confused with the Chinese manufactured locomotives purchased by KiwiRail at a deliberate low spec a few years ago. These trains are state-of -the-art with Wi-Fi, touch screen displays, USB chargers in seats, and the all- important kiosk selling coffee and muffins for the morning commute.

Such a train could potentially travel from Auckland’s CBD to Tauranga in around two hours. This is comparable to air travel which includes journey times to and from the airports. It’s also a considerably more comfortable travel environment where one could potentially work or study.

Opening up commuter towns along the routes for rapid rail services would enable people to commute longer distances, in comfort, and not have to battle the motorway gridlock.

Freight, infrastructure and transport emissions

Any plan around large-scale rail infrastructure upgrades would also need to consider how to support New Zealand’s growing freight task and the proposed relocation of Auckland’s port. The potential for commuter towns between Auckland and Whangarei, and tourist and other journeys further north, could be unlocked by rapid rail.

Numerous studies have been undertaken around the carbon footprint of the various forms of passenger travel available, with electric rail coming out generally around one-third of the emissions of private cars and a sixth of those associated with domestic air travel. Electrified rapid rail presents an important opportunity to cut our transport emissions.

Long-term benefits and opportunities

The operation of rapid rail networks centred on Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch would require a mixture of infrastructure upgrades and new construction (bridges, double tracking, electrification and eventually a couple of new tunnels). While a significant amount of componentry – as well as the trains themselves – would need to be imported, there is significant opportunity for an economic boost over the life of the project for New Zealand.

This is because major new opportunities would arise for local civil engineering contractors, pre-casting yards and labour and a programme of this scale would enable additional facilities to be developed to support the programme. This would provide new, long-term, quality employment opportunities and could be deliberately positioned in areas with high unemployment and/or the need for a long-term economic boost.

Modern construction methods could enable this work to be done without slowing down the other post-COVID-19 infrastructure works. For example, a modern tracklaying machine is largely automated and can lay around 1km of track per day – scheduling this programme of work efficiently could keep such a machine busy for the duration of its planned working life.

We have the opportunity here, not just to make immediate investment post-COVID-19, but to commit to a multi-decade upgrade of our rail network that would unleash economic and environmental benefits across the country. Each section could be completed as a partnership with the private sector, potentially as an alliance – a tried and tested construction delivery methodology for major projects and programmes of work here in New Zealand, creating a delivery organisation comprising the public sector, local engineers and contractors, international rail specialist contractors and a local and international supply chain (with a heavy emphasis on local).

Rapid rail can reduce emissions, relieve the pressure on our roads, and ignite the economies of regional towns.
While the trains themselves and certain specialist equipment will come from off-shore, there is huge potential for short, medium and long-term economic boosts during the construction phases of such a programme, with numerous jobs being created both directly and indirectly relating to the construction and upgrades work.

The long term economic benefits for the regions include permanent, high -quality local jobs in tourism, retail and commerce, as well as train and infrastructure maintenance and facilities management, plus the unlocking of land for housing along the routes and the transformation of existing towns into commuter towns.

This opinion piece has been written by James Leach, General Manager of Business Development and Major Projects at Harrison Grierson. He has 32 years experience and has worked on major heavy, metro and light rail projects in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

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