Cost of rural rail transport must drop – mayor

Posted 12 December 2022 by Moana Ellis
Ruapehu mayor Weston Kirton is welcomed off the Northern Explorer by a large crowd happy to see the return of Taumarunui as a scheduled stop.

Ruapehu mayor Weston Kirton is welcomed off the Northern Explorer by a large crowd happy to see the return of Taumarunui as a scheduled stop. Photo: Supplied/ LDR

Ruapehu mayor Weston Kirton is welcomed off the Northern Explorer by a large crowd happy to see the return of Taumarunui as a scheduled stop.

Photo: Supplied/ LDR

The cost of rural rail transport must drop, Ruapehu mayor Weston Kirton says.

Taumarunui was reinstated as a scheduled stop on the main trunk line from 4 December, but Kirton said he was just at the first step in his campaign to improve rural access to rail transport.

The district’s new mayor had lobbied since 2019 for a regular rail service to be reinstated for Taumarunui.

The town was dropped from the North Island main trunk service a decade ago, at a point when Kirton said KiwiRail’s focus shifted from a commuter service to tourism.

The rural town was back as a regular stop for the Northern Explorer at the beginning of December, but Kirton said more needed to be done to reinstate rail transport as a viable option for rural New Zealanders.

“Rural New Zealand is getting a kick in the guts when it comes to public transport, where it’s actually needed the most.

“Public transport is important for getting people around who have longer distances to go, affordability or mobility issues, don’t have licences, and because of petrol prices.

“We have this silly situation where we don’t have a commuter train service around New Zealand for the New Zealand public – it’s set up for tourism. We’re disqualified as New Zealanders from using rail as a public mode of transport.

“How ridiculous when we have obligations to keep our emissions down that we can’t get people from A to B through an obvious choice of transport.”

Kirton said KiwiRail used to stop at nearly every town on the main trunk line from Auckland to Wellington.

“They [Kiwi Rail] took out about 12 stops where they regarded them as more commuter destinations rather than tourist destinations. They handpicked the hotspots where their customers would go in the future, making it more of an express service and not stopping at the smaller places like Te Kuiti and Taumarunui.”

Kirton said reinstating the stop in Taumarunui would be a significant boost to the township and the visitor industry.

“I’m pleased that they’ve seen fit to stop here in Taumarunui again, both to pick up our people and also to have tourism packages for the likes of Forgotten World Adventures and cycling. It’s huge.

“Having three stops in the Ruapehu District – Taumarunui, National Park and Ohakune – is pretty precious and reflects the fact that we have quite a diverse range of outdoor activities in this region.

“We have very little in terms of public transport, so hopefully we can capture and use this as much as we possibly can.”

But Kirton said reinstating the stop was only part of the equation.

“The other is we need to price it so it’s attractive for people to leave their cars at home, take their families to other destinations – inter-regional destinations – and make it affordable for them to do that.

“At the moment it’s priced for a tourist market and we need to change that.”

Hundreds of people turned out last Sunday to welcome the first train stopping at Taumarunui under the Northern Explorer’s new itinerary.

Kirton said it was amazing to see people at vantage points all along the track between National Park and Taumarunui waving and tooting as the train went by.

“That’s one to remember. It was just so delightful to be on the train last Sunday and see so many people on the platform, and they’re so excited and grateful that it’s stopping.”

Local tourism organisation Visit Ruapehu had been working with Great Journeys NZ to develop a range of rail-based tourism packages designed to attract visitors to the region and entice them to spend longer.

Two new offerings were based around the Forgotten World rail cart adventures and it was anticipated the range of Taumarunui-based tourism packages would grow.

Kirton said more people were seeing rail as an important mode of transport for the future to help reduce carbon emissions.

“I know it’s going to be a big ask but I’m going to continue advocating to price rail so it is affordable not only for rural New Zealanders but for a mix of people.

“In our area here in Taumarunui and Waimarino, we have an affordability issue, a group of people who have low incomes and don’t have motor vehicles. We’ve got some social issues and we need to have some recognition of that in dealing with transport.”

As an example, the sudden closure of the Ohakune courthouse in September would make it harder for locals to gain equitable access to justice, Kirton said.

The old wooden courthouse was closed because of health, safety and security concerns. The nearest courthouses were now in Taihape, 56km away, Taumarunui, 78km away, and Whanganui, almost 100km away.

Kirton said with the high cost of fuel and no suitable public transport options to other courthouses, the additional travel costs and the need to take longer off work would create significant issues.

He said it was likely many people would simply not have the resources to travel to attend court sessions. This would affect not just offenders but victims, witnesses, their whānau and other support people.

Kirton said he planned to start his campaign for cheaper rail transport by advocating for over-65s to ride either heavily subsidised or for free.

“I’ve got a whole list of people and ministers to ring, probably in the New Year, to advocate for rail affordability.”

Local Democracy Reporting is Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air