New Zealand’s shrinking passenger rail network

I have collaborated with mapmaker Sam van der Weerden to create a book about how New Zealand’s passenger rail network has evolved over the past century.

If you came across a railway line in New Zealand during 1920, you could safely assume a train that carried passengers would come along sooner or later. Today? If you are beyond the suburban zones of Wellington and Auckland, even if you stumble upon a working railway the odds are that it does not have a regular passenger service. Where did all the trains go?

I have teamed up with mapmaker extraordinaire Sam van der Weerden (visit his website) to explain what happened with images and words. Our book is titled Can’t Get There from Here: New Zealand Passenger Rail since 1920 and Otago University Press have done a sterling job on editing and design. The book hit New Zealand bookshelves in December 2021: you can buy it from any good local bookshop or order a copy here directly from the distributor.

New Zealand’s railway network was a common carrier in 1920. It carried all passengers and goods offering. The problem was, on most rural lines, trains were slow “mixed” services: they carried passengers and goods together, with lengthy shunting at stations along the way. The rise of the motorcar meant that rail retreated from the countryside. But this did not need to mean the demise of most of the network: during the 1940s, the intercity and long-distance network reached its maximum extent. Buller, Gisborne, and Marlborough, for so long isolated from the nation, now enjoyed rail connections to major cities.

New Zealand had an extensive regional passenger rail network until 1967, and even in the early 1990s it seemed that revival was more likely than demise. But the attitudes that doomed passenger rail emerged much earlier: as early as the 1930s, railway officials committed to road transport. NZ Railways competed with itself, operating rival road and rail services. Investment in new rollingstock was insufficient or inadequate, and the failure to buy enough new trains was taken from the 1970s as a good enough reason to cancel services permanently—cancellation was portrayed as inevitable, even though it was the outcome of bad decisions. Rail retreated entirely from rural communities; Christchurch and Dunedin lost their suburban networks; most long-distance trains ended.

When the Stratford–Ōkahukura Line opened in 1933, locals crowded station platforms in the small hours to welcome the first overnight express from Auckland to New Plymouth. It is today used solely by tourist rail carts, with this photo taken from one near Mātīere, 24 October 2018.

This story need not be a negative one. Today, we need rail more than ever to provide modal choice, end car dependency, and mitigate the effects of climate change. Our book not only traces the reasons for the shrinking of the passenger rail network but also provides a new vision for rail in New Zealand. From suburbs to regional towns, there are great possibilities that can maximise New Zealand’s clean energy potential. Soon, perhaps, we might again be able to get there from here.

Read more about this project in my blog (and enjoy some additional images too).

A brand new English Electric DM/D multiple unit at Khandallah on the first day of electric traction in Wellington, 2 July 1938. It is in its original royal blue livery with a white band and grey roof. NZR repainted all units into its standard Midland Red livery by 1949.
Credit: Wellington City Archives, 00155-155
This image shows Aramoho station in 1955 with a mixed train assembled at the platform and passenger carriages in the sidings. The main line to New Plymouth skirts Whanganui’s suburbs, with Aramoho the junction for trains into central Whanganui. Until 1955, a shuttle train ran between Whanganui and Aramoho to meet Wellington–New Plymouth expresses, and until 1959 a passenger train ran daily between Whanganui and New Plymouth. Railcars between Wellington and New Plymouth ran through Aramoho until 1977.
Credit: Whites Aviation, WA-37584-F, Alexander Turnbull Library.

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