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Connecting cities to towns and villages by public transport.

by Jon Reeves

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Should New Zealand invest in a proper public transport network that covers not only main centres, but the regions as well? It is a question that needs an answer promptly. Public transport in New Zealand has mainly played second fiddle to private motorists needs since the 1950’s. However, with fuel prices and the costs of constructing new or additional motorway lanes or widening roads soaring at record levels and our country’s attempt to meet carbon emissions targets now is clearly the time and place to expand our public transport system across New Zealand. Until the late 1960’s New Zealand had an extensive regional and inter-regional passenger rail system. Imagine being able to catch a train from Papakura or Pukekohe to Rotorua, Tauranga, Thames or to New Plymouth and Wellington with daily services. Or northwards to Wellsford, Whangarei or even the Bay of Islands. It could all be done until government policy of the day closed those services. In fact, we had daily Intercity Rail services to Rotorua, Tauranga and twice daily to Wellington until 2001 and 2004 respectively.

Not only did our great country have quite a vast passenger rail network, we also had a huge connected inter-regional government owned coach network, New Zealand Railways Road Services which connected almost every city to provincial towns across the country. During the “Rogernomics” Labour Government of the late 1980’s coach services were dramatically cut-back and the NZR Road Services renamed “Intercity” in preparation for eventual privatisation, which was duly carried out by the following Bolger National Government. Sadly, our nationwide public transport network became more “skeletal” which left many provincial towns without any form of public transport except for limited school bus routes. Just like rail passenger services, some bus routes were not “profitable” in the pure financial sense, but they served a social service, connected communities, the young and elderly, those with disabilities and those unable to drive who could travel without relying on or being burden to family members to drive them. I well recall NZR Road Services coaches picking school children up along the route to Tairua and Whitianga having come from Hamilton and via Thames in the early 1980’s. These services are all but history now, in this day and age of record fuel prices, environmental and climate issues. One might say “but we have such a small population”. Well, back in the early 1980’s we had a population of only 3 million compared to over 5 million today. Thanks to covid, New Zealanders are now moving from cities to live in more lifestyle orientated towns and beachside hamlets. Combined with the return of international tourists, I believe there is a strong case to think about the (re)creation of a nationwide public transport system. Perhaps combined by Kiwirail and an expanded inter-regional passenger rail service? Perhaps a “KiwiBus” network starts small, like serving the East Cape region connecting it to Gisborne and Whakatane or Tauranga on a daily basis? Or between Kerikeri, Kaikohe, Opononi to Dargaville? I chose these examples as they once had daily services until Rogernomics Labour Government axed those bus routes. To help the launch of the “KiwiBus” network, perhaps the government should make an offer to purchase the existing (and covid hit) Intercity coach operations – thus instantly creating a core network to build out from? For the most part, the creation of the NZ Railways Road Services was when the government purchased private bus operators during the Great Depression of the 1930’s.

As Intercity Coachlines is privately owned it operates the bare minimum services to do one thing - make a financial profit. As we all know, we now include economic, social and environmental benefits when looking at roading and rail projects, and the same should be applied to inter-regional coach operations (and more passenger rail services). So what can we do? We need to tell central government and political parties (of all colours) to seriously investigate setting up a nationwide public transport system. Use the existing rail infrastructure and add to it through procurement of modern railcars. Encourage them to seriously investigate setting up a “Kiwibus” network or buying what is left of the Intercity coach network. High oil and energy prices are here to stay. Costs of road building is skyrocketing and we need to offer alternatives to connecting cities to regional and provincial towns. We had it all before, built up over 70 years, then frittered all away in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. It is time to rebuild our national public transport system.

So what can we do? We need to tell central government and political parties (of all colours) to seriously investigate setting up a nationwide public transport system.

Jon Reeves is the National Coordinator of the Public Transport Users Association of New Zealand.

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elocal Digital Edition – June 2022 (#254)

elocal Digital Edition
June 2022 (#254)

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