The new rapid rail network that could reshape Auckland and the Waikato

On the rails

Higher-speed rail linking three of the country’s fastest-growing cities? Here’s how it could happen – and soon.

Imagine, if you will, stepping on a sleek train in Hamilton and stepping out at Britomart Station a mere hour and 13 minutes later. Or boarding in Tauranga, passing through Hamilton and a handful of small Waikato towns, and being in Auckland just over two hours after you got on the train. You’d be riding on an efficient network that covers much of the upper North Island (Auckland, Waikato and the Bay of Plenty are now home to half the country’s population) and connects to the main trunk line.  

This is not a trainspotter’s wilful fantasy, but part of a rigorous three-stage proposal for a Regional Rapid Rail network. The 70-page report was released this week by the team at Greater Auckland, a group of transport experts and urbanists who run the website formerly known as TransportBlog. The group’s influence shouldn’t be understated: their vision for a Congestion Free Network for the city has been almost wholeheartedly endorsed by both the Labour and Green parties, and even the National government has agreed with some of their proposals, albeit with much longer timeframes and a stubborn emphasis on roading.

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Greater Auckland’s new focus beyond the Bombay Hills recognises the dangers of the way rapid development of suburbs and townships beyond the city limits – hello, Pokeno! – is adding cars to an already congested roading system. The Regional Rapid Rail network would reduce dependency on roads connecting the upper North Island’s main centres. It would also make towns in the upper Waikato an attractive commuter proposition: the scheme would eventually make Pokeno a half-hour train ride from Britomart; Te Kauwhata would be an easy 41-minute jaunt; Huntly would be only 49 minutes away.

This could lower pressure on Auckland’s overheated housing market, offering viable lower-cost options for people who want to move out of the city but can’t face a long, unpredictable, motorway-based commute. It could stimulate well-designed development in smaller centres, boosting regional economies. And it would be a boon for tourists, who could easily transfer from Auckland Airport to the rail network to reach the Bay of Plenty and beyond.  

Stage 1

Interim network: getting started quickly and affordably.

To get Regional Rapid Rail started quickly, Greater Auckland’s report initially proposes using existing 96-seater Silver Fern trains on the network. Passengers would change to city trains at Ōtāhuhu Station until Britomart Station’s capacity increases after completion of the City Rail Link (CRL). There would be one return service each day to Tauranga, and two peak and three inter-peak services between Ōtāhuhu and Hamilton. A Hamilton-Central Auckland journey (including Ōtāhuhu transfer) would take 2 hours 16 minutes; Auckland-Tauranga would take 3 hours 25 minutes. 

Stage 2

New trains, faster times

Here’s where things get interesting: Greater Auckland proposes an investment in 17 higher-speed dual-mode diesel and electric tilt trains seating 300 passengers. Regular services would connect to the main trunk line, with new stations and track improvements across the network. A $400 million investment would provide for 3.5 million passengers a year; direct services to Britomart would follow the opening of the CRL. A Hamilton-Auckland journey would take 1 hour 32 minutes; Tauranga to Auckland 2 hours 24 minutes. 

Stage 3

Hello Rotorua, Cambridge and Te Puke

Sometime in the near future, 32 higher-speed, dual-mode diesel and electric trains could shuttle between Auckland and Hamilton (in 1 hour 13 minutes), Cambridge, Rotorua and Te Puke. Greater Auckland reckon this would require a $1.45 billion investment, with southern metro services extended through Tuakau, as well as the creation of a new express and tunnel section through the Bombay Hills. Higher frequency services would make northern Waikato a comfortable and convenient commute from central Auckland.

These are but a brief precis of Greater Auckland’s proposal; you can see more at greaterauckland.org.nz.