As indicated on this blog a few months ago the Overlander train service between Auckland and Wellington is to be restructered and the trains running freqeuncy materially reduced. Also many of the intermediate station stops such as Te Kuiti, Levin, Taumaranui and Taihape are to be closed.
The good news is that the Overlander is to get brand new carriages and rebranded as the Northern Explorer.
In a innovative solution the train is to be run by one new train set based in Auckland with alternate day running six days a week all year round (three days a week in each direction) between Auckland and Wellington. This is being done with some of the the new carriages that were built for the Christchurch based South Island train services, the Coastal Pacific and the Tranz Alpine. These trains are currently suffering lower than expected demand due to after effects of the devastating Canterbury earthquakes. This use of resources is good to see as it would have been a serious waste otherwise.
It was clear the Overlander couldn't continue commercially in its current format and back in 2006 when Toll NZ saved the service such a restructure was eventually envisioned - albeit at the time with refurbished Silver Ferns railcars. Capital wise it was difficult to see the service could support two new trains. One train might just work in a economic sense.
The sad thing is that this is the end of era in New Zealand rail travel for the ordinary New Zealander. Long Distance Rail in NZ, other than for tourism, is officially dead. With the reduction of the Coastal Pacific services and now this move we are moving to a totally tourist based rail service product. Whether this will be fullly sustainable remains to be seen but at least tourist Rail now has a chance in the North Island. Previosuly a mix of tourist Rail plus some A to B travel was seen as necessary for long distance Rail travel to be sustainable in NZ.
New Zealanders need to decide whether they want any long distance passenger Rail. Kiwi Rail in this instance are doing the best commercially with the hand they have been dealt and I commend them for the innovative way they are utilising these new carriages on a North Island service even if the frequency is materially reduced.
However I stand by my earlier blog that calls for a Call To Action on Long Distance Rail if New Zealand ever wants non tourist based Long Distance Rail services again.
The press release is as follows:
24 April 2012
KiwiRail is making changes to the train service between Wellington and Auckland to transform the service into an internationally recognised tourism product.
The Overlander currently runs a daily service during summer months and three days a week during winter using carriages that are up to 60 years old. The new service, which will be rebranded and will use new purpose built carriages, is planned to begin operation on Monday 25 June.
“We are focused on building the North Island service into a better product to attract more tourists – both international and domestic,” says KiwiRail’s General Manager of Passenger Services, Deborah Hume.
KiwiRail has taken advice from tourism groups and staff on how it could improve the North Island service and attract more passengers more regularly. Changes include the introduction of new scenic carriages to the service, a viewing carriage, a new menu, new uniforms and a faster journey time with the removal of a number of intermediate stops.“Introducing a set of KiwiRail’s new scenic carriages is the key to revitalising the North Island service,” Ms Hume says. “Unexpectedly, the impact of the Christchurch earthquakes on passenger numbers for the Coastal Pacific and TranzAlpine services has created an opportunity to spread our resources more effectively and deploy some of the carriages to the North Island while still retaining a sufficient number of the new carriages in the South Island to meet anticipated demand over the coming years.“These carriages have already proved themselves on the Coastal Pacific route and feedback from customers, tourism operators and travel writers has been uniformly positive.
The new scenic carriages will give us the platform from which we can transform the North Island service into a high-value, must-do tourist experience,” says Ms Hume.
The new train will run three weekly services from Auckland and three weekly services from Wellington, with a lay-over day on Wednesday for vehicle maintenance. In addition to reducing the number of weekly services from 14 to six, a shorter journey time with fewer stops is also being introduced. Intermediate stops will be limited to Hamilton, National Park, Ohakune and Palmerston North. It will be easier for customers to plan their journeys as the six day a week schedule will operate year-round rather than changing for peak and off-peak seasons.
"The current Overlander service does not have a big tourist appeal and it’s no longer being effectively used as a domestic point-to-point service between Wellington and Auckland. The future for long distance passenger train travel in New Zealand is now about creating an international-standard travel experience rather than simply getting people from one place to another.
“We’re encouraging local businesses and tourism operators to leverage off this new service so that we can highlight tourist attractions along the way and make the journey through the North Island a memorable and “must-do” tourism experience. We know with new carriages and a completely new product, the North Island rail service between Auckland and Wellington has the potential to be a great travel and tourism experience for the North Island,” says Ms Hume.