I remain optimistic we can find a way to keep this service going. Bruce Gordon, Horizons Manawatu-Wanganui Regional Council
An uncertain future for the Palmerston North– Wellington train
By Bruce Taylor, a Kapiti-based freelance rail transport writer
The future of the Capital Connection (CC) commuter train between Palmerston North and Wellington is still uncertain. This follows the 2014 general election in which the future of the train was an issue in the Otaki and Palmerston North electorates.
The Labour and Green Parties pledged to continue the service, if they formed part of a new government. Of course, they lost the election to the National Party whose commitment to the train is unclear.
KiwiRail has committed to keep the service running till June 2015. However, the company has been increasing fares in order to minimize losses, an action which could be counter-productive if it loses significant patronage as a result.
The latest increase was in November 2014, when fares went up from Palmerston North, Shannon and Levin by an average of 7.3% increasing to a maximum of 17 %. The CC lost just over $400,000 in the 2013-14 financial year and patronage declined by 4.4%.
An unsubsidized commuter service
The train, which began life as the “City Rail Express” in April 1991, (See alongside), has always been a commercial venture by NZ Rail and its successors. Unlike all other commuter trains in the country, it is not subsidized by regional and national government.
From its inception the train has been popular with long distance commuters and occasional school groups, business and leisure travelers to Wellington from the Manawatu, Horowhenua and Kapiti regions. As a result, the CC was commercially successful till 2011.
Fewer Kapiti passengers
However, since the extension of the Wellington Electrified Area to Waikanae and the introduction of the new Matangi Electric Multiple Unit (EMU) trains on the Kapiti line in February 2011, passenger numbers on the Capital Connection have fallen.
A decline in the number of passengers taking the CC from Otaki (who can easily drive to Waikanae), Waikanae and Paraparaumu is seen by KiwiRail and local observers as being the major factor in the drop in passenger numbers and hence profitability. Instead, these passengers are riding on the Metro EMU services.
The seating capacity of the CC is normally 388, assuming that seven of the eight S class carriages are in use. Analysis by the local regional councils in 2012 showed that the number of daily passengers was consistently about 612 in the second half of 2011 (around 306 on each train).
- 61 travelled from Palmerston North
- 4 from Shannon
- 48 from Levin
- 47 from Otaki.
Half of those 306 passengers were from Paraparaumu and Waikanae.
Today, in late 2014, the train carries about 150 passengers north of Waikanae, with around 50 of these passengers travelling to Palmerston North mid-week. On a Monday morning inbound to Wellington and on a Friday afternoon outbound these numbers swell – for example, there are around 80 to 100 Palmerston North passengers on these trains.
The precise number of passengers from Waikanae and Paraparaumu is not known, but the number has certainly fallen from around 153 in 2012.
Support from regional councils
It is clear that Horizons Manawatu-Wanganui Regional Council and the Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC) both want the train to continue in the short term. In July 2012 they put a business case arguing for retention of the CC to the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA).
They proposed that the service be subsidized by both regional councils supplemented by a subsidy from NZTA for a period of five years.
The councils also proposed that the operation and ownership of the CC could be transferred to the GWRC.
The aim over that five year period would be to reverse the financial situation of the train so that it operated from a viable foundation. The amount of the subsidy calculated at that time over the five years would have been $3.8 million:
- $2.4 million would be for service operations
- $1.4 million for necessary heavy maintenance.
NZTA’s share was to be about $2.1 million, roughly 56% of the total subsidy.
Continuing the service until June 2015
After the case was lodged nothing was heard about the train’s future for months. Then, in March 2013, KiwiRail announced that it would continue the service till June 2015 when the train’s future would be reviewed.
KiwiRail said it would endeavour to increase patronage, but at the same time minimize capital investment and progressively raise fares north of Waikanae by 10% a year. The intention was to bring the CC to where it at least broke even by 2015.
People in the region were exhorted to use the train. A senior manager said that daily patronage had to grow by 61 people a day by 2015 to break even.
The implications of the KiwiRail announcement were that no decision for or against the regional councils’ business case proposal had been made in 2012-13 by NZTA. However, the agency did say at the time, that the proposal did not meet its criteria for a subsidy and that a final decision on the future of the CC was two years down the track.
KiwiRail said in October 2014 that it was doing all it could to keep the service running and to improve profitability. Advertisements had been placed in local newspapers and on radio in the Manawatu, in addition to flyers and posters on board the train and at stations.
Concerns about public transport in Levin and Otaki
People in Otaki and Levin believe their public transport links with Wellington and within the region generally are inadequate. Why can’t the Wellington network electrification be extended to Otaki and beyond, they ask?
The CC timetable does not suit many potential passengers who are not commuting to Wellington. Otaki has a subsidized bus service to Waikanae, but Levin has no regular bus services, except the long distance buses which travel through the town. Local politicians and district councils are concerned that KiwiRail may decide to cancel the train in June 2015 and consequently there will be no acceptable alternative public transport provided.
Parking woes in Waikanae
The Park and Ride facility at Waikanae has been full to overflowing for some time and commuters’ cars line SH1 and adjacent Waikanae streets. The Elizabeth Street rail crossing in the town is often congested at peak times.
The Waikanae Community Board has expressed concerns on two occasions about the impact of displaced Capital Connection commuters driving to Waikanae and “swamping” the already overcrowded streets with more parked cars.
There has also been much talk in 2014 of diesel trains, including third-hand Auckland DMUs as a replacement service that could shuttle from Palmerston North, Levin and Otaki to Waikanae, where passengers would change to the Metro EMU service.
Horizons Council takes the initiative
In December 2014 the Horizons Regional Council secured a meeting between their representatives – led by the council chairperson, Bruce Gordon – and the local Otaki MP, Nathan Guy, and the new Minister of Transport, Simon Bridges (pictured alongside), to discuss the future of the train.
Horizons Council sees benefits to the Manawatu-Wanganui region from the service continuing, and has set up a working party to achieve this objective. The main outcome of the meeting was that Bridges asked the Horizons Council to resubmit the business plan of 2012 which proposes a new ownership model for the CC.
“Overall it was a good meeting and I remain optimistic we can find a way to keep this service going,” Bruce Gordon said. “We will review and resubmit the business case developed in conjunction with Greater Wellington Regional Council early next year, with a view to meet and discuss it with central government in March,” he added.
There has been no public response to this very recent development from GWRC, but it can be assumed that support from GWRC will need to go to the next full council meeting for political approval. This will not be until January 2015, at the earliest.
Around the same time as the Horizon’s meeting with Messrs Guy and Bridges, a grassroots “Save the Capital Connection Campaign” held a series of public meetings before Christmas 2014 to promote the need for the train to continue.
Meetings were held at all of the stops on the Capital Connection’s timetable. Palmerston North’s Labour MP, Iain Lees-Galloway, is leading the campaign, which will begin serious political activity this year.
Where to now?
It is unlikely that by progressively raising the fares the Capital Connection service can break even by mid-2015. In this situation KiwiRail will cancel the train unless it can secure a government subsidy. The regional councils have already shown willingness to pay part of a subsidy for five years, which means that again “the ball will be in the court” of the NZTA and central government.
Bruce Taylor, 1 January 2015
(Readers are welcome to use the article provided the author is acknowledged.)