Economic Undertakings

Regional trains and electrification – Greater Auckland

A few weeks ago an article highlighted that councils in the lower North Island are frustrated that the government has not included funding in the budget for new regional trains.

The Minister for Transport has left the door open for 22 new electric trains, after mayors in the lower North Island threw up a stink they weren’t being funded in this year’s budget.

The four-car trains would replace the “vintage” units and quadruple peak-hour services between Palmerston North and Wellington on the Manawatū Line, while doubling them between Masterton and the capital on the Wairarapa Line.


Now the Ponter and Horizons Regional Council, backed by 15 mayors, has written to transport and finance ministers after their $360m budget bid for the $762m project failed.

They say they are surprised and disappointed.

“We are now working against the clock to replace our 50-year-old regional railcar fleets, which will soon reach the end of their lifespan,” the letter states.

“The bidding process for new trains must continue unabated, so we look forward to engaging with you to find ways to unlock Waka Kotahi and other procurement funding.”

The plan is to buy 22 three-mode four-car trains – trains that are powered by electricity when under cables and by a combination of batteries and a fuel-based ‘compression ignition’ engine when ‘they are off-line – exact type of fuel not specified.

The cost also includes a variety of infrastructure upgrades to support the trains and additional services that are planned. The document also notes that it is expected that over time, as battery technology improves, it will extend the range that can be achieved, further reducing fuel consumption.

In response, the article states

Transport Minister Michael Wood wrote a letter in response and said that although the bid was not successful due to competing priorities, ministers were aware that long-distance passenger rolling stock was reaching the end of its economic life.

Continuity of service was key, Wood said.

He asked Transport Department officials, in preparation for the 2023 budget, to continue to work with regional councils to further examine the business case.

“This engagement may also consider issues of scope, cost sharing and timing.”

It’s crazy that the government isn’t funding this, a project that aligns with government policy and the emissions reduction plan, which has a benefit-cost ratio (BCR) of 1.83, but goes from l before with the Otaki Highway in North Levin which had a BCR of 0.2 and that was before its price nearly doubled to $1.5 billion. It’s also worth noting that even with the expressway and optimistic assumptions, it’s only expected to move about 22,600 vehicles per day by 2041, which is less than Waka Kotahi’s suggested trigger for a four-laning of highways. expected volumes exceeding 25,000 per day.

There are perhaps two good reasons why the government is suspending funding and these are the

  • this should be a national project rather than a regional project
  • the government should include funding for additional electrification infrastructure, which could alter the preferred train architecture

Let’s look at these.

A national project

Wellington isn’t the only place that needs some upgraded regional trains.

It would at least be useful for Te Huia to get dual/tri-mode trains allowing more services to operate and for them to use cables in the Auckland area. It could also allow Te Huia services to access Britomart and use the two platforms that will likely be available once the city’s rail link is operational. It should be noted that the government has always talked about Te Huia being a start with more improvements to come over time. That could be a start for some of those longer-term improvements — there’s also this paper that looked at delivering faster service along the way.

Additional trains could also be used to improve the Northern Explorer service between Auckland and Wellington. Currently only six services a week are running – three each way and these trains are pulled behind an old diesel locomotive, even though 72% (and soon 75%) of the journey is under cables. New trains could allow more services and possibly even night services. There are also other potential benefits, for example because electric multiple units work better than diesel locomotives, it may allow services to stop in currently bypassed towns.

So why include trains for these other services:

  1. A larger order would be more attractive to international train builders, which could help secure a better price.
  2. A nationwide single regional rail architecture could allow for greater efficiency, for example, having a single facility for heavy maintenance, a common stock of spare parts, and potentially even the ability to move trains between services if needed.
  3. It sets up a clear design if other regions want to consider services and, depending on the number of orders, could even allow some to be tested.

And before anyone raises the issue of different power systems, Wellington’s business case shortlist even included dual-voltage options.

  • Option 1: EMU (1600V DC) + partial electrification 1600V DC + bus beyond Featherston and Ōtaki + increased services
  • Option 2: B-DMU + increased services
  • Option 3-1: B-EMU (1600 V DC + additional battery) + more electrification + increased services
  • Option 3-2: B-EMU (dual voltage + battery) + 25 kV AC partial electrification + increased services
  • Option 3-3: B-EMU (1600 V DC + battery) + partial electrification 1600 V DC + increased services
  • Option 4-1: Tri-mode multiple units (1600 V DC + battery + IC) + no additional electrification + increased services
  • Option 4-2: Tri-mode (1600 V DC + battery + IC + 25 kV AC provision) multiple units + no further electrification + increased services
  • Option 5: EMU (dual voltage) + 25 kV AC electrification on sections of road not electrified at full intensity + increased services

The main uncertainty with dual voltage options that also include batteries and IC motors seems to be simply whether there is enough space in the trains for all the necessary equipment. Either way, that probably means more cost and I guess that’s something Wellington probably won’t want to invest in given there isn’t a whole lot of upside for them.

An alternative to dual voltage could be to simply have a common design, but in two fleets, each with different transformer equipment.

It would be easier to have dual voltage trains if we could….

Extend electrification

In a response to an OIA I metKiwirail included a high-level study they commissioned in 2021 on the cost of electrifying four key road segments in the North Island. If fully completed, it would electrify all lines that currently carry passenger services, the country’s busiest freight route, and extend electrification infrastructure at freight stations in Auckland and Wellington.

What’s really remarkable here is that the consultants believe we could get all of this for less than the cost of a single highway. It seems like an absolute bargain.

In their response to the OIAKiwirail says:

We comment that the information in this high-level study feeds into other work that KiwiRail is currently undertaking – such as an indicative business case that considers further electrification, potential alternative technologies and encourages the shift from freight mode to rail. in the decades to come; and separate work around network improvements to support the business case that the Greater Wellington Regional Council is currently working on long distance commuter rail to Palmerston North and the Wairarapa.

So, rather than electrification, there may be better longer-term economic options.

The Greater Wellington Regional Council is currently working on a business case for replacement commuter trains, with the potential for them to be bimodal. For these types of trains to operate, some infrastructure improvements would be required, including the further electrification of a small section of the line between Waikanae and Palmerston North.

We are currently in the early stages of reviewing the feasibility of these required upgrades and there is no timeline for further stages.

KiwiRail is exploring other options for low-emission freight ourselves, including tri-mode locomotive technology which only requires a partially electrified network to operate. Tri-mode locomotives operate in
using existing overhead electrical infrastructure where it exists, then using energy storage (battery) between electrified sections.

The locomotive has a small diesel engine to be used to charge the batteries if needed as well. This exploration of locomotive technology is also at an early stage.

It feels like all the pieces are there, just waiting for someone in government to pull them together into a single vision that will dramatically improve the rail network and the services associated with it while reducing emissions.

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