The rise and fall of NZ First rail advocacy

In the 2014 New Zealand elections, the New Zealand First party sought to steal the limelight on promotion of the railway network. The party announced a “Railways of National Importance” campaign, an obvious counter to the National Party’s Roads of National Significance proposals. Whilst many of the corridors mentioned were existing ones, the policies also sought the establishment of new or previously considered railway routes such as Nelson-Blenheim, Pokeno-Paeroa-Te Aroha, Te Aroha-Hemopo, Awakeri-Whakatane, Rotorua-Taupo and Marsden Point. The reinstatement of the Napier-Gisborne line which had then been closed for two years was also advocated. Other ideas were electrification in many of the major corridors, suburban passenger train services for Christchurch, Dunedin and Tauranga, the Hamilton-Auckland interregional passenger service, rail siding grants, re-establishing Hillside Workshops and upgrading Cook Strait ferry services. The chief architect of the policies was Jon Reeves, a NZ First member with an existing association with rail communities through various activities, including campaigns also conducted with Campaign for Better Transport in previous years, and who also stood in the Hunua electorate for the Party. NZ First did not win enough support at the election for Reeves to be elected from the list, and was not part of the subsequent National government. After the election, Reeves formed the Public Transport Users Association – NZ as a breakaway from CBT. Since that time CBT became much less visible whilst PTUA was successful in gaining significant publicity.

In the 2017 election campaign some of the previous policies were advocated for and Reeves stood again for Hunua, whilst another NZ First rail campaigner, Tane Apanui, stood for a seat in the Christchurch area. The Airport Rail campaign began in 2016 after Auckland Transport proposed light rail on the Auckland-Onehunga-Mangere route, along with the Trains to Huapai proposals, advocating for commuter passenger services to be reinstated on the North Auckland Line west of Swanson that had been discontinued in 2009. The Grow Northland Rail campaign also started in a similar timeframe. Election campaign proposals made by NZ First included Auckland airport rail, rebuilding the Northland rail network, relocating the Port of Auckland to Marsden Point, and most of the 2014 policies mentioned above. In the coalition agreement signed between Labour and NZ First after the election, the parties committed to investing in regional rail and a feasibility study into relocating the Port of Auckland. Other rail policies were also subsequently enacted, including the re-opening of the Napier to Wairoa section of the Palmerston North Gisborne Line, and NZ First helped to get additional work begun such as the new ferries project, upgrades of the Northland rail network, the commencement of investigations and business cases for the Marsden Point route, commuter train infrastructure upgrades in Wellington, and the re-opening of the Hillside Workshops facilities. The party notably opposed Labour’s Auckland Light Rail development. PTUA continued to campaign for Auckland Airport rail, developing a preference for a Puhinui spur.

With advocacy going on elsewhere, airport heavy rail ideas made it into the National Party’s 2020 election manifesto, which suggested both Puhinui and Onehunga could proceed in future, with Puhinui to be prioritised. NZ Frst policies for that year are listed as: Continue to support regional rail initiatives and complete geotech research on re-opening the Wairoa to Gisborne rail line; Secure funding to build a rail spur from Puhinui station to Auckland airport; Build and complete the Marsden spur linking Northport to the Northland rail-line;  Full rebuild and improvements to the Christchurch-Picton rail corridor. This is quite a reduction from 2014/2017. However, NZ First was removed from Parliament through failing to reach the 5% threshold required to be elected off the list vote only, without any electorate seats.

Rail proposals made a comeback in 2023 when NZ First regained Parliamentary representation at the election and formed a coalition with National and Act. The NZF manifesto included these policies: cancellation of Auckland Light Rail, Puhinui heavy rail spur to Auckland Airport, cancellation of Let’s Get Wellington Moving, promoting coastal shipping, investigate re-opening Wairoa-Gisborne section of PNGL, build Marsden Point rail line, improvements to Christchurch-Picton rail corridor, relocating Port of Auckland to Northport. The only part of these which made it into the coalition agreement were the cancellations of light rail in Auckland and Wellington, and progressing further work on the Marsden Point line (although not actually building it). So here is the point of this post, what has NZ First campaigning on rail achieved to date?

Their various proposals seemed to be quite distinct from the mainstream rail advocacy ideas in New Zealand. Things like Airport rail, Pokeno-Paeroa rail corridor, Trains to Huapai and relocating the port of Auckland were left field ideas that did not get a widespread following. PTUA did campaign quite extensively on some of these ideas as well as better-supported ones like the Marsden Point branch, Northland Rail and the Napier-Wairoa line, but their voracity on Airport rail as an example did not make it more viable. It was one clear example of a policy that was not well thought out as the Airport was never a primary reason for either light or heavy rail proposals that were finalised in 2016. The conclusion that must be formed, therefore, is that NZ First was attempting to create its own political wedge in rail by dividing and conquering the existing rail community it claimed to support. This is not a good idea in practice as the existing rail community is very small and public campaigning of any sort already tends to be ad hoc and fragmented, with mostly individuals rather than groups being publicly prominent in these. This is borne out by examining PTUA’s track record; its coordinator became widely unpopular in social media forums for taking a polarising stance denigrating other advocates and campaigners on generally political grounds. Since the PTUA/NZ First campaigns have largely been unsuccessful (there are still no trains to Huapai, Paeroa or the Airport) and even the introduction of a public transport option to the Airport via Puhinui (train to Puhinui and high frequency shuttle buses to the airport) was denigrated and scorned, most of their effort has been wasted.

The Auckland Airport public transport debate is one that needs especially in depth analysis to understand how damaging PTUA’s efforts have been to this issue. Whilst it is true that the light rail proposal had many flaws and ended up too slow to develop as well as too expensive, PTUA’s alternatives were largely based on rhetorical campaigning for political purposes, rather than factual analysis. When National was persuaded by PTUA to include Auckland light rail in their 2020 election campaign, a report done in 2012 was quoted for the source of analysis justifying Puhinui-Airport heavy rail as a preferred scenario. This conveniently ignored that there was a more recent report (Jacobs) from 2016 that listed Onehunga-Airport as the preferred route. The Jacobs report was used to justify light rail as the best outcome, but it did go into a lot of detail as to how a heavy rail line could be built through this corridor. This is still the most recent report that has been produced for the light rail – heavy rail proposals. It was an inconvenient truth that Jacobs recommended in favour of light rail, mainly on cost grounds. But the important reason why Jacobs is still useful for heavy rail campaigns is that another more convenient truth is that the surface light rail option having proved unworkable and becoming too expensive when it was subsequently moved underground, means the detailed heavy rail case that was part of the evaluation can still be used as a basis for considering how heavy rail might work in the future. In practice of course, after this length of time, new reports would be needed. Jacobs being the more recent report, it also fixed the route for heavy rail to South Auckland / Airport being via Onehunga instead of PTUA’s favourite option of Puhinui. The reason why Onehunga is preferred is that it serves a greater catchment of passengers through Mangere, which the Puhinui option does not do at all; there is almost no population along the Puhinui route due to its proximity to the Airport noise corridor. So we can see immediately that Onehunga serves more public transport purposes than Puhinui, and it is an inconvenient reality that this was always the most important outcome for the South Auckland public transport corridor, and not the mere handful of passengers who would like to travel on an Airport train.

In summary the NZ First rail campaigning in Auckland particularly has been quite a mixed bag. Elsewhere in NZ moderate success was achieved but not to the extent that Campaign for Better Transport was able to get in some of their early campaigning in Auckland. PTUA split off CBT for political purposes and attempted to drive its own wedge through public transport in Auckland and through the rail community in general. This has not resulted in significant achievements to date and therefore its demise is not something that will be notably missed.