Twyford eyes commuter trains for Hamilton and Tauranga

2020 could be the start of a new era for two of New Zealand's fastest growing cities, Dileepa Fonseka reports

Sweeping regional plans likely to be released this year could bring commuter rail to two of New Zealand’s fastest growing cities. 

Spatial plans are in the works for six high growth regions, aiming to link housing and zoning policies with transport networks across whole regions developed over 30-year timespans.

Transport Minister Phil Twyford said spatial plans that included rapid transit systems centred in Hamilton and Tauranga were the furthest advanced with officials working to a June deadline.

“That’s a radical shift in land use planning, transport and housing in those places,” Twyford told Newsroom in an interview.

National’s Transport spokesman Chris Bishop said plans for large State Highway projects in the Waikato and Bay of Plenty are further developed and need to be moved on first, but is open to the idea of rail-based rapid transit in both cities.

“These services have existed before - some of them - and have not really succeeded so there are a few hurdles to overcome, but it’s definitely worth having a look at,” Bishop told Newsroom.

Twyford wouldn't comment on whether roading projects like Tauranga's Northern Link or SH1 Cambridge to Piarere would be funded as part of a $12b infrastructure package announced by Finance Minister Grant Robertson last year

The SH1 Cambridge to Piarere project - an extension of the Waikato expressway - has been reconfigured to meet new safety priorities with no funding set aside for a full extension of the expressway.

Similarly, Tauranga's Northern Link is on hold after an evaluation of the project in 2018 found that the four-lane highway didn't meet new priorities for rapid transit in the Government Policy Statement (GPS) on Transport.  

"One of the first people I texted in the New Year was Phil [Twyford] to say Happy New Year, let’s go.”

It has been reconfigured as a two-lane project with the option of two additional "multi-modal" lanes - walking, cycling or public transport - and would need to demonstrate it prioritises public transport to get funded.

Tauranga Mayor Tenby Powell said he was hoping for a combination of rapid bus and train improvements for the region as part of the spatial plan Tauranga and other councils in the wider Bay of Plenty region are working on. 

"One of the first people I texted in the New Year was Phil [Twyford] to say 'Happy New Year, let’s go'.”

But plans in the Waikato are the furthest advanced according to Twyford, who said options around commuter rail revolved around an infrequently used heavy rail line that runs through Hamilton city. 

Twyford says better public transport options will reduce car dependency. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

The rail spine could include stops at several stations along a rapid transit corridor that would hook into a wider public transport network in the city.

“Both Hamilton and Tauranga have had huge investments in motorway networks and road networks. You put decent public transport and rapid transit alongside that and they’ll be setup for generations to come,” he said.

“The idea is to provide a better public transport system based around a rapid transit spine so that you’re removing that car dependency.”

Train stations for Hamilton

Hamilton’s mayor, Paula Southgate, said three options for stations were being discussed. 

They included Frankton station where improvements are already planned, the shuttered Hamilton Central underground station - where the consent of Waikato Tainui would be needed - and a platform next to cricket venue Seddon Park within walkable distance of Waikato Rugby Stadium. 

“Those conversations are already happening, we’re hearing from developers for example who are looking to develop large parts of Frankton or the CBD who are expressing an interest in mixed commercial-residential development that could be well supported by central city rail options or light rail options,” Southgate said.

But the wider benefit is in hooking Hamilton into the wider Waikato region with a regional commuter service that would connect to places like Te Awamutu and Matamata. 

Urban geographer Ben Ross said both Hamilton and Tauranga would have the population to support a commuter rail service but there could be a hefty price tag attached - even if existing rail lines were used. 

Existing services would need to be separated from commuter services and the bill to manage both on the same line could end up similar to the cost of entirely new tracks, Ross said.

But both cities could meet the cost of the service by levying a special rate on properties located close to commuter stations, he believed.

Powell says 'let's go'

Twyford said plans were at a more preliminary stage in Tauranga, but the newly-elected Mayor there is hoping for rapid progress on transport and zoning issues across the whole Bay of Plenty region. 

“We are New Zealand’s fastest growing city and it’s just extraordinary what hasn’t happened.”

Powell's hope is for greater intensification in a section of Tauranga near the city’s hospital that would hook into a better rapid transport network with a rapid bus or a bus-rail hybrid spine. 

For decades Tauranga has consistently been one of New Zealand's fastest growing cities. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

“We’re 12 months out of running out of houses and running out of land to build houses on,” he said.

He has a wish-list of road and rail improvements that include the Tauranga Northern Link and State Highway 29 over the Kaimai ranges - all of which would likely require a $3 billion contribution from the Government. 

“I think that he [Phil Twyford] realises that we need roads as well.”

“We need to upgrade our current roads and we need to do something visionary around our infrastructure to sustain this city 50 years into the future.”

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