We are waiting in vain for a Dunedin commuter train service

Consider the case for passenger rail in Dunedin. PHOTO: PETER McINTOSH
Consider the case for passenger rail in Dunedin. PHOTO: PETER McINTOSH
Mac Gardner is disappointed the Greens (and others) are ignoring Dunedin in their passenger rail policy.

The Greens seem unaware of the existence of Dunedin.

In a lengthy interview with Jack Tame on TV1’s Q+A programme (27.8.23), their transport spokeswoman, Julie Anne Genter, proposed a repurposing of additional transport funds potentially made available by switching the current Auckland rail tunnel plan to less expensive surface-running light rail (aka trams).

The funds thus released, she said, could now go towards installing light rail in Wellington and Christchurch. But no mention of Dunedin.

This is not too surprising. The Greens in Parliament are almost entirely Northerners: there is only one MP of theirs from the South, and none south of the Waitaki. So they have a blinkered view, shutting us out. They are happy, as it seems, to forget about us.

I am from the South, the southern South; and I have a more local proposal as to where these potential spare transport funds for public rail could go.

And it would cost only a tiny fraction of the billions of our taxes going into the Auckland CRL (city rail link) project currently under construction.

Bring back the Mosgiel suburban service. We used to have daily trains running from Mosgiel and Wingatui, through suburbs from Abbotsford to Kensington, and on to the central railway station, for around a century, but ceasing in 1982, so this is not something new.

Much of the infrastructure, the former rail bed, is still substantially in place; it’s not as though a new railway corridor has to be carved out.

Space for double-tracking is still there, over much of the system. The tunnels at Caversham and Wingatui are wide. There could, admittedly, be pinch points in places, if some sections of single tracking were to be retained, but this is where clever signalling could ensure freight and passenger services keep apart. A railway engineer worth his or her salt would surely relish the challenge.

One thing that would be different: of course, the system must be electrified.

While the passenger traffic might be rather less than with the Auckland CRL, there is a principle to be stated: climate change matters. A reinstated train service would be making an obvious statement.

There is an excellent precedent for how a reinstated Mosgiel-Dunedin service might run. The Johnsonville service out of Wellington serves a similar-sized population catchment, and is of a similar length in kilometres. It takes in several suburbs along the way, and offers a frequent and regular timetable.

The fares are inexpensive, encouraging people to leave their cars at home. (It also has the side-benefit of a spectacular winding ride through the Ngaio Gorge; they should really have it as a tourist attraction.)

If we used the same electric train sets that they have, there would be the advantage of consistency of equipment; and I expect a revitalised Hillside (for which I do thank Labour) would rejoice at the prospect of maintaining an electric fleet.

OK, some detail. These are the stations we should have, between Mosgiel and the city centre: Wingatui, Grandvista, Abbotsford, Green Island, Burnside, Concord, Calton Hill, Caversham, and Kensington; and then continuing on past the central station to the stadium (how good it would have been to have taken a train to the Fifa World Cup). Some of these stations would need to have pedestrian overbridges crossing the Southern Motorway.

Calton Hill, I hear you say? A train couldn’t run up there, surely?

Well, no. An underground station could be installed midway along the Caversham tunnel, with a lift shaft up to street level.

If the Greens (or any other party) could cast their gaze down here into the South, they might care to support my plan.

— Mac Gardner is a retired Dunedin medical practitioner. He plans to stand as an independent candidate in the Taieri electorate.