COMMENT: When even the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority’s climate gas emissions are dominated by air travel, it doesn’t bode well for a carbon neutral public sector – so there’s a push to bring back the night train.

Public servants, police, teachers and university lecturers will all be under pressure to reduce their work-related flying to meet the new Carbon Neutral Public Service directive.

A first look from MBIE suggests that all of government (including parliament itself, the civil service, schools, hospitals, councils, and majority-state owned companies) need to be carbon neutral in just four years from now. Offsets must be purchased in New Zealand for any emissions remaining after 2025.The case studies contained in the MBIE paper show that while electrifying the public sector’s car fleet is a worthy goal, it is flying that is the big contributor to operational emissions.

EECA, the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Agency – now running a social media campaign to encourage people to ‘say no to wasted energy’ and to ‘drop the things they don’t like doing’ – illustrates the challenge. Almost all of its emissions come from flying.

The energy involved in aviation is large, meaning there is a practical limit to offsetting. A study by the University of Otago’s Inga Smith and Craig Rodger gives some idea of the scale of planting needed for aviation offsets. Using a base of international aviation in 2005 and focussing on new native forests, an area equivalent to 15 Stewart Islands would need to be set aside. Including domestic aviation and the epic growth seen in the 2010s takes it to 33 Rakiura islands. Offsetting is not a feasible solution in itself.

The remaining options are travelling less and shifting to lower-emission modes. Probably, both of these will be used. But if the government sectors adopts a strategy of flying less, what about the remaining travel?

While public servants travel throughout New Zealand, a key connection is between the seat of government, Wellington, and our largest city, Auckland. Already the eighteen mayors and chairs of councils on the main trunk line, along with KiwiRail, are working on a business case for a regional passenger rail service – initially as a ‘connector’ between Hamilton and Palmerston North then joining up with regional trains.

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But we also think that a night train between Wellington and Auckland, supported by the Carbon Neutral Public Service project, could usefully reduce transport emissions and improve transport options.

The distance, 682 km, is ideal for a sleeper service, as suggested by the New York Times in an article on the rebound of Europe’s night trains (paywalled).

Fifty-seven percent of New Zealand’s population lives along the route. (42 percent in Auckland and Wellington, 15 percent in between.) It also spans five universities, home to many thousands of frequent flyers: for example, Massey University’s 3000-plus staff flew an average of 18,000 km each in 2019.

A night train would be a major step forward needed in establishing the “network effects” crucial to travel. Based on the current Northern Explorer timetable, a train leaving Auckland at 8 p.m. could pick up passengers at Hamilton at around 10.30 p.m. It would mean those arriving in the morning on the new Te Huia train would have an extra evening option to get back to Hamilton.

Equally, a train leaving Wellington at 8 p.m. could pick up Palmerston North passengers at 10pm. Instead of getting up at 4.30 a.m. to catch an early flight, a traveller from Auckland could have dinner with their family then settle in for the night. They would wake up ready for that early meeting in Wellington.

As the regional public transport network grows, supported by both buses and trains operating a consistent, linked network, the opportunities for emissions reductions grow. Initially, non-drivers and those who are the keenest to cut their emissions get the benefits: as time goes on, it becomes more and more advantageous for households to reduce their number of cars.

Environmentally conscious local and international leisure travellers would also appreciate this travel option. For example, the Federated Mountain Clubs are now suggesting that their members focus on ways to reduce their emissions. The North Island Main Trunk passes by one of our most popular national parks, Tongariro, for which the night train used to be an important travel link. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, also made reducing the carbon footprint of tourist travel one of his key recommendations.

Ideally an overnight train between Auckland and Wellington would have competitive prices, with a mix of cheaper sit-up seats along with sleeper options; work stations and fast wifi; wheelchair access and space for bikes; and great dining and socialising areas with quality food and drink.

To those who say, “It can’t happen here”, remember that it did happen here not so long ago. In New Zealand was undone by a headlong rush into high-emission travel. Now we have, finally, determined to stop burning fossil fuels. If fossil fuels simply are not an option, we need to find an alternative. It has to be one that already exists: we cannot wait decades for new innovations that themselves then take extra decades to spread, find support, and prove themselves. For long-distance travel, Europeans are rapidly rebuilding their night train network. We should make a start too.

Dr Paul Callister is a senior associate at the Institute of Governance and Policy Studies. Paul' current research centres on climate change policy with his main focus is on sustainable transport.

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