It’s been 25 years since I moved to Auckland and for the first year I commuted back and forth from Hamilton each week, via train.
I love trains. They speak of adventure and mystery in ways that buses simply do not. Where buses are terrible for long distance use, combining all the negative aspects of uncomfortable seats and cramped conditions, trains excel at them. They’re contemplative and you can walk up and down and sometimes you get food and drink brought to your seat. There are bathrooms and amenities and men in peaked caps.
But the train from Hamilton to Auckland was not lovely. No, it would be fair to say it was far from lovely. The seats were saggy, some covered in very aged sheepskin covers, the lights flickered a lot and there was no buffet car.
And they took for ever to make the trip.
Quite often I’d sit looking at the cars overtaking us on the way in towards Huntly where the road and rail tracks ran alongside each other for a way. They were travelling at a certified speed of 100km/h (I am sure) and we were not. We were barely doing 80km/h unless it was summer in which case we slowed down lest the tracks buckle under our mighty weight.
The best train ride I ever took was in Germany for CeBIT one year. We travelled from hotel in Hamburg to convention centre in Hanover at 200km/h while having onboard breakfast safe in the knowledge we would be disgorged on the steps of the convention centre itself. On day one we discovered all the traffic lights in central Hanover had ceased to function and the city was gridlocked – for cars, I mean. We slid by and walked into an almost-empty convention centre to be mobbed by hoards of desperate vendors eager to ply us with t-shirts, caps and branded squeezy balls.
Today, trains are making something of a comeback with the Te Huia connection between Hamilton and Auckland. While the speed has seemingly not increased in the quarter century since I last took the train, the potential is evident for all to see, and that’s largely thanks to COVID.
With the arrival of the pandemic a year ago we all went home to work. It became apparent we can work from anywhere there’s a decent internet connection and some power to keep the laptop humming. When you add in short commute times and ready access to caffeinated beverages and the fridge, COVID became a trigger point for a large number of workers to second guess their work environment. Should I ever go back into the office, they asked themselves, or should I see if I can’t stay working from home in my shorts and Ugg boots with my cat.
And now, that question can be joined by a second question: does home need to be in an expensive city or can I actually commute in and out for those all-important meetings that have to be face to face in some comfort and style?
Today’s trains don’t just have better seats and better coffee, they also have wifi (not so fast, Wellington) and that changes everything. A two-hour trip in a car each morning is unthinkable if you want to be productive during that time. Two hours on a bus is unlikely to be appealing if, like me, you get car sick when trying to read on the road. But two hours in a train can be productive time – you can clear through email, start the day off as you mean to go on, tick off those items on your to-do list without breaking a sweat and have breakfast as you do it (while also hopefully helping reduce the nation’s carbon deficit along the way).
In the UK high-speed trains started a wave of migration out from London to smaller cities and dormitory towns around the countryside back when I was a lad. Combine that with decent fibre into the regions and there is your answer to excess housing prices in central Auckland and Wellington. Buy a house on the main trunk line, chug in and out each day, build it into your working week and who knows, you might even be able to pay off the mortgage before your turn 70.
The definition of insanity (it is said) is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome. Instead of hoping the Auckland housing market collapses and brings prices down (but without damaging those who have invested in Auckland housing) perhaps we should try encouraging workers not to live in the city but to live where it’s comfortable and affordable. If we can do it during a pandemic, why not do it all the time?
In the next 25 years I’d hope to see the train service extend south, to Rotorua and even Tauranga, and north, to Whangarei and beyond. Keep your Auckland jobs and move to more affordable places and we might help solve the housing crisis, reduce our carbon emissions, minimise our work-life balance, improve our regional economic story and we can all live happily ever after.