Rail to Recreation in Canterbury

This is a guest post from reader Tim Frank.

Arthurs Pass National Park is unique in New Zealand to be potentially easily accessible by rail services. The Midland Line runs through and alongside the park in many places. Currently, the only passenger service on that line is the TranzAlpine train, which is mainly aimed at wealthier tourists and seen as a destination in itself. However, people are also using this train service to access recreational opportunities from Arthur’s Pass Village.

With the downturn in international tourism in the medium term, there is an opportunity to reconsider the role that the railway plays in relation to access to recreational areas. An opportunity exists to use current rail infrastructure to allow New Zealanders to access outdoor recreation opportunities in the distant backyards of cities. In Europe, many railway lines that were closed or were facing closure have been revitalised by offering services for recreation that is primarily based on domestic tourism with an important active ingredient, namely walking and cycling (which could be either mountain biking or tour biking or both). Establishment of such services could also aim at international tourists: instead of trying to cream international tourists, they could be seen as contributing to services that also provide recreational opportunities for locals.

The opportunity is particularly evident in relation to the Midland Line. The Korowai / Torlesse Tussocklands Park is about 1.5 hours by train from Christchurch and Arthurs Pass National Park is about 2.5 hours away. These offer great recreational outdoors opportunities. While passenger traffic on this line is currently important for the economy of the West Coast, regular rail services could stimulate Canterbury local recreation and tourism. Services could operate between Darfield and Otira, connecting to Canterbury Regional Passenger Rail in Darfield, or they could provide services directly from Christchurch to Arthurs Pass National Park. A visitor concept needs to be worked out with the Department of Conservation, which would also require the formation of new walking track to enable better access between stops and current walking tracks.

TranzAlpine near Cass. Photo credit Scott Eastwick (https://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/BU0808/S00284.htm)

It is important for the Department of Conservation to not only consider visitor access via road, but also via the railway and work that into the planning for the Arthurs Pass area. Many visitors to outdoor areas have an interest in sustainable travel; train travel and outdoors recreation are a natural fit, especially if there is some flexibility in travel times and regular services across the day.

With coal trains probably becoming less prominent on the Midland Line, it is possible to use the line more for recreation purposes. The TranzAlpine train would probably continue in some form. But alongside the express train, light-weight trains that stop at many access points en-route would provide great recreation opportunities. Between Springfield and Arthur’s Pass stops at Staircase, near Chasm Stream, near the Slovens Stream Viaduct, at Mt White Bridge, at Cora Lynn, and at Greyneys Shelter need to be made, with further stops investigated.

A draft concept timetable is set out below.

Arthur’s Pass9:1011:1013:1015:1017:10
Arthur’s Pass9:5511:5513:5515:5517:55

Such a timetable needs to be refined. Railcars or multiple units would be able to provide a far more efficient option, with faster acceleration and a less resource-intensive use of the Otira Tunnel than the current train service. A regular timetable across the day with sufficient capacity so that bookings would not be required, but smaller trains could be used, would be ideal to enable recreation opportunities.

By enabling rail access to the conservation areas, Arthurs Pass National Park and the Korowai / Torlesse Tussocklands Park could become important examples of a more sustainable approach to managing visitors to conservation areas and encouraging responsible recreational opportunities.

Otehaki River – one of many tramps potentially accessible from the Midland Line (photo credit: Mark Henwood)

I propose to bring a petition to Ecan:

“We petition Environment Canterbury to implement passenger rail services between Christchurch and recreation opportunities in Korowai/Torlesse Tussocklands Park and Arthur’s Pass National Park with
–frequent daily departures;
–multiple stops along the route at recreation access points; and
–affordable fares for locals.”

I would appreciate feedback on the wording of the petition and the draft concept. Initially, for example, a service between Christchurch and Arthur’s Pass may be more achievable, so that the high-risk passage through the Otira Tunnel is avoided.

While Canterbury is an obvious candidate of connecting rail and recreation, other areas in New Zealand would benefit from a similar approach. In Dunedin the Taieri Gorge Railway Line has been mothballed, although limited services have now resumed. It is unlikely that it will open as a line for international tourism, at least in the medium term. This can be used as an opportunity to set up an environmentally sustainable rail service to access recreation opportunities and slowly develop an operation that can also grow into a more sustainable tourism offering. This would require the development of walking and cycling tracks in the Taieri Gorge. Regular services could also contribute to a greater local economy in Middlemarch, together with good access to the Otago Rail Trail.

TranzAlpine (https://railnewzealand.com/passes/view/4)

There are other possibilities of using rail to connect to recreation opportunities in New Zealand, though these would be further away from major cities. They would nevertheless allow people from provincial centres to access recreation opportunities and provide more sustainable tourism opportunities for domestic and international visitors. The route between Napier and Gisborne, particularly Wairoa and Gisborne provides many potential recreation opportunities. This area is currently mainly used for forestry, but it offers great opportunities for sustainable, domestic recreation and tourism that can grow to also incorporate international tourism. It would require several new tracks both for walking and mountain biking.

The area between Stratford and Taumarunui and on to National Park might also serve as a recreation area with rail connection.

I have not explored the landholding and leaseholding arrangements in these areas to ascertain how feasible such combined recreational and transport opportunities are.

3 thoughts on “Rail to Recreation in Canterbury

  1. Excellent idea! Where can we sign the petition? I would highly recommend sharing the idea with local government figures known to be sympathetic to rail.


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