Letter From Elsewhere
I Like Trains
I really like trains. I always used to get sick on long car trips. It wasn’t just the bad ventilation and windy metal
roads. Five minutes watching a video shot with a hand-held camera, and I start getting nauseous. Today I still need
frequent stops on journeys lasting more than an hour or so, I can’t look out the side windows, and I don’t even try to
drive long distance by myself.
Buses are worse. My idea of hell would be a bus trip across Outer Mongolia – or, come to think of it, the Central
But trains are wonderful. You can get up and wander around on them. You can look out the windows and see the world. You
can read and eat and drink and go to the loo. And you usually end up right in the middle of wherever you’re going.
So I was furious when Tranzrail axed several great passenger routes this week – Auckland to Hamilton, Tauranga and
Rotorua, and Wellington to Napier. I’ve used the Kaimai Express to get to Tauranga quite a few times, and I was planning
to go to Napier’s Art Deco festival by train next year.
I grew up on English novels where the heroine was forever popping up to London on the 10.45 from Chipping Camden or
Tunbridge Wells. Maggie Thatcher called a final halt to all that. Now some English villages are more isolated than they
were in the nineteenth century, families spend entire Bank Holiday weekends inching along the A4, and rail crashes turn
up more reliably than the trains.
Over there, you see, they had the brilliant idea that the track network itself should be run by one private company, and
the trains by several others. Here Tranzrail is about to go down much the same track, ha ha. It’s keeping the freight
and flogging off the passengers.
In Britain things have got so bad that the government has just taken control of Railtrack again. Here local councils and
government are having to pay exorbitant sums just to keep vital commuter train services going. Meanwhile, in America,
the trains are getting more customers than they’ve had for years. You can’t ram a train into a skyscraper.
Yes, I know everyone uses cars – now. But across all our main tourist markets as well as at home, the massive bulge of
baby boomers are entering their fifties. In a decade or two they’ll still want to travel, but they won’t be so keen to
drive everywhere, especially on our demanding roads. What’s more, serious oil supply problems look a lot more likely now
than they did a month ago.
One of my past writing jobs was to flossy up some glowing statements by the new owners of Tranzrail about what a great
little railway it was and how excited they were about its tourist potential. Yeah, right.
But there’s no reason why tourist train routes couldn’t work brilliantly here. All it would take is a bit of money and
some clever marketing. So go on, Jim, collect the full set. After all, when it comes to keeping people safe when they
travel, trains would be a damn sight better investment than fighter planes.