Need to while away some time between RV trips? The romance of taking a train has never gone away, writes Peta Stavelli, fresh from travelling the Te Huia train from Auckland to Hamilton.
Somewhere, on a track travelling through your brain, there is sure to be a train song that loops more times than Raurimu Spiral. There’s a lyric from one of my favourite train songs in the heading above. But there are many others, including the children’s song, Mornington Ride, Peace Train and Linda Ronstadt’s powerful lament, I Never Will Marry.
There’s a whiff of the romantic about train travel, which reminds us of an era when the pace of life was slower and less stressful. Unless you’re on a commuter train…you might argue. But as I write, it was only the previous day that I was on a commuter train, which was slower and less stressful than travelling on the Waikato Expressway alongside which it ran for some of the way. In fact, I enjoyed train travel so much, I’m already planning to do it again.
Right on track
Te Huia is the fairly recently introduced train that twice-daily plies the route between Hamilton and Auckland. Described – and funded – as a commuter service, it leaves Hamilton in the wee small hours (6.05am) and arrives in Auckland just before 9am. As I waited to board the train at The Strand in Auckland, I was surprised, but also pleased, to see the large number of disembarking passengers. This augurs well for the continuation of the service, which began (and briefly faltered due to Covid) in 2021.
Despite its youth and being birthed in the Covid era, Te Huia, which notched up its two-year anniversary on April 6th, still has a story. Despite cancellations and the impacts of multiple projects and maintenance works in Auckland, it has moved 86,581 passengers to date. Three-quarters of them were in the past year alone, removing more than 50,000 car trips from the road between Hamilton and Auckland.
When the trains stopped running
I’ve long lamented the demise of train travel in this country and in my home state of Tasmania, Australia, where tourism is also a major industry. Who doesn’t love a good train ride through some spectacular countryside? Everyone benefits when we get more cars off the roads.
With some irony, as I was later to learn from our conversation throughout the delightful journey, my companion on the train worked for a regional council in a position that involved overseeing aspects of the roading network. Strangers, we’d met earlier while waiting at The Strand, and ended up sitting together on the train. That’s the great thing about travel, you meet perfect strangers who become friends. As we rattled along toward Hamilton, Simon and I touched on many topics that included the pressures on roading from climate change, which will ultimately impact everyone. And while the rail network is not immune to damage from climate events, hopefully a beefed up regional train network will offer future benefits for us all.
The river city rocks and other Riff Raff
Hamilton, as a destination, has a bad rap. I’ve lived and worked at nearby Cambridge, and remain surprised when people bag this great city. A former colleague used to refer to Hamilton as “only two hours from somewhere interesting…”. I beg to differ. Hamilton is a charming city, a fabulous destination in its own right, and a wonderful base for regional travel. Hamilton highlights include the ever-present and glorious Waikato River, which gives a spectacular viewpoint for cyclists and walkers. I love the parks – Hamilton Gardens is but one such delight; the mature trees of the city; and also the architecture. Vibrant restaurants, bars and entertainment venues abound. Hamilton is a real foodie hub too, being home to popular brewers Good George, among other leading lights in the national hospitality scene.
For anyone still doubting its cultural and national significance, Hamilton is also the home town of the delightful Richard O’Brien, he of The Rocky Horror Show fame. Richard has been named one of New Zealand’s Top 100 national treasures. His Riff Raff statue can be seen on the main drag (no pun intended) on Victoria Street.
To get around, board one of two buses when you alight from the train at Frankton Station. The Orbiter will do as the name suggests, and the other bus will take you to Hamilton’s main transport hub from where you can just wander and explore.
I met a friend for lunch at a nearby restaurant, which was within walking distance. On another occasion I will happily plan for a longer stay in Hamilton to explore some more.
The Bee’s Knees
For me, a gold card holder, this was a very inexpensive day out, which combined work with pleasure; killing two birds with one stone, as the saying goes. The return train cost around $30. If I was the holder of a Bee Card, it would have cost even less. The Bee Card is a transport card that is soon to be useful in many cities across the country where it is planned to replace regional transport cards like the AT Hop Card. For now it can be used widely, not only in Hamilton, but also Taranaki, Otago, Invercargill, and the Bay of Plenty. You can apply online and it will be posted to you. Imagine the possibilities of
a nationwide transport card that is already valid for a diverse range of services, from regional buses to the Queenstown ferry, and which is sure to expand. This is a boon for everyone, especially Gold Card holders.
Te Huia, as a cog in the national transport network, is a relatively new service, and as such, there remains some refinements and improvements to be made, especially for tourists leaving from Auckland. The cheerless Strand is definitely in need of
an upgrade. A sheltered place to sit and wait until the platform gates are opened would be a good start. The Strand is also
a little difficult to find, out of the way down a narrow right of way behind the glamorous Old Auckland Railway Building which – with delicious irony – harks back to a truly romantic era of train travel.
A fresh start
A way to get around this awkward beginning at The Strand is to board a Southern Line train at Britomart and disembark at Puhinui in time to connect with Te Huia. Puhinui station has had a major upgrade; from here you can also board the Airbus, which leaves every ten minutes for Auckland Airport. This is the most painless way to travel from either Hamilton or downtown Auckland to the airport that I have found. Puhinui is around 20 minutes from Britomart and the Airbus will have you at the airport in around 10 minutes from Puhinui.
Jibes about getting around Auckland are in my opinion just as unwarranted as jokes about Hamilton. If you want to travel by car in the supercity, you will encounter delays, that much is true. But if you embrace the public transport network, you will be amazed at how adaptive and finely tuned it has become. The urban train service is fantastic. And no matter where you disembark you will almost always find a bus to take you close to your final destination. Ditto for ferries, as well.
So many things to love
In an era when fuel costs make it an imperative as much as it is an alternative, Auckland has finally come of age when it comes to public transport. If you’re visiting the biggest city, try it for yourself. On the return journey from Hamilton, I disembarked at Papakura and transferred to an urban train. I don’t think it arrived at downtown Auckland faster than Te Huia did, but I was able to get closer to Britomart and the ferry terminal. And the bonus was that the less lovely of the views from the train – those of sprawling Auckland’s suburban backyards, which I’d seen earlier in the day – whizzed by faster.
I highly recommend the Te Huia experience. One, it was novel; two, it was sensible; three, it was affordable; and, four, it was both companionable and relaxed. What’s not to like about all of that?