'Demand will increase considerably': Hamilton-Papakura train Te Huia struggles to attract passengers in first two weeks

The man whose daughter gave the new Hamilton-Auckland train service its name isn't concerned few people have jumped on board in its first week.

Figures supplied by the Waikato Regional Council show the 147-seat Te Huia service that runs between Papakura and the county's fourth-biggest city has been mostly empty in its first week.

Two trains depart Hamilton early each morning, then return in the late afternoon/early evening. After a first day which saw two of the four trips more than half-full, it's been a struggle. The busiest service was Tuesday's afternoon return trip, which had 48 on board. At other times, there have been as few as 12 or 13 paying passengers.

"It's been going just over a week and it was always going to be hard to get figures given the challenges we've been facing," Russ Rimmingon, chair of the Waikato Regional Council, told Newshub, citing delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and work required to get the track up to scratch.

The Government has put more than $80 million into Te Huia, and local authorities another $12.2 million, to run it for five years at least. The project, years in the planning, launched last week. Concerns were raised beforehand it only goes as far as Papakura, and if commuters want to go elsewhere, they have to switch to local public transport options - adding almost an hour to the journey, for those heading to the CBD.

The trip isn't particularly quick either - taking 98 minutes, which is about how long it takes a motorist in a car to go all the way to Auckland itself (on a good day, at least) - and it doesn't have many stops along the way.

"Te Huia's current pattern is both slow + poor coverage, worst of both worlds, is one-way effectively," Waka Kotahi (NZ Transport Agency) board member Patrick Reynolds tweeted on Monday. "No way to go AKL-HAM in a day, blows through stations it should serve."

The tweet was later deleted.

Rimmington told Newshub in some places - like Pokeno and Te Kauwhata - there are no facilities at present, and building them would require "huge expenditure".

"You'd have to take the bowling green out, in the case of Te Kauwhata," Rimmington said. 

The cost of setting up stations at Pokeno, Te Kauwhata and Tuakau range from $10 million to $15 million, according to Crown Infrastructure Partners planning documents.

Inside one of the carriages.
Inside one of the carriages. Photo credit: Newshub.

The Rail and Maritime Transport Union on Wednesday said Te Huia was a "great concept", but needed new stations at Pokeno, Te Kauwhata and Tuakau "right away". 

"It would be disastrous if a great, forward thinking concept like Te Huia is undermined by a flawed rollout," said general secretary Wayne Butson. 

"The smaller stations will happen, but they will take time," said Rimmington. "The key now is to get Te Huia into Auckland, further into Auckland."

While going as far as Britomart is a no-go - Te Huia is diesel, while Auckland's local network is electrified - Rimmington says the goal is for Te Huia to make it as far in as The Strand, which is just on the other side of Spark Arena.

"Once we get further into Auckland, I think the demand will increase quite considerably," he said, talking up the trains' on-board WiFi, refurbished carriages and buffet. 

"Te Huia has captured the imagination of the people up and down the country. My daughter named it 'Te Huia', which I'm very proud of... I think it's going to be a great success. But it will take time."

Rimmington was Mayor of Hamilton in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the city earned its nickname 'Hamiltron: City of the Future'. Te Huia was almost called 'The Tron Express', with the public reportedly overwhelmingly behind it, but councillors objected