Northland: the front-lines of how we move people and freight around

I went to Northland last Friday to visit a region which is on the front-lines of the government’s ideological attack on how we move people and freight around. The state of Northland transport right now epitomises the Government’s pro-truck ideology: more motorways and less rail.

To investigate the impacts of the Government’s push for more motorways, I met householders in Rodney whose homes and rural lifestyles will be bowled for the uneconomic and expensive plan for a tolled road between Puhoi and Wellsford.  I also met locals in Kaiwaka and Whangarei who’ve pledged to campaign to stop the looming closure of the Auckland to Northland rail line.

Puhoi to Wellsford: An expensive mistake

The $1.7 billion alternative to SH1 that the government is proposing to build between Puhoi to Wellsford would almost certainly be a tolled road. The motorway would do little to improve safety or travel times for Northlanders in the short-term. It would take until 2022 (that’s 12 years) to build and would only reduce travel times for a trip between Auckland to Whangarei by about 10 minutes at most. The only time it will really make a difference is on public holiday weekends when many Aucklanders travel north.

It would also devastate the lives of many residents in Rodney, such as Bob and Jill Scott, who I met on Friday. They brought land in the country but will suddenly find themselves living next to a 4 lane motorway. The motorway will also inevitably lead to more sprawling development around Auckland – threatening the rural lifestyle most residents prefer.

Puhoi to Wellsford also doesn’t make sense economically. It was prematurely announced nine months before a business case was released. The business case that was then published shows that for every $1 we spend on the project we will only get $0.80 cents of economic benefits back. A much better, and cheaper alternative to Puhoi to Wellsford is an upgrade of the existing SH1.

Such a proposal has been developed by the Campaign for Better Transport. The proposal, known as Operation Lifesaver, would cost $360 million and include a bypass of Warkworth and Wellsford and an upgrade to safety features (such as improving median strips and road side barriers) throughout the Dome Valley and Schedwys Hill.

Campaign for Better Transport estimate that their proposal might save 40-50 lives which will be lost on SH1 over the next 10 years. The tragic death of a motorist last night in Wellsford shows that such upgrades are needed urgently – we can’t afford to wait 12 years for a new road to be completed.

Northland to Auckland rail: Under threat

The Northland rail line that links Auckland and Whangarei, is one of four lines facing closure, as part of Kiwirail’s Turnaround Plan. It’s loss would be a huge tragedy for the region.

The line is a significant community strategic asset that gives the region economic development options now and in the future. While it is not currently being heavily used for freight, the line has potential to be used more in the future. This is especially true if the government was willing to invest the $80 million needed to link the rail line to Marsden Point, New Zealand’s best deep-water port.

Upgrading the rail line and expanding the port could mean more economic development and jobs for Northlanders in the future.

Closing the line will mean more heavy logging trucks on State Highway 1 and also more accidents. Trucks are involved in 16 percent of all deaths on NZ roads, even though they comprise only four percent of the vehicle fleet.

Keeping the line open also gives us another, much more energy efficient way to transport goods if the price of oil continues to rise. Last week the New Zealand price of petrol passed $2 a litre and I think it’s vital we prepare for the end of cheap oil.

A recent Parliamentary report The Next Oil Shock states that another supply crunch is likely soon after 2012, and oil prices will stay high because low-cost reserves are near exhaustion. It warns that the world economy could suffer recurrent recessions as the price fluctuates.

It makes sense to keep the rail line in working order in preparation for future oil price shocks. Ultimately the line’s future is a political decision, and the region can send the Government a strong message to save the line. That’s why I was so pleased to meet with groups in Kaiwaka and Whangarei who are prepared to fight to keep the line open.

10 Comments Posted

  1. I’m with Swampy here. The four lines that are under threat of closure all go through sparsely populated areas with little in the way of viable freight. The North Auckland Line has the most potential of the four, but it is a question of whether or not Marsden Point will become a replacement for Ports of Auckland – and even then, it will require a fortune in constructing a branch line through to Marsden Point as well as upgrading the North Auckland Line.

  2. Todd,
    The northland lines have been run down for years, I constantly laugh when asked to believe they suddenly deteriorated over a 10 year period that they were privately owned. Ontrack has reowned them for 7 years. They have plenty of time to decide they are unviable. This pattern is true around the country: the lines that are being put up for closure have been loss makers for decades. Its not a recent situation or one that privatisation causes.

  3. We don’t need to have road tolls or subsidization of rail. Commuters would pay actual cost still, it would be cheap because trains are cheap to run, comparatively speaking. It’s the infrastructure that costs the big bucks. Investment needs to occur because the infrastructure is still run down from privatization.

    We’re just starting to see a marked increase in road repairs because of trucks with heavier loads. I’m not looking forward to paying more in registration costs to meet those road repair expenses.

    With more people using trains and less people using cars, there would be less roads required and less maintenance on existing roads. Saving the taxpayer and Government dosh.

    With more freight on trains and less trucks on the roads, we would be saving millions in road repair and maintenance. The building, repair and maintenance on our train tracks is probably comparable to this saving. But when building rail lines meets its optimum, there will be considerable savings made. Both for the taxpayer, end user and government.

    The best way to charge trucking for the use of taxpayer infrastructure and maintenance costs is to increase the already existing tax on them. User pays if you like. Lets increase it to lets say 30% of the actual cost the taxpayer has to fork over for roading repairs and maintenance from trucking. At the moment trucking is paying around 15% of this cost. The taxpayer pays for the other 85%. Just so that private businesses can maximize profits, at our expense.

    Rails competition is trucking. If there is an unfair subsidy for trucking, rail will not be commercially viable as a transporter unless the taxpayer subsidizes that as well. Overall rail is more cost effective for much of our transportation requirements, thus making it more competitive if it was an even playing field. It also makes sustainable sense both commercially and environmentally.

    Just because Owen Glenn has his snout in the trough with his political buddies, does not mean the taxpayer should subsidize trucking.

  4. The only option, if you dont want the tax payer to fund roading infastructure for use by private transport, is to put into place user pay or toll roads.

    Are you suggesting subsidise rail transport from road user and petrol exise taxes?

    When the rail transport is a commercial SOE, able to load up the charges in a monopoly situation.

    Without competition or a very very strong, unbiased, independent (not able to be influenced by pork barrel politiking) arbitrator you will never know if the public transport fares are the lowest they could be.

  5. Gerrit! You misunderstand my argument, probably on purpose.

    So the choise is either ALL toll roads or a complete ban (including individual) on private transport.

    There would be no need to increase the amount of toll roads. Making transport by trains more cost effective for the commuter is not a ban on private transport. It merely encourages commuters to use trains instead of cars because it’s cheaper.

    Dont we already pay road user charges and petrol excise to pay for the roads?

    Yes we do. But we’re also paying road user charges for the disproportionate effect trucks have on our infrastructure, which in effect makes trucking more competitive than rail. If you want rail to be competitive, then the obvious solution is to readjust the unfair dynamic of taxpayers funding trucking. What is there not to understand?

  6. The tax payer forking out millions for maintenance and infrastructure that is utilized by private enterprise to make millions should stop.

    So the choise is either ALL toll roads or a complete ban (including individual) on private transport.

    Not sure if either option is viable.

    Mind you it would be interesting to see the Greens caimpaign on a private transport ban 😉

    Dont we already pay road user charges and petrol excise to pay for the roads?

    Auckland pertrol is already 4c a litre more expensive to pay for local roading.

    Now add to that a levy for the right to use the publicly owned road and I think it will be met with a big “no thanks” at the polling booth.

  7. I agree with you in that retaining construction here is preferable, but…

    One of the advantages trucking has over rail is that the people comparatively pay for the upkeep of the roads. Increasing load weight meant an increase to the cost of road maintenance but a maximizing of trucking profits. What you’re proposing Gerrit is a similar unfair scenario where the taxpayer funds the upkeep of the rail tracks while private enterprise reaps all the rewards by using them. That’s not a solution.

    The previous scenario whereby we sold our rail to a private business that maximized profits by not maintaining the network which was then purchased back by the crown who had to use tax money to repair the damaged infrastructure is a similar thing to us funding road repairs. It was just a delay in that process. The tax payer forking out millions for maintenance and infrastructure that is utilized by private enterprise to make millions should stop.

    What needs to happen is that the crown retains the rail network and makes it competitive by taxing trucking appropriately for the use of taxpayer funded infrastructure. Rail should be cheap for commuters because it is owned by the people, thus reducing road development because there will be less cars and less trucks because of effective competition; predictably saving the tax payer and Government even more money in road maintenance.

    Simple really.

  8. In 1980 they sold the rail lines (not the ground underneath) network and the trainsets, they should only have sold the trainsets and retained ownership of the rail lines and opened the whole lot up to competiton like the tarsealed road network is now.

    What we now have is the worst example of an SOE that is commercially driven monopoly where the prices will only go down to just below a tonne cost that trucking company charge to maximise profit (hopefully to be spent on improving the rail network but most likely to disappear into the consolidated fund).

    Example of this is the awarding of a contract to a chginese company to build 300 wagons instead of the more expense (but local job, expertise, and infastructure creating option) inhouse option.

    Perhaps Gareeth Hughes would like to comment on that.

    Local expertise is available and to be encouraged but becasue the KwiwRail SOE is a commercial model, New Zealand will never rebuild the infastructure that created the NZR of old.

  9. @ Gerrit. Hmmm, I’m not sure. Privatising the line didn’t work very well in the 1980s. Although, of course, we did sell it to the main trucking company which was a bit stupid….

  10. Open the NAL line up to allow freight companies to run their own trainsets will do more to take the trucks of the road.

    The state has a monopoly on the rail line and until that changes, no private freight forwarder will use the rail link at the prices the monopoly provider has sets.

    There will always be a private trucking companies that are not only cheaper but can offer the door to door (or logging camp to NorthPort) service that rail just cannot.

    Biggest mistake made by the Labour government was the merger of OnTrack and KiwiRail.

    The chance to open up the steel road network to freight (and passenger) service competition has been lost.

    Closure of the NAL is a forgone conclusion as the upgrade cost is huge after 30 years of neglect and lack of competition to utilise the rail corridor.

    Rip up the rail and make it a scenic bike way OR spend the money to upgrade the track and allow private trainset operators to utilise the steel road.

    The current state monopoly model for rail corridors where the state owns the road and the trainsets, will not work to reduce truck traffic.

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