Holiday highway or a new rail link for Northport?

I had an awesome trip to Whangarei on Monday. I drove up there for 2 reasons. First, I wanted to look at the part of State Highway 1, from Puhoi to Wellsford, which the government is keen to spend $1.4 billion on upgrading. Second, I was keen to promote the idea of a new rail line out to Northport to the local newspaper, the Northern Advocate.

Puhoi to Wellsford – a waste of money

Keith’s blogged before and I had the Minister of Transport up about it that Puhoi to Wellsford has one of the weakest economic cases of any of the big motorway upgrades the government is funding right now. In fact, it has a Benefit Cost Ratio of 0.8 which means that for every $1 we spend on the project we’ll only get $0.80 cents of economic benefits back. In other words uneconomic.

The main reason Puhoi to Wellsford has such a poor business case is that there really aren’t enough cars using SH1 in this area to justify such a major upgrade. The New Zealand Transport Agency’s data shows only about 9,000 vehicles drive along SH1 past Puhoi per day. The road only gets really congested on long weekends – hence it’s nickname “the holiday highway”.

Big trucks on windy, steep roads

Driving up from Puhoi to Wellsford what I saw agreed with NZTA’s data. At no point was the road seriously congested. The only area where we experienced a slight delay was around Warksworth. However, what I did notice is that parts of this road – like Dome Valley – are very steep and windy. There are a lot of heavy trucks and not many passing lanes so, as a former boy racer, I can understand why people might get frustrated and try to pass in risky places.

SH1 between Puhoi to Wellsford has a poor safety record. But rather than taking 10 years and a billion dollars plus to build an entirely new highway I’d suggest a cheaper, quicker and more effective solution for Northlanders would be to put a small bypass around Warkworth and do some safety upgrades to the rest of the road.

A rail link to North Port would take trucks off the road

Regionally, I believe the most effective project to enhance safety and reduce congestion on SH1 is a new rail line out to the port. The government should prioritize funding to help the Northland Regional Council complete a rail link from Oakleigh, on the Auckland-Northland rail line, out to Northport at Marsden Point.

The dotted black line shows the path of the proposed rail line

As you can see from the map above there is currently no rail line out to the port. Instead any rail freight has to be off-loaded and driven for 15 kms. Building a rail line out to the port would make SH1 safer as it would help take big, heavy freight trucks off the road. Since trucks do a lot of damage to road surfaces it would also probably cut down on the need for road maintenance.

Since Ports of Auckland can’t grow much larger (without taking over Party Central) I think it makes sense to send more of our bulky cargo which isn’t time dependent up to North Port – where they have plenty of space to store it.

This project was costed in 2007 at about $120 million. That includes  doing some much needed maintenance on the existing rail line from Auckland to Northland and lowering train tunnels to fit larger, modern containers onto the track. To me it makes more sense than spending $1.4 billion on a holiday highway. What do you think?

9 Comments Posted

  1. According to the Road User Charges Review Group total revenue from RUCs was $881 million in 2007/08 and “Light diesel vehicles deliver about 24 percent of RUC revenue.”

    Currently $1.5 billion is spent on road and highway maintenance compared with only $750m in the early 1960s. Conservatively, one-quarter of that billion dollar increase has occurred since 2000 due to the 50% increase in the international construction cost index over that period. Ergo, if the five-fold increase in tonne/km between 1960 and 2000 is responsible for the remaining $750m increase then heavy vehicle damage to roads in 1960 must have been $750m/5 = $150m. Subtract $150m from the $750m spent on maintenance in the early 1960s leaves $600m that must have been caused by non-traffic factors in 1960. Adding one-third for the extraordinary construction cost increases over the last ten years gives us approx $800m currently being spent for non-traffic damage and $700m being spent on traffic related maintenance. Since, at most, only 5% of the traffic damage is caused by light vehicles trucks that leaves trucks with a damage bill of $665m, close to the actual amount they paid in RUCs in 2007/08.

  2. Last time I checked trucks caused $900 million dollars worth of damage but only paid $880 million in RUCs or are you referring to the fact they overpay for SHs and underpay for local roads..?

    On the Southdown to Avondale line, ARTA completed a study showing it had the highest BCR of any proposed rail lines in Auckland (from memory) after the CBD tunnel and even higher if combined with Airport rail from both Manukau and Onehunga…

  3. Yes safety is the primary issue on SH1, Warkworth was bypassed once before and now that bypass has been built on. It needs a decent bypass as probably the first major project. However, the safety improvements are a bigger question. Safety is about realignments and median barriers, because head ons are frequent, which is why a motorway would fix it (gets rid of risky overtaking, ensures directions of travel are separate and gets rid of intersections). It may be that it is better to do segments to address the blackspots now. Certainly alternatives to the motorway should be examined, but in the long term the motorway probably is justifiable.

    The Marsden Point rail link is a dog of a project, for several reasons.

    1. Jarbury pointed out one, that the NAL needs serious money to be even useful to divert freight from the Port of Auckland, it will be far more than $120 million (this has been an issue for half a century). John-ston is dead right, the Makarau Tunnel has been the problem for a very long time, the other issue is Auckland as the incline from Southdown to Avondale restricts the length of trains. So add Avondale to Southdown to the list. So it probably over half a billion dollars, I doubt the benefits would be a tenth of that.
    2. Most freight to Marsden Point travels short distances from Northland from placed where there are no rail lines. Even places where there are, the distances are too short for rail to ever be competitive. Rail typically needs distances of at least 150kms to even start being competitive with road transport (to offset the cost of double handling in fuel and labour), you simply don’t have that for most freight to Marsden Point.
    3. Northport knows this, which is why, unlike the road link, it isn’t offering to spend a cent on the rail line. It really doesn’t need it, it wants it only to open up a market of providing service to Auckland.
    4. Auckland already has a competing port, it is called Tauranga, with a very efficient well maintained high capacity rail link that doesn’t need a huge capital injection. There is scope for more of that.

    Oh and taking trucks from state highways is no net saving on road maintenance, since RUC more than recovers that cost (so revenue would be lost from that).

    If you want to improve safety on SH1 a far better move would be to address drug driving, it is endemic in Northland.

    By the way you can’t say that moving container traffic to Marsden Point and then railing it to Auckland is a “benefit”, since there is no evidence that any shipping companies will want to do that (I doubt any do it by road now). Rail is only a benefit if it achieves a mode shift from road, not a mode shift from sea or inducing new traffic.

    The Marsden Point rail project has been around for decades, there is a good reason it has never gone anywhere. Everytime a study is done, the BCR is well below 1.

  4. That cost of $120 million did include the cost of changing the tunnels on the Northland-Auckland line to get the higher containers through. Maybe it was an under-estimate but the council did include it in the package.

  5. We need a comperative BCR that takes into account externalised costs and the fact Puhoi to Wellsford will have to be built twice as thick as it would otherwise be if only buses and private vehicles used it…

  6. In reply to John-ston: One difference between our situation and the situation in a city like Brisbance, is that there isnt that much north of Auckland- there are less than 100000 people living up there, and only one small small city (Whangarei). There is also infrequent congestion- the prrimary reason one would four-lane a road. The only real issues with the current road as far as I know is safety and travel time- both of wchich could be alleviated much more cheaply through the Walkworth bypass and some widening of curves etc.

    I also dont think there would be anywhere near as much opposition if there werent other critical projects to complete at the moment, such as the CBD rail loop, which is widely seen as having a much greater benefit.

  7. And for a few millions instead, a feeder container ship service between Whangarei and Auckland could carry all the current container traffic at less real cost environmentally and economically.

  8. Personally I am in favour of both, and I am of the view that both will be necessary.

    But firstly, to deal with the opposition to the improvement of State Highway One. Let us look at Brisbane for instance – it is a similar sized city to Auckland. You will notice that for a hundred kilometres in each direction, there is a dual carriageway road – the dual carriageway heading north of Brisbane on the Bruce Highway only ends at Cooroy, some 130 kilometres north of Brisbane and there are plans to extend the dual carriageway a further seventy kilometres. If you look at Adelaide, the Port Wakefield Road is still dual carriageway fifty kilometres north of that city, and that is a route going into the Outback.

    Even in other overseas countries, you will find that dual carriageway roads extend like tentacles from cities of a similar size to Auckland for a significant distance. If we were in a different First World Country, Puhoi to Wellsford would have become a dual carriageway road a long time ago – the fact that we have waited this long is a disgrace.

    In terms of the railway line, the bigger problem is the North Auckland Line – and in particular the Makarau Tunnel. This tunnel has been a problem for decades now, since it cannot be easily altered (it is built through the Onerahi Chaos and any attempts to alter it run the risk of the entire tunnel caving in on itself). The Makarau Tunnel is such a problem that there are very strict rules regarding what rolling stock is allowed (for instance, only some DC class locomotives are allowed north of Helensville). A deviation might be possible, although given the terrain in the area, we are probably talking hundreds of millions.

    Like I said above, we really need both – the container traffic would naturally lean toward a railway line should it be provided (you save on labour costs for one thing), but as Northland grows, it is going to need a proper route into Auckland.

  9. I have heard that there are some serious problems with the North Auckland Line (clearance in tunnels or something) that make it difficult for container rail traffic to travel on that line, so your cost wouldn’t just be the Marsden branch.

    That’s not to say it’s a bad idea, as $250 million spent on rail in Northland might lead to many of the same freight benefits as $1 billion + spent on the holiday highway. I don’t know whether that’s true, but I am severely worried that nobody is doing those calculations and comparisons.

    I totally agree with your alternative for the holiday highway. Building a bypass around Warkworth is inherently sensible. Plus the road can’t wait another 10 years for safety upgrades – Joyce’s current plans will effectively doom another 20 people to dying in the Dome Valley over the next decade while we wait for his “big bang” solution. I sure hope I’m not one of those.

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