Closing KiwiRail would send New Zealand off the rails

It seems like common sense that we should encourage freight to be moved by train rather than by ever-bigger super trucks that tear up our rural roads. But it turns out that the Treasury, the government’s key economic advisor, actually thinks we should be closing rail lines or even the entire rail freight network because rail is apparently too expensive.

Just to be clear, the total National Land Transport Programme for the next three years works out at $4.66 billion each year – most of which is for roads, roads, and more roads. Just $200 million annually is needed to keep KiwiRail going. That’s a drop in the bucket.

Rail is a backbone for our regional economies. It connects our primary industries to our export ports with around 900 trains every week.

It’s a public good, like other essential infrastructure. We don’t expect roads or stormwater systems to make a profit – we accept that they’re crucial for businesses to operate efficiently and people to live good lives. Rail is the same.

And if New Zealand is to lower its carbon emissions we need to be investing in clean rail infrastructure, not paving the way for more dirty trucks.

Shutting down the rail freight network could result in around 3000 more trucks on our roads every day, according to one analyst. Does anyone actually think that 3000 more trucks choking up our roads would be a good idea?

Well, the National Government does. It has rolled out the red carpet for its friends in the trucking industry, investing billions in new roads and changing the rules to allow bigger trucks to clog them up.

It’s even changing the ways roads are built to make it easier for big trucks to drive on them. That means bypassing more and more small towns, whose economies depend on being on the main road, so the trucks don’t have to slow down. But that diverts passenger traffic away from the towns too: no one stops to buy a pie or an icecream, or check out the local attractions.

Meanwhile, the Government clearly treats the rail network as an unwanted burden. Rather than promoting rail freight so KiwiRail has a better chance of covering its own costs, the Government constantly complains about the annual cost of keeping the rail network going.

KiwiRail is basically running on the smell of an oily rag – doing the best it can with much lower levels of rail infrastructure investment than in other countries like Australia.

Kiwirail has a 10 year improvement plan to get on a sustainable financial track by 2020. An assessment of how this plan is going found that:

“The Company has achieved a great deal since the inception of the Turnaroud Plan in 2010 including both growing customer numbers and freight volumes, improving the reliability and performance of its services, upgrading infrastructure and rolling stock assets, and improving its safety record.”

But apparently that’s not good enough.

Once again, the Government’s economic advisors seem to be living on another planet. Even when KiwiRail is clearly improving under all these measurements, they still want to close it down.

The Green Party would invest in our rail network to boost our regional economies, get heavy freight off the roads, lower carbon emissions, and create jobs. That’s a smart transport solution.

6 Comments Posted

  1. Shutting down the rail freight network could result in around 3000 more trucks on our roads every day, according to one analyst. Does anyone actually think that 3000 more trucks choking up our roads would be a good idea?

    I’m going to answer this directly, and say no, its not a good idea. For freight, rail is an excellent solution, especially for a country that is shaped like New Zealand.

    Is electrification of freight track that isn’t already a good idea? That is a much harder question, and the answer is, at best, maybe. The sticking point is that we “only” get about 70% of our electricity from renewable sources, and adding more load in the form of more freight is likely to bring that average down. Given that there are losses inherent in shifting electricity around, would it be “better” (and thus less polluting ) to invest in electrification, or stay with diesel?

    One thing is fairly certain though; the window for building significant commuter rail systems has closed. Given that personal transport in a few decades will be nothing like it is today, any rail system with a payback period of more than a decade or just over is not a sensible investment to make, it will be nothing more than a white elephant.

  2. re

    “We don’t expect roads or stormwater systems to make a profit”

    seems that we do in fact. At the national level the revenue from road user tax is expected to pay for roads and maintaining tme. At the local level, the provision of basic infrastructure, such as stomwater drains, is expected to cost significantly less than the taxes raised so that councillors’ memorials can be built from the profits (when they don’t we see rate rises of 10% per annum so that they do).

  3. We need to abandon the way we’re currently building. That is a certainty.

    We need to abandon the fiction that building million dollar McMansions for foreigners actually adds significantly to the NZ economy.

    We need to abandon the notion that we can’t build more rail, can’t electrify the link between Auckland and Hamilton and can’t afford to keep the electrification in the central plateau.

    Short answer? Yes. An awful lot of that “built” environment is within a few meters of the mean high water mark. In 300 years it’ll still be within a meter of it, but it’ll be on the wrong side of it. What sort of adaptation ARE we doing? Given that we’re doing stuff all mitigation we and the reasoning that says it’s all up to others has one valid point, that we also need to get our adaptation plans rolling.

    However, having made that argument, largely to justify not mitigating worth a f***, the current government seems to think that doing NOTHING is appropriate adaptation.

    Sorry, that doesn’t cut it. Where in New Zealand is a new international Airport? If there will be planes at all they still need a place to land. When ships carrying petroleum products become infrequent, how is the economy going to keep working?

    Following National’s path to nowhere our children will be back to horses and oxen and damned little in the way of transport at all.

  4. Dave Stringer is trying to simplify the argument from one scenario to the other but life doesn’t work like that. Transport will always be a mixture of methods and this government is putting an unwise emphasis on roading. The storms we have just had in Whanganui and Dunedin have taken out a fair bit of accessibility by road and science tells us this will get worse unless we change the burning of fuels at present rates. If there is more fuel efficiency shifting more on rail, it is the most cost effective. If those not listening to this message over the last decade don’t get it they will have to lose on the investment in the wrong direction. Fortunately we can just change our priorities and the losses will be minimised, but it is no excuse for putting the losses into catastrophic proportions by ignoring the message the storms are giving us.

  5. so we need to abandon our current built environment and develop housing, commerce and industry only alongside rail tracks? Interesting.

  6. Nelson has a relevant local issue: Should they tear up two schools, a public green space, a popular (and nationally famous) walk/bike path so they can put through a bypass that bypasses nothing; or should they simply get a barge to run from the train to the port in Richmond to barge the logs to Nelson port. The ‘southern link’ has been denied by environmental, governmental regulatory, and the local communities affected for years. But they just keep pushing it.

    Encouraging the use of rail as well would save an award-winning comunity, and the (also) award-winning school in a lower-income neighborhood that is being placed at risk by the welathy land owners who were dumb enough to buy property on the main road to the port to begin with.

    Granted, it’s deeper than my weak summary, but I hope the essentials get through.

    Rail would put this issue to rest forever, instead of it continuing to oppress property values and quality of life for the residents of Victory Village, as it has done for at least a decade and will continue to haunt this neighborhood until the wealthy landowners force it through.

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