The next train is delayed by four years: Thoughts on the NZ National Land Transport Programme

Check out that front cover!

Let’s start with the good news. Last week, Sam van der Weerden and I approved the final proofs of Can’t Get There from Here: New Zealand Passenger Rail since 1920, and Otago University Press (who have done sterling work with the editing and design) have sent the book to the printers. It should be in shops by December and you can place a pre-order right here.

Today, Minister of Transport Michael Wood announced the government’s plan for investment in the National Land Transport Programme 2021–24 (NLTP). You can read the full thing here. Now, it’s nice to have a minister who seems sincerely aware of the importance of rail now and in the future—such ministers have been in short supply over recent decades. And it’s nice to have a government turn away from “managed decline” to at least trying to make the existing network reliable and resilient. But it’s also pretty obvious we have departments and agencies whose priorities and knowledge base are primarily concerned with roads, and which at an institutional level lack either the interest or ability to plan proper multi-modal transport. Consequently, I have a lot to say about the NLTP.

The fast and the functional: modal shift
A Matangi electric multiple unit enters the single-track section along an unstable hillside between Pukerua Bay and Paekākāriki. The Ministry of Works made detailed plans for deviations of this bottleneck in the mid-20th century, and an ambitious NLTP would at least look at revisiting the topic for both network capacity and resilience. (André Brett, 8 December 2018)

Let me be clear: if we are even halfway serious about addressing the effects of climate change and reducing their severity, we need a major modal shift—in New Zealand as with elsewhere. I don’t mean shifting a few truckloads of goods a day to rail, getting a few more tourists onto the Northern Explorer, painting some bike symbols on the road, or switching our cars from internal combustion to electricity. All of these are desirable, but they are not even the bare minimum of what needs to be done.

We need to realise the urgent importance of ambitious transport plans and actually sell them to people—show them that true multi-modal networks are better than car dependency because they provide choice, flexibility, accessibility, health benefits, and social gains as well as environmental benefits. We waste so much space on cars, and during lockdowns we’ve noticed how much more peaceful our streets are. We can use space more efficiently and have peaceful streets all the time while enhancing mobility and movement, too.

Multi-modal networks effectively integrate active transport (e.g. walking and cycling), public transport (e.g. trains and buses), and have roads for those who need private vehicles for work or certain disabilities or specific tasks (and they benefit from so much less congestion!). We need to develop a transport network where you can go days or even weeks without thinking you need to hop in a car—maybe to do your big weekly grocery shop, or occasionally to pick up some heavy or bulky item, but absolutely not for commuting, getting to places of entertainment and leisure, or many forms of shopping.

Roads, roads, roads
A visual metaphor: State Highway 1 slicing through the site of Rangiahua railway station, Northland. (Credit: André Brett, 4 April 2010)

Does the NLTP aim for this? Does it even provide the first steps towards a healthy, balanced multi-modal system? No. Others can talk about investment in active transport and buses—my expertise is in rail. The rest of this entry will, therefore, focus on rail.

The NLTP offers $24.3 billion for transport, which looks good on the face of it (and is being described as a record by people who aren’t interested in looking up historic investment sums and converting them into today’s dollars). The thing is, rail does not get even a measly fifth of this, despite the fact it needs to regain its past position as the dominant form of land transport. There is the $1.3 billion Rail Network Investment Programme that was announced in July (following the NZ Rail Plan released a couple of months earlier), which mostly comprises long overdue maintenance and tinkering at the edges. The $5 billion for public transport also includes some funding for the Auckland and Wellington metropolitan rail networks and $20 million for Auckland–Hamilton Te Huia, mere loose change for a government. Walking and cycling don’t even get to $1 billion. The fact this is nearly a 40% increase for public and active transport on the previous NLTP is hardly something to brag about: rather, it condemns both!

Meanwhile, highway maintenance and improvements get almost $10 billion, and that’s just the state highway network—there’s more dosh for roads swilling around in other categories. Now, some of the road investment isn’t bad: removing black spots and reducing deaths and injuries are obviously quite desirable. But, of course, another way to reduce the road toll—and reduce the need for a big spend on maintenance—is to get people out of cars and give them something better. The investment ratio needs to be completely flipped.

Michael Wood’s press release emphasises that “We couldn’t accept our roads deteriorating.” This seems reasonable superficially, but here’s the thing: from the 1960s we did accept our railways deteriorating. It was policy and practice. You can read all about how politicians, NZ Railways senior officials, and private owners alike contributed to this with decisions small and large in Can’t Get There from Here when it comes out. I even explicitly say that New Zealand “possesses only the scraps of a 1930s [rail] network; if New Zealand’s state highways recalled travel patterns and technology from the 1970s, let alone the 1930s, it would be a national scandal.” Wood’s quote proves the point.

DSG 3264 at Napier’s Tennyson St level crossing with a goods train for the port at Ahuriri. (Credit: André Brett, 12 December 2011)

We need safe roads, there is no doubt of that, but we need a balanced transport system with suburban rail in our major centres, regional passenger rail, and a rapid increase in the proportion of goods on rail. Imagine how much less we would need to spend on upkeep of roads if people could catch trains (or ride bikes, or walk, or… you get the point). We spend so much on road maintenance because there is more road traffic than there reasonably should be.

You could never do that here (except we did)

I want to emphasise something: there is no reason why New Zealand can’t have ambitious railway policy and achieve transformative change in a decade. We have done it before! Between 1870 and 1880, New Zealand constructed two thousand kilometres of railways, over a third of the total railways ever built in the country. This rapid provision of infrastructure was so transformative that it contributed significantly to the abolition of our quasi-federal provincial system of government (a reminder that I have written a book on this and the publisher still has a few copies).

It doesn’t end there. Even as the car became ascendant, in the space of a decade (1946–1955) Wellington’s rail network was transformed with a new electrified alignment through the Hutt Valley and a nearly 9km tunnel under the Remutaka Range to the Wairarapa. At the same time, new goods lines to Kawerau, Murupara, and Mount Maunganui re-aligned the economy of the Bay of Plenty and other significant railway projects occurred around the country.

Anthonie Tonnon—known to many for his excellent music, and especially to some of you for his Rail Land concert tours—has written a stunning foreword for Can’t Get There from Here. He captured in just a few words something I wish I could have put so succinctly: “Great arguments about public transport have been held back because, as a society, we can no longer remember our baseline.” We once had a large rail network, and we once had the willingness to fund transformative projects throughout the country and deliver them promptly. We still have the railway corridors; we still have a core network on which we can build something great. But we are now timid. This is no way to live, to prosper, or to face the future.

We could have it all
DXB 5120 leads the Capital Connection out of Wellington. In 2031, this service could run frequently with modern electric rollingstock rather than once daily with refurbished old carriages pulled by diesel locomotives. (Credit: André Brett, 22 November 2011)

In 2031, we could have commuter rail in Christchurch, Hamilton, Dunedin, Tauranga, and perhaps elsewhere. In 2031, we could have intercity expresses capable of 160km/h+ linking almost every region of New Zealand (sorry Nelson). In 2031, we could have electrified the entire North Island Main Trunk and other routes besides (East Coast Main Trunk anyone?), and implemented storage battery options on other lines. In 2031, we could have light rail networks in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and perhaps elsewhere. In 2031, we could have integrated modern ticketing, a system for the whole country. In 2031, we could have modern rollingstock that is comfortable and accessible for everyone.

My focus is on passenger rail because it is the shop window of the railway network—it is how most New Zealanders will engage with trains and how rail gets its social and electoral licence (or loses it, with inadequate or non-existent services). But I am not forgetting freight: this is where rail makes much of its revenue as well as making a major difference to emissions. In 2031, we could have a majority of goods on rail. In 2031, we could have recovered from road many of the types of goods that NZ Railways and its privatised successors let go for one utterly ridiculous reason after another. In 2031, we could have new yards, new inland ports, and new alignments to separate the freight network from busy urban sections of the passenger network. In 2031, investment in regional passenger rail would also have improved the performance of goods rail.

None of this—not one bit of it—requires new inventions or innovations. It only needs off-the-shelf mature technology used widely overseas. We don’t need to stuff around and take risks with anything unproven; leave the exciting experiments to countries that already have a functional modern railway network. Even the Australians, laggards almost as bad as New Zealand, have electric tilt trains (Queensland, the same narrow gauge as us) and bimodal battery-electric trains on order (NSW, to replace the XPT). We just need to buy it, build it, implement it.

Portrait of Julius Vogel (c. 1860s), who for all his flaws was brimming with ambition for New Zealand and framed the 1870 Great Public Works Policy. (Credit: 1/2-053949-F, Alexander Turnbull Library)

It’s time to summon a sense of purpose, ignore the unimaginative and unambitious naysayers, craft a bold vision for the future, and invest. Build what we know works, and change our country for the better. Give us mobility, accessibility, and a vigorous response to climate change: give us rail.

File away this NLTP. Will today’s Julius Vogel please stand up with a New Great Public Works Policy?

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