The editorial on Granny Herald by an anonymous writer on the 29th1 entitled “Rail shutdown casts doubt on service’s value” really casts more doubt on the value of the use of editorials than anything else. It displays more of the writers divergence from practical realities than anything else because of its adherence to dog-whistling rather than facts.
If Aucklanders returning to work today have taken to commuting by train they are in for a surprise. No trains have been running in Auckland since Christmas Day. None. The entire service has been taken off the rails until at least January 10 so work can be done on the long-running electrification and upgrading of the network. This must be KiwiRail’s idea of a joke.
Not far from the railway, the Newmarket motorway viaduct is being replaced. The project has been engineered in a way that has enabled the bridge to be demolished and rebuilt in sections with minimal disruption to traffic on the busiest stretch of state highway in New Zealand.
Of course this could have rather more to do with the inherent nature of rail lines compared to roading networks than anything else. Auckland’s roads have multiple lanes and multiple routes, but Auckland’s rail lines either have only double tracks or in places single tracks. So while traffic on a road can be done lane by lane or by diverting traffic into alternate routes, it simply isn’t that easy to do on rail routes. Even a simple moment of thought would reveal the issues.
On our remaining single track you have to shutdown the track to work on extensive areas of the track.
In the case of a double track:-
In effect the idiot that wrote this editorial is arguing for unsafe practices because it is more convienient. KiwiRail took the sensible course of diverting the low number of rail travellers over the summer break on to buses. Anyone who stays around Auckland over summer knows that the road traffic volumes are typically less than half that of the rest of the year. So adding buses to carry the few people who’d usually use the train doesn’t impact on road congestion the way that it would any other time of the year as IDT commenting on the editorial 2 points out:-
Of course buses can do the job over the Christmas/New Year period. They are half-empty, as are the roads and motorways. But there’s no way they could handle the extra volume outside the holidays. I’m no apologist for KiwiRail’s pathetic management but we don’t need “rail is bad” propaganda from our daily paper.
This argument is weak and incredibly flawed. Firstly, the argument that the Newmarket Viaduct remained open throughout is invalid as it did close on September 4 with much publicity encouraging Aucklanders to not only change their travel plans, but not to travel at all. You may remember the extra trains put on that weekend were packed. Additionally, if we apply the same argument to the lack of gridlock resulting from that same Viaduct closure, we would arrive at the conclusion that we do not need the Newmarket Viaduct either. Nor the two currently closed lanes of the Harbour Bridge, which is also uncongested during the same holiday period that the trains aren’t running. In fact, all the motorways are free-flowing, for the same reason that rail can shut down for heavy works at this time of year. A lot of Auckland is on holiday.
Therefore the Christmas rail shutdown is not in any way a valid reason for arguing that Auckland does not need rail.
If more investigation had gone into this poorly informed editorial, it would be quite clear why the rail network has been shut down. Not only are bridges being rebuilt and overhead masts being installed, but the tracks themselves which the trains run on, are being realigned and rebuilt in a number of locations throughout the network. To do this work properly and to a high standard, having trains trying to run through the work areas every 15 minutes is going to make things very difficult and much slower and longer to complete.
So the people who commented on this editorial are clearly far more aware of the issues involved in doing the rail upgrades and why they’re done using a complete shutdown over summer than the anonymous writer writing about an Auckland that they clearly don’t understand in Auckland’s only daily paper. So what was the point of this rather daft and ill-informed editorial?
In that case, it may be wondered why the city is getting an upgraded rail service to run at untold operating losses, if buses can do the same job.
It isn’t ‘untold’. Even a Herald editor is probably capable of reading a set of accounts and the subsidies and costs are pretty clearly stated in the accounts of the Auckland public transport system.
The case for upgrading rail rests on assumptions that it will attract many more people to live near a station or become employers in the CBD. It is a gamble the Auckland Council is willing to take with the Government’s money. “Build it”, say our civic visionaries, “and commuters will come”.
They point to the growth in rail passengers since the Britomart terminal was built. But it was apparent to early assessors of the business plan for rail project that it would probably draw passengers from certain bus routes rather than increase public transport patronage overall. That impression is reinforced by the ease with which buses have been substituted for trains during this rail shutdown.
The council-controlled agency Auckland Transport should be aggrieved at KiwiRail’s clumsy project management. A total shutdown is surely not necessary for bridges to be raised to make room for electricity lines, or for other work on the tracks. This is not the first summer shutdown of the project and there is no assurance it will be the last. It is merely the most extensive.
Clearly the idiot who wrote this article clearly hasn’t read the numerous economic costings of rail vs bus public services. The rail public transport upgrades were not put in place to increase property values close to rail stations. They were put in place to reduce the congestion on the roads by reducing the need to increase the number of buses or the cars as Aucklands population increases and housing becomes more dense. This means that we don’t have to massive resources to increase roads capacities in the built-up areas of Auckland.
Anyone who has used the trains and buses is aware of the difference in speed of travel. In the same time as it takes me to travel on the few kilometres of part of the Link bus route to work each day, the train to Onehunga travels from Britomart to the end of its line. There is none of the lurching from lights to lights that massively slows the buses around every road apart from the motorways. But everyone who uses the motorway buses is also aware that even when the motorway isn’t congested, most of the travel time is involved in going on an off the motorway through lights to bus stops.
Of course as the Northern busway shows, the same type of thing can be done for buses as trains, with dedicated lanes and dedicated bus stations. This makes it suitable for moving passengers long distances without delays. However it comes at a cost that is higher than putting train lines in. In the case of the northern bus way it was required to be a motorized route rather than a train track because the cost of putting a train bridge with a lower gradient over the harbor would have been excessive. It bottlenecks at the congested bridge which usually accounts for most of the routes time, but all of lanes are at capacity during rush-hour so creating a dedicated bus lane will have wait for a new crossing – which will probably have train track and the busway converted to track.
Obviously the idiot editorial writer just hasn’t bothered to use their brain or do even the most basic research before penning this editorial. This editorial is merely what bloggers would call a dog-whistle post full of inaccurate coded messages to the small self-selected audience that read the NZ Herald. In this case I suspect that it is written by someone who prefers to spend money on roads rather than public transport and is more interested generally in privatization than public participation, and that is the coded message they are wanting to publish. It makes no real attempt to make clear the arguments for and against the stance taken by the writer as would be the case of a editorial in a better respected publication such as The Economist – where it is policy to do so.
Furthermore it is not even pseudonymous as would be the case on a blog like this one3. However it has been published as being the view of the whole NZ Herald editorial team. The editorials in the Herald have become far more variable over the last few years. You get pieces like this that have been written without any understanding of the topic, and others that do understand what they are writing about and take care to present the issues. In other words it appears that the slow run-down of the traditional print media is letting at least one idiot (and probably more) pushing their own political and personal agendas ineptly thereby tainting the whole concept of an anonymous editorial amongst the others who also write more rational and interesting viewpoints – even when I disagree with their ideas.
Quite simply I’d like to have some idea of what idiot actually wrote this editorial and what their other editorials were so I don’t tar the whole editorial team at the NZ Herald as being idiots. What is probably required is a pseudonym or other type of byline to allow readers to separate the useless chaff from the useful wheat in the editorials. Alternatively a much stronger editorial policy on each editorial with more input from other viewpoints (as is done at The Economist and used to be done at the Herald) would achieve the same thing. However that is probably impossible bearing in mind the diminishing numbers of staff and their skills under the financial pressure of newspapers
But in the meantime, ‘editorials’ like this dog-whistle diminish the credibility of the whole anonymous editorial system as practiced at the NZ Herald.