Written By: - Date published: 1:41 pm, October 31st, 2018 - 96 comments
Categories: business, climate change, Economy, energy, global warming, greens, labour, nz first, Shane Jones, sustainability, transport - Tags:
If there is anything that illustrates the great 20th century modernist impulse of epic infrastructure and national development, it’s rail. While you are able, make sure you do the Otago Rail Trail cycleway, where you will get a sense at every great bridge of the years-long commitment of the teams to their task of cutting through hillsides and spanning ravines to develop this network. The romance of billowing steam may have long past with the Crunchie Bar ad but in rail there’s a certain permanence borne of increased national network resilience that beats mere nostalgia.
Late in the previous government, central government made contradictory rail moves: it confirmed the Kiwirail decision to scrap electric trains in favour of diesel, which would in turn have meant scrapping the electric catenary system that previous postwar governments had built up much of the North Island.
On the other hand in their third term the same government signed up for the $3-4 billion City Rail Link through Auckland, construction of which still grinds away.
But now, rail redevelopment here is undergoing the most mighty revival in two generations. It’s true of Australia, and it’s certainly true here.
In May this year – just 7 months ago – Cabinet agreed to launch the procurement process for a light rail system in Auckland. It’s going to need HLC, Auckland Council, AT, NZTA, and a bunch of other government departments to get this thing moving. It is also likely to need a Gold Coast concession-type Light Rail system where if you get the right to build it, you also operate it for a while with your own brand. It’s a really massive swallow and will take a serious multinational coalition to take it on. Both as a construction job and as a system, it’s probably bigger than City Rail Link when all said and done, even if most of the routes are inside the existing state highway network. I suspect by Budget 2019 we are likely to see both design and procurement progress, and probably some land acquisition and utilities packages shaped up in time for proper spades in the ground before the next election. Which would be remarkable.
Three weeks ago they announced a $196 million investment into Wellington commuter rail. That’s $96 million in track upgrades to support the Wairarapa commuters, with a further $100m in renewing track infrastructure and improving capacity across the Wellington Metro Rail Network. Work is already underway replacing all those old wooden poles holding up the wires – which is co-funded with the Wellington Regional Council.
The government also agreed to fund a significant upgrade of the rail line in the Wairarapa. Notably for us infrastructure nerds it was the NZTA Board that made the funding decision. For that money they get $50m for Wairarapa track upgrades, and double tracking between Trentham and Upper Hutt.
Two days ago engineering drilling commenced into the rail link to Marsden Point in Whangarei. This link has been proposed for over a decade, and is an important step to Northport being able to compete for some work away from Ports of Auckland. It is being funded by Minister Jones’ Regional Development Fund. Once completed, the line will travel east from the existing North Auckland line at Oakleigh – just out of Whangarei – and will stretch across 20 kilometres to the port at Marsden Point. After detailed design they’ll need about 30,000 sleepers and will shift about 1.6 million cubic metres of earth. Let the grunts commence.
Yesterday the government announced that it was reversing the previous government’s decision to kill off the electric trains. Instead of replacing them with diesel trains, the 15 electric trains will be refurbished by Kiwirail and will continue to run between Hamilton and Palmerston North. The refurbishment of the trains and electric control system is funded with an additional $35 million over four years. That’s on top of the $4 billion for public transport and rail under the National Land Transport Programme. Most interestingly Twyford said they were examining taking the whole Kiwirail fleet to hydrogen. This would mean they would not need to extend the awkward and expensive catenary system all the way to Whangarei and far-flung parts of the network like Wanganui and Bluff. It arguably adds some much-needed resilience to the network in times of energy stress. I’ve no expertise in hydrogen trains so if there are anoraks out there who would like to comment, go for it.
Other benefits aside, every tonne of freight moved by rail is a 66% carbon emissions saving over heavy road freight.
Now, sure, motorway capex still dwarves heavy rail spend. But to take an analogy, in Auckland just three a few years ago standalone house investment used to tower over apartment block and terrace house construction. The stats are reversed now. Investment profiles between transport modes are also shifting in a matter of a few years. The next version of the NLTP is likely to have some structural changes around the full transport organisational framework for rail. None of this is fast, but all of it is monumental in scale and change.
As with motorway investment, it’s rare that the government that instigated the job will be there at the finish line to cut the ribbon. You’re in it for the epic satisfaction of your team and your own beliefs in its benefits. This government will have the dubious honours or opening SH1 Puhoi PPP, SH1 Huntly bypass, SH1 Waikato Hamilton bypass, and SH1 Transmission Gully. All in election year. But the machine of NZTA is growing and accepting the true meaning of mode neutrality in performance yield.
There’s a chance that regional passenger rail will be ready next term from Auckland to Hamilton. There’s a further chance that in the next term the North Auckland line will cope with more of the full freight load.
But the entire effort shows that the old energy to revive the regions and renew the muscle in rail’s arms is well underway. It is this same modernist impulse to form and execute multi-generational network transformation that will continue to be needed in the next government, and the next. As one of the most petroleum-reliant countries on earth, we need this.