Stop Defending Regional Rail

Written By: - Date published: 12:44 pm, June 5th, 2023 - 51 comments
Categories: climate change, Environment, public transport, science, transport - Tags:

Regional rail is a perpetual makework gig servicing the wrong economy and just needs to stop.

Rail is needed when you need to move bulky, heavy, cheap goods around.

So if your economy declines in its need for that kind of transport, you need rail less and less.

Some of the big components for the Motonui, Maui and Kapuni gas and petroleum stations came through by rail in the 1970s and 1980s.

But then they stopped.

When the Patea freezing works closed in 1992 and Waitara freezing works closed in 1997 (though ANZCO now still continues), rail use declined further up the North Island west coast.

On the old Stratford-Oakura line the only industry going there is tourism on its old tracks. No need for it otherwise.

Mostly the left are stuck with nostalgia over rail because it used to employ tens of thousands of working class guys particularly Maori.

23 years ago they were still gutting rail for staff by the thousand because its business was collapsing. The structural adjustment of rail was simply a reflection of what had started decades earlier, and wasn’t the cause of regional rail’s decline.

With domestic coal use dying by policy direction, soon there will be very little use for the rail line to Westport. In 2020 Kiwirail claimed that every tonne of freight delivered by rail results in 66% fewer emissions than by road. They forgot to mention that their freight was coal.

Same for the Nightcaps-Ohai line to Invercargill. Exporting low grade coal. Rail north of Whangarei is almost unused and no, Avocados will never come to Auckland by rail.

Barely a year after Kiwirail got the line for Port of Napier to Wairoa open again, it’s just smashed.

Kiwirail is getting another $570 million in Budget this year on a variety of fix-up jobs. Glug glug glug go your tax dollars.

In reality the only substantial public pressure to re-invest in rail is in Auckland and Wellington for commuters.

And even that service is in their own words “embarrassing”. You have to be a true A22 or climate extremist diehard to support rail even in urban centres now.

For the nerds, sure, reform Kiwirail.

For the rest of us, let it go.

Regional rail has been declining since the 1920s, when some rail lines were still being built.

More and more regional branch lines were cut throughout the 1970s and 1980s, because the car and truck were more efficient and responsive.

The Otago Rail Trail makes more money in cycling and tourism than the actual rail ever did. Since the mid 1990s this has gone from strength to strength, as has the entire region. Cycling the old rail line is about to extend all the way through from Clyde to Dunedin.

Rail is needed when you need to move bulky, heavy, cheap goods around.

That is not the economy we want. It won’t make us wealthy. It services industries like dairy that suck our country dry. It services the export of cheap logs which get more marginal every year. Decreasingly it services freezing works – our economy of mechanised death.

Regional rail supports the economy of stupid.

Rip up the regional tracks, shift away from bulk cheap exports, and do something smarter.

51 comments on “Stop Defending Regional Rail ”

  1. mickysavage 1

    I always enjoy Ad's provocative take on issues.

    For me I believe for climate change reasons we need to keep the rail system in place.

    And I have caught high speed trains in Japan and Korea. I believe we should aim to have a high speed line between Auckland and Wellington. That way we could considerably reduce air flights.

    • weka 1.1

      remarkable to see a post talking about rail and completely ignoring climate.

      • G 1.1.1

        True I am sure if they made freight companies

        Use rail for long distance

        Cargo they could take 100s

        If trucks of the road helping our carbon footprint

    • Craig H 1.2

      At the very least, Auckland – Hamilton seems to be an absolute gimme given Air NZ doesn't actually service that route.

      • Belladonna 1.2.1

        Not really. Anyone flying Auckland to Hamilton would be spending longer in getting to and waiting around at the airport, than it would take to drive.

        The PT competition is buses, not air.

        • Visubversa

          The buses are pretty horrible between Auckland and Hamilton – and they do not have toilets.

          The last time we did the trip – on the return journey we contemplated getting off at Manukau and jumping on the train. We were just so uncomfortable.

          We are older and do not drive long distances. We would go to places like Rotorua and Tauranga more often if we could get a train.

          • Belladonna

            There currently is a train service between Auckland and Hamilton – Te Huia.
            Do you use it?

    • alwyn 1.3

      I suggest that you read this story then.

      It is about the same distance from San Francisco to Los Angeles as it is from Auckland to Wellington, The cost of the high speed rail line in California is now up to about $US110 billion which is about $180 billion New Zealand dollars. Are you really in favour of this proposal you are advocating? I know that the madness in the Labour MPs for wasting money was spreading but surely it hasn't got that far?

      • mickysavage 1.3.1

        There is some pretty expensive real estate to go through over there. And besides what price do you put on a destroyed planetary environment because we were too worried about the cost?

        • Alan Rennie

          Omg, your comparing NZ to Japan. They have a huge population to maintain a feasible rail system. We just don’t have the numbers. Even the rail system we have cannot run on time. It’s a total waste of space. Rip up the rail and use the space to run dedicated busses.

      • newsense 1.3.2

        A lot of this cost has been fighting tiresome and greedy NIMBYs at every turn and every point in the process.

        The process has been even more politicized than in NZ. In oil land USA where there are very few functioning PT systems that must come as a shock.

        And there is A LOT of straight up misinformation about the project, so people like yourself can spread the tut tuts.

        And that no number of Wayne Browns will ever build something so monumental, because they’re busy with cheap points about walking tours.

        Here’s an alternative viewpoint comprehensively debunking some key criticisms:

        YouTube out link: California High Speed Rail has not failed and real life lore is wrong.

      • newsense 1.3.3

        Another amazing thing is that this will be the US’s first genuine high speed rail. They are having to create the expertise to build the project as they go. Compared to Japan, China and Europe that’s mental. Hopefully the expertise from this project will flow on to other US rail projects, because they will be required.

        And I love how magic technology will appear to save us from climate change is a central conservative policy, but when advances and ideas do appear- say this which apparently would have great applications for NZ- Battery for high speed rail being developed -they aren’t considered and no excitement is generated around them. This one looks very cool imo.

    • lprent 1.4

      Compared to the costs of running heavy trucks up and down roads and absolutely destroying them (you only have to drive Auckland to Hamilton to see it). It isn’t hard to see a case for rail maintenance. Especially when you look at the state of the roads down to Tauranga or Napier that are being mangled by trucks, then you see understand the need for heavy rail.

      Just raise the RUC approximately 10 to 20 fold on the 4th power rule so that that they get closer to the true cost of providing roads for trucks to destroy.

      Running cars, light trucks, and buses don't cause much need for road maintenance because their axles doen't carry much weight. They cause negligible damage to roads, and mostly what there is happens after trucks break road surfaces and cause road bed subsidence. If you kicked the trucks off the roads, then state highways would need very little of the expensive maintenance per kilometre that they currently require.

      Trucks cause virtually all of state highway maintenance, and that or urban and rural transport. But where 44 tonne or 50 tonne heavy trucks use the roads we get the kinds of damage that really cost. That is why a km of state highway annually costs about $20k / year to maintain on average and why the cost of just maintaining the roads keeps rising.

      Since 2010, law changes have allowed increasingly long and heavy trucks – now more than 50 tonnes – on highways, well beyond the earlier 44-tonne limit. The vehicles' power has in some cases doubled to 700 horsepower.

      In 2012, slightly more than 10 percent of freight was carried by these larger trucks. This tripled by 2017 to more than one third.

      An updated figure for 2019 is being sought.

      The proportion of highway opened up to these bigger trucks has also kept rising, from 45 percent of all highways in 2016, to 8225km – 71 percent this year – by adding 1004km on key regional routes.

      Allowing more large trucks – called high productivity motor vehicles – on more roads is one of five key priorities of investment over the next two years outlined in NZTA's 2018-19 annual report.

      State highways cost more than $20,000 per kilometre to maintain each year.

      We have about 11,000 km of state highways to maintain, and the cost of maintaining them is billions of dollars and steadily increasing by about 30% over the each 3 year period. Roughly a billion per year at present and the vast majority entirely collected on passenger traffic rather than from the freight causing the road damage.

      Some would argue that trucks provide a economic benefit to the country as a whole. But since they're being massively subsidised by car drivers by having pathetically small road user charges even for the most heavy vehicles – that is clearly just a bullshit economic fallacy. Plus it is noticeable that there is virtually no economic data to support that assumption. Just idiotic unsupported assertions by the trucking lobbies and the cowed minions and apologists in the National party.

      This is one case where strict user pays charging would clearly a common good.

      Charge the trucks fully for the damage they do to the roads with a progressive 10 to 20x increase in RUCs according to axle weights, and there won't need to be a case for regional rail subsidies. Heavy freight would flood on to a transport system designed for it.

      Sure the costs to some industries would rise dramatically. But since supermarkets, logging and dairy farmer have been sucking up the subsidies from the public for decades now without any noticeable true improvement in the productivity or to the economic health of the public, then it seems like a good time to cut off the taxpayer tap taht sustains their profits.

      As it is, maintaining rail lines is far economically cheaper than roads. The current monies being put into rail are mostly for reducing pressure on roading with urban public transport. The rest on routes where there is the heaviest damage to regional roading by trucking – as in Napier.

    • SPC 1.5

      A passenger service, but high speed?

      Wellington – Palmerston North

      Auckland – Hamilton – Tauranga and Whangarei

      • Stuart Munro 1.5.1

        Korea manages it between Seoul & Daegu – it's cheap, faster than flying, and delivers you downtown.

        Of course the usual neoliberal clowns are incapable of even conceiving a decent, reasonably priced service. We simply cannot afford such raging incompetents masquerading as experts.

        An expert is invariably the person that can do something, not the himbo with a hundred reasons why it can't be done.

        • SPC

          Having some of the (regional) city to city commuter trains, fast rail, is the desired end game.

          But the AK to WN service has too many terrain issues which makes the distance an insurmountable problem. It's more likely upgrade is electrification.

          • Stuart Munro

            I don't expect them to do it over night – but as it stands they can barely run commuter services to Hamilton or the Hutt. Any even vaguely competent operator can do better.

            And, you think Korea is a sweet little run through meadows & valleys? It's a nubbly mess of granite mountains, which is why they were able to hold off the North Korean invasion.

  2. Stuart Munro 2

    Ad is, I feel, only saying in public what our political sellouts to the trucking industry have been saying behind closed doors for decades. People like Richard Prebble, who didn't get a seat on the Mainfreight board for being a marvel of dexterity on the cottage upright.

    Which is why everything is such a godawful mess.

    We need a lot less provocative enfant terribles and a damned sight more steady, workmanlike, pedestrian policy formers who are committed to NZ's long term future.

    And rail is the future – the moment trucks pay the real costs of the wear and tear they do to our lightly built roads.

    • RosieLee 2.1

      And rail also provided social infrastructure all around the country at one time. Clusters of railway houses for the maintenance workers, and also a shop, a school, a post office, a police house etc etc. Not to mention Public works the same.

      • Ad 2.1.1

        Crappy, hard, injury-prone, poorly paid jobs.

        We can do better and, and have done so.

        • Stuart Munro


          The lot of working people in NZ has been deteriorating for decades.

        • weka

          Crappy, hard, injury-prone, poorly paid jobs.

          Like laying the black shit for the trucks to drive on?

  3. Mike the Lefty 3

    Regional rail would have had a future if the Rogernome government and the subsequent National government hadn't been hell bent on selling off the rail network to foreigners. So we got line closures, staff layoffs, big price hikes which made alternative road transport look a whole lot more attractive, degraded infrastructure because they didn't bother to maintain equipment, lines and bridges. And when they had milked the system dry they basically walked away leaving NZ taxpayers with the bills.

    It SHOULD have a future, but the enormous sums of money required to bring it back to that level are too much now.

    • Ad 3.1

      The Auckland-Tauranga-Hamilton rail routes certainly have a future and are worth investing in both passenger and freight.

  4. tWiggle 4

    But you need to take into account that increased usage of rail for freight decreases road construction costs. Nats in 2010 increased haulage limits.

    2010 article maximum haulage weight increased by Nats

    "KiwiRail expects to lose 15 per cent of its freight revenue to road carriers, although the ministry says other transport operators predict greater opportunities for transfers from rail to heavier trucks carrying bulk goods such as milk."

    http://2022 scoop article on roading costs

    “About two thirds of the cost of building new highways goes into making them strong enough for large vehicles, which are mainly trucks. Excluding events such as storm damage, about 80% of all road maintenance costs are the result of the damage caused by trucks. Yet the trucking industry pays less than 23% of the costs of building and maintaining these highways.”

    Why not subsidise rail, a more fuel-efficient public service over subsidising private industry? Electrification is important, as diesel engines have greater fixed maintenance costs as well.

    • Ad 4.1

      Rail is massively subsidised already.

      Everyone under 25 and over 65 your ticket price is subsidised over 50%, just on the operating expenditure.

      If you took into account the capital expenditure it would be an even deeper subsidy.

      And everyone else has had their petrol and diesel subsidised for many months now.

      Trying to work out any relative justice in relative subsidies between rail, diesel and petrol vehicles gets actually quite hard.

  5. Stephen 5

    Maybe Ad hasn’t had the advantage of travelling in places such as the UK, Europe or the USA. Rail is a cheaper and convenient way of either commuting or being a tourist.

    Not to mention the carrying of heavy freight. Logs and milk powder being good examples. Railhead to railhead.

    • Ad 5.1

      Would be great if we were a spectacularly rich country like Germany.

      In Frankfurt station the tracks are so clean you could fry bacon and eggs on them, so long as you could do it in 2 minutes 21 seconds.

      Such a joy to be in a place where it all works.

      In New Zealand we don't have enough money for reliable regional roads, or motorways, or rail, or interislander ferries, or coastal shipping.

      We are not continental Europe. We are not China. We are not Japan. We are not Korea. We are a small economy with a highly concentrated population and economy that in infrastructure terms is barely hanging together.

      • RosieLee 5.1.1

        And we have crapped out on the state infrastructure we used to have in the name of neo liberal big business.

        • Ad

          We just don't have enough money.

          • Stuart Munro

            Put that down to the incessant failure of the neoliberals to deliver the prosperity on which assent for their inhuman reforms was contingent.

  6. Johnr 6

    Ad, you're talking rubbish, again. You're not Prebbles son in law, are you?

    The financial comparables are always screwed to the narrative the author wants to portray.

    Throughout the neoliberal era. Rail Financials always seem to include the real-estate they own, the tracks they own, the maintenance and upgrade of said tracks and station buildings, and the signal system to safely use that system. Then we come to the rolling stock and prime movers.

    The road transport industry does not take into; the cost of owning, maintaining and operating our roading system. Sure that pay RUCs but that is reckoned to be about 1/10 of the true cost.

    • Ad 6.1

      "Prebble killed rail" is so dishonest.

      Actually we did.

      • mickysavage 6.1.1

        I can certify that Ad is not Prebble's son. Not even his love child.

        • Stuart Munro

          Well of course not – neoliberals reproduce asexually by budding.

    • alwyn 6.2

      " that is reckoned to be about 1/10 of the true cost.".

      Do you have any evidence or this statement. Numbers like this are offered regularly but I have never seen anyone provide any real evidence for them.

      What is yours?

      • Stuart Munro 6.2.1

        "In New Zealand heavy vehicles are charged for using the road based on the damage caused passing over the road. The current approach to charging has its origins in American research that found doubling an axle load increased the damage as a power function with an exponent of 4, known as the Fourth Power Law. This was developed with limited pavement and vehicle load types not representative of most of the roads in New Zealand. This research provided reliable evidence on the wear characteristics of New Zealand local road pavements from accelerated pavement loading studies at the Canterbury Accelerated Pavement Testing Indoor Facility (CAPTIF). The aim was to determine the relative damage on different pavement types/strengths. The data was extended with rut depth modelling with repeated load triaxial data and validated with field data from the nationwide long-term pavement performance sites. A relationship was found between pavement life tested at CAPTIF plus the rut depth modelling and the damage law exponent for the 4 and 6 tonne equivalent axle loads. For short-life pavements the damage law exponent increased."

        • alwyn

          That's fine but it doesn't answer my question. What is the cost and how does it compare with the RUC rates?

          • Stuart Munro

            If you had read it, you would have found that the applicable power law for NZ ranges from 4 to 6.

            That means that the relative damage caused by increasing axle weight from one tonne to 2 tonnes is between 16 and 64 times that caused by a one tonne axle – so 10 times is a very conservative estimate.

            RUCs are complicated, but you can calculate them here. Base rates are subject to a 30% discount until 30th of June, in case anyone thought the government wasn't corrupt enough already.

  7. Binders full of women 7

    Finally, a leftie who gets why rail is generally a bad idea for NZ. It's good for Taranaki dairy, West Coast Coal, BoP logs.. and that's about it. I've seen trains from maybe Kawerau/Edgecumbe taking 40-50 wagons of logs up to Tauranga Port= great idea. Bad idea= the affectionately known 'rail crazies' in Gisborne who want the Wairoa to Gisborne Line repaired. It's been out for about 12 years and the repair is now well over 100 million. For what? some climate feelz? And now post Gabrielle there are 300 slips between Wairoa & Napier (some 100s of metres long). I'd say the fix is just too many cancer treatments. When we were f&*#ed here in Tairawhiti and the roads were out the lifeline was airports and sea ports. Investments in tiny airstrips and ports is the go. Rail=19th C solution for current probs.

  8. Clive 8

    Rail is being extensively expanded worldwide including third world states, except for NZ where we are in love with the trucking industry and private car usage..

  9. adam 9

    Not one word on coastal shipping. Cheaper, cleaner, and just better.

    Very few words on rail as public transport. The regional cities are in desperate need of it – light rail would be a good start.

    Not one word on the tax subsidy that petrol gets. The damage on our roads, nor on going costs of trucks we subsidize week in week out. Stealing from Peter to pay Paul.

    Very few words on what works for rail.

  10. BernardCruickshank 10

    Authors like whomever wrote this article annoy me. Research the history they quoted and dupe people into believing they are reading an article worth the paper it is written on. Then they go on to stick the boot into our two most reliable industries which inevitably end up paying the bills when times get tough. People still have to eat no matter how hard times get. Not a bad industry to have up your sleeve in hard times. The author also lacks the ability to show us any other industries which could conceivably take the place of those they bag.

    • Ad 10.1

      We'll always have milk, and rail lines to the big milk factories are worth it.

      The only big milk factories without direct rail lines are in Canterbury so far as I can see.

      We are fully at Peak Milk and on the way towards higher value for lower bulk – but we will always need rail to service milk production.

      • Phillip ure 10.1.1

        Does anyone know the breakdown of the value of the farmed milk producers..?

        Is the earn from the milk more than the value of calves sent to slaughter…and the value of the mother cow when she is slaughtered..?

        I am questioning the claim that we will always have enough volumes to justify rail lines to the factories..

        One constant of history..and an interesting subject to look at…is how much diets have changed throughout the centuries…

        And that is the constant..those radical changes…

        And given the recent rise of all the plant-based milks…

        And that our flesh-export industries are facing troubled times..

        And how these two..dairy and flesh..are intertwined..

        Any claims of this bye-product of the animal industries having such a permanent future..are a bit tenuous…

        So basing rail decisions on milk..?

        Maybe not…

      • Dazza 10.1.2

        Ah no, all milk factories in Canterbury have rail sidings. And they cart about 100 containers per day…

  11. newsense 11

    ‘It services industries like dairy’

    please explain? Are we now living in some post-Fonterra, post-primary product paradise as envisioned in the knowledge wave?

    This sounds like a case to keep rail more than anything.

    • Ad 11.1

      We'll always have milk, and rail lines to the big milk factories are worth it.

      The only big milk factories without direct rail lines are in Canterbury so far as I can see.

      We are fully at Peak Milk and on the way towards higher value for lower bulk – but we will always need rail to service milk production

  12. Dave Creagh 12

    Are you serious? You seem extremely uninformed.

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