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A letter from a train (after getting on a bus, eventually)

An open letter to Chris Laidlaw from Feargus ORaghallaigh
Dear Chris Laidlaw,

You are the boss of the Regional Council, the ‘Big Chief’ as they say in ‘Westerns’ (or used to). I live with my partner Trish under your extended chieftainship: we are ‘Coasters’ out on Kapiti’s ‘golden coast’. I have a bone.

Last Wednesday evening (7 February) I was, with many other passengers, sitting on a Waikanae line train awaiting departure … and waiting, as it turns out, for Godot.

Eventually the driver told us that a freight train was broken down in a tunnel up the line.

Some minutes later he told us he’d learned the goods train was down and out between two tunnels (really good to know the minutiae).

Shortly after, we were told the goods train engine was buggered and we wuzn’t goin’ nowhere. Service cancelled and we had to go to platform 9 for the replacement buses.

Ironically I was going home to Waikanae from a Fabians meeting on ‘Rediscovering Public Service in New Zealand after 30 years of “New Public Management”?’. With my fellow travellers, I was now rediscovering the wonders of your council’s brilliant MetLink public service in the line of rail (excuse the pun, I’m Irish).

Four or so years ago after serious discussion and research, my partner and I chose Waikanae as our place to live – for three reasons. One was location, the second the train service and the third, Wellington actually. We thought it the perfect combination. But in our experience, Greater Wellington’s regional, municipal and district local governments excel in general incapacity, monstrous stupidity and an excess of hubris. We have discovered the joys of ‘New Public Management’.

We love Waikanae. But in our time in the township, the Regional Council has torn its heart out with its purchase and demolition of the local hotel (and only pub) to make way for a park-n-ride; shut the best steak house (reputedly) on the Coast; created an acre of tarmac on an historic spot; and made the Wellington CBD journey almost a risk too far.

You destroyed a business and many jobs, demolished a local venue (not least for our community of tradies) and of course the car park went off-course, over budget and delivered late. Even better, the old SH1 to Peka Peka remains a car park on work days.

Not your problem (but it is actually) the Mahara Gallery remains a joke with the internationally important Field collection unhoused as a result of the inverted elitism that now rules your region’s councils. I won’t mention, other than mentioning, the Wellington Town Hall.

Happy days. Rugby, diplomacy or broadcasting may have offered better opportunities than running a municipal region.

But back to rail (or its absence as the case may sometimes be).

For at least two years now ‘upgrading the line’ has been a constant advisory in relation to a pattern of non-service over late week and evening schedules as well as at weekends and on public holidays and holiday periods such as Christmas.

Now we seem to have a new element, the random breakdown, whether of an engine or a signal or a point. We are not yet quite in the Freddie-land of the Wairarapa but you are getting us there.

Going into Wellington for the day for work and getting home is now a risk undertaking (I’m an economist). This is a Regional Council achievement in New Public Management! It holds out great hope for the projects of adding 300m to the airport runway and the future of the Basin, never mind Levin. We might move to the Wairarapa for added vim.

But to get back to Wednesday last. The buses eventually dribbled up. All of the guys (and they were all guys) left to deal with the mess were great, humorous and informing. The bus I was packed into was a wreck, with barely functioning steering. It was also understandably overloaded – such that it barely made it up the hill through the Gorge; the slomo in the middle lane was wonderful, truly. Getting on a train at 8pm and getting home by 11pm was a privilege.

There were other beautiful moments. For example as we headed north we passed the yard stuffed with GoWellington buses parked for the night: now you’re suckin’ diesel ‘n’ smellin’ tar Chris … the bus company doesn’t talk to the rail provider? And all of these new roads, bridges and flyovers. Fantastic!

As we cranked through the Gorge I again recalled the purpose of my trip, attending the Fabian event ‘Rediscovering Public Service in New Zealand after 30 years of “New Public Management”?’

To be humorous and adding a touch of levity: maybe central and local government need to add tens of billions a year for a decade to its baseline public infrastructure spend if they are to meet the claim that we are a first-world country, moderne and at the forefront, which we patently are not, not at all at all.

To be serious though, this is simply silly. Market-based procurement will solve everything? Take that ball and run with it Chris, run with it!

cc
The Prime Minister, the Ministers for Transport; Mike Smith (Fabians); Bill Rosenberg (CTU).