Wellington Scoop

Keeping a promise: electric locomotives on the main trunk line

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by Dr Roger Blakeley
This advertisement from the Rail and Maritime Transport Union is part of a continuing campaign by many people who are deeply concerned about KiwiRail’s decision to scrap electric locomotives on the North Island Main Trunk (NIMT) and replace them with diesels.

And Generation Zero, youth advocates for climate action, will soon be launching a campaign to “Keep the electric trains on track”.

Prior to the election, on 22 August 2017, Labour’s spokeperson for transport Michael Wood announced:

“Today I have written to the KiwiRail CEO to provide fair notice that if elected, a Labour Government will issue a clear letter of expectation to cease work on de-electrification”.

The Government has now been in power for 11 months, but there has been no announcement of whether this election promise will be honoured.

KiwiRail made a decision in December 2016 to switch from electric to diesel locomotives on the NIMT from Te Rapa, north of Hamilton, to Palmerston North. This is in direct conflict with the Government’s climate change mitigation target of reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2050. It conflicts with the Prime Minister’s declaration that “climate change is the nuclear-free issue of my generation”. Also, it could jeopardise any future opportunity to electrify the whole NIMT.

Under current planning, the electric locomotives will be decommissioned next March. This still allows several months for the Government to direct KiwiRail to rescind its decision.

There are three key issues:

What are the costs of diesel v electric locomotives?

The lowest cost option would be refurbishing the 17 electric locomotives currently used on the NIMT. This would require upgrading the electronics and would extend the life of the electric locomotives by over 20 years. It would cost $12m, compared to the cost of 8 new diesel locomotives at $35m. The upgrade of the electric locomotives would be completed within 2.5 to 3 years. It would require financing of only $4m per year over 3 years.

What are the greenhouse gas emissions of the two options?

KiwiRail says that new diesel locomotives would attract freight by rail instead of by road, reducing carbon emissions from diesel trucks. This is a fallacious argument, because the same mode-share shift of freight would be achieved by refurbished electric locomotives.

KiwiRail will burn an extra eight million litres of diesel per year using diesel
locomotives on the electrified section of the NIMT, and add 12,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere each year. Electricity for electric locomotives comes from 80%-renewable sources.

What are the implications for future electrification of the NIMT?

KiwiRail’s decision involves keeping the lines maintained, inspected and energised, at an estimated cost of $2m-3m per year. But, this maintenance funding could be at risk from future budget cuts, which could jeopardise any future opportunity to electrify the whole NIMT.

Please urge the Labour-New Zealand First Coalition Government, supported by the Greens, to honour election pledges and direct KiwiRail to rescind its decision to scrap electric locomotives on the NIMT.

Dr Blakeley, a a qualified civil engineer, has been Chief Executive, Ministry for the Environment; Chief Executive, Department of Internal Affairs; Chief Executive, Porirua City Council; and Chief Planning Officer, Auckland Council.


  1. Roy Kutel, 3. October 2018, 8:06

    NZ First and Labour did nothing to save Wellington’s trolley buses! So I can’t see them busting a gut to do much for freight lines way out in the countryside where cows are belching methane and the National Party rules the roost.

  2. Roger Blakeley, 3. October 2018, 16:13

    The Labour – NZ First Coalition Government, supported by the Greens, has taken a strong lead on climate change, eg setting a target of reducing carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, the Zero Carbon Bill and the Prime Minister’s declaration that “ climate change is the nuclear-free issue of my generation”. There are very good reasons for this Government to direct KiwiRail to rescind its decision to scrap the electric locomotives on the NIMT.

  3. congestionfreewelly, 3. October 2018, 17:08

    Our Transport Minister Phil Twyford has the power to stop this. Message him and ask him to keep our Electric Trains on track! [via twitter]

  4. Kerry, 3. October 2018, 17:08

    Roger. Good article, needs action.
    Further down the road, the fun is going to be dual-voltage locomotives in the Wellington area, 25 kVAC (high power) and 1.5 kVDC (definitely less power) on 2% grades. A Dutch answer might be something to watch: convert Wellington to 3 kVDC. They are doing it for passenger trains because they are running out of power, and KiwiRail might do the same.

  5. Dav Jennings, 3. October 2018, 22:11

    The whole network should be electrified it’s the way of the future. Diesel pollution is a thing of the past.

  6. Reg Varney, 4. October 2018, 8:07

    @Dav – diesel pollution is a thing of the present in Wellington thanks to GWRC removing the 100% electric trolley buses!

  7. Jim, 4. October 2018, 10:43

    There was a report last year and parts of it were redacted by Kiwi Rail or NZTA. Wrongly claimed: that the change over of diesel to electric trains would take too long, 40 min each, at Te Rapa and Palmerston North making the trip time too long. In fact the actual time would be 5 min and the trip from Auckland to Wellington would be quicker using electric trains

  8. Boco Stafford, 4. October 2018, 11:28

    Jim – there is no way a diesel/electric change-over would be scheduled at just 5 minutes! A sensible scheduler would allow at least 10 mins.

  9. Conn G, 4. October 2018, 15:37

    I don’t care how quick or slow a changeover takes. NZ can’t only think about the costs in this environmentally degraded world we are now living in. People need to understand that diesel trains should not be tolerated in justification to scrap the electric trains on the main trunk as they are cheaper option.

  10. Cecil Roads, 4. October 2018, 16:22

    Conn G – but what if the money from the savings from running diesels was put into planting trees or wind turbines or research to reduce cow belching or increasing the subsidy to keep the electric suburban trains running? Not so obvious then is it?

  11. Dave B, 4. October 2018, 17:00

    But Cecil: Dr Blakeley has pointed out that refurbishing and retaining the electrics is the cheaper option anyway.

  12. Cecil Roads, 4. October 2018, 17:27

    If electric is so cost efficient, then why do American and Canadian and most of Australian freight rail companies who shift billions of tons of freight more than the tiddly amounts in NZ use diesel? Simple – because it’s financially better for them to do so. It allows them to compete with shipping (which uses dirtier bunker fuel with a higher sulphur content and is exempt from CO2 emissions until 2020) and road freight (which as you know uses diesel). And low prices are just the beginning as they keep down the price down of stuff you buy in supermarkets, warehouses etc.

  13. Dave B, 4. October 2018, 19:19

    Cecil – Queensland has a significant electrified rail freight operation. The fact that the rest of Aus, and also USA and Canada use only diesels has more to do with decades of regressive policies regarding rail over much of the English-speaking world, than technical or economic considerations.
    Have a look at rail freight in Europe, Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Russia, the former Soviet States, also China, Japan and Korea to see electrified rail freight in serious action.
    And just wait and see how oil prices play out over the next few years before suggesting diesel is ‘financially better’!

  14. Benny Benny, 4. October 2018, 20:16

    Cecil – Trees capture carbon from our era in the air, while burning diesel/petrol releases carbon that was buried in the ground eons ago, creating an air chemical balance that allows the life as we know it today. Releasing the carbon from oil should be avoided in the first place. Don’t get me wrong: planting trees is good to partially mitigate, but to fully balance out our emissions, we’d need an evergrowing land area that we will never be able to surrender anyway.

  15. Casey, 4. October 2018, 20:27

    Cecil: America is really 50 different countries called states. California is the state taking the lead on rail electrification, both passenger and freight. Air pollution resulting from operations at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach in California has become a critical problem, with a huge impact on the health of the surrounding population. A similar situation exists in many other areas of the state. Health care costs resulting from low air quality are expected to exceed $200 billion in California over the next fifteen years. Recent efforts to clean up the diesel engines used in ships, locomotives, trucks and off-road equipment are producing significant improvements, but the rapidly growing volume of freight shipments threatens to overwhelm these efforts and drive air quality even lower. To claim the diesel powered rail freight is cheaper than electrically driven locomotives ignores all the other costs not levied on the train operators.

    I doubt if it can be argued that KiwiRail can run their polluting, often out of service, diesels on the NIMT cheaper than the electric EF ones, but they will likely make the figures bend to suit.

  16. Cecil Roads, 4. October 2018, 22:53

    Dave B – Yes QLD rail has electrified freight but guess how the electricity is generated? From brown coal! Even worse CO2 than diesel! Australia needs to use its uranium to go nuclear or go solar. Electricity from brown coal doesn’t help the planet much.

  17. Andy Mellon, 5. October 2018, 14:48

    None of this is relevant to NZ, Cecil. Most of our electricity is from renewable sources and, more importantly, the electric rail infrastructure is largely already there. As such, there isn’t the significant hurdle of massive electrification projects requiring financial resources. We only need to make the sensible locomotive investment to make the most of the infrastructure we have.

  18. Cecil Roads, 5. October 2018, 15:27

    Andy – I was pointing out to Dave B that QLD wasn’t as pure as the driven snow in using electricity to power its trains. Back in NZ, I’m afraid coal fired electricity generation is an inconvenient truth especially with our burgeoning population. I’m afraid rail freight is likely to continue to use fossil fuels whether it be diesel or via electricity.

  19. Boaz, 5. October 2018, 15:42

    The present Government allowed the Wellington City Council to proceed with junking nearly $1 billion in citywide trolleybus infrastructure. Do you honestly think they would save the NIMT Electrification when they have demonstrated with the trolleybus situation that they have no concern for Green Issues. They are green in word only, but when it comes to action, they are clearly owned by the diesel industry!

  20. Andy Mellon, 5. October 2018, 19:22

    Cecil – Shifting diesel to electric requires infrastructure. We already have the infrastructure, the locomotives could cost less than diesel, our electricity network is largely renewable. What’s the residual problem with insisting on electric in NZ?

  21. Andrew Bartlett, 6. October 2018, 7:55

    Cecil Roads, A simplistic interpretation would agree with you, if diesel was pumped pure from the well in much the same way brown coal is dug up, you could for example reference:
    The more nuanced argument looks at all the effort to make diesel and move to the generator on the train (after that the method is identical, both use electric motors). In the EV space, you can see an analysis like this. (sorry, just a summary).
    The point however is that while there are a great number of ways you can improve the amount of renewable electricity in the grid (and assuming 100% brown coal for the marginal generation required seems an extreme), the alternative ‘renewable’ option for a diesel train is at best bio-diesel, which in turn still requires a lot of energy to refine (and I’ve not heard of being used near 100% in major applications).
    And never mind the particulates. (As the owner of a small diesel, this change in awareness hits home personally)

  22. Jonny Utzone, 6. October 2018, 9:21

    Andrew – one advantage of petrol and diesel is that you are effectively running around half empty so avoiding lumping around a heavy battery all the time like the new Wellington double decker battery buses. Have you seen any recently? So sad regarding our trolleys which only had a little emergency battery to lug about (which could have been made bigger for limited off-wire running).

  23. Keith Flinders, 6. October 2018, 15:47

    Jonny: Assuming the trolley buses are to be fitted with a 290 kW/hr battery then the extra weight will be approximately 1600 kgs, or about the same as 20 adult passengers. Battery double deckers have a 200 kW/kr battery fitted I believe.

    Agreed that converting the trolley buses to In Motion Charging with extra battery capacity fitted for off wire running should have been the option selected. About only a third of the existing wiring, especially on uphill sections, needed to be retained. However after the GWRC voted to get rid of the trolley bus system in 2014 they refused to consider other options preferring instead to add extra pollution to Wellington’s streets. Trolley bus lines were torn down with undue haste to prevent any return to that type of system, whilst many other places are installing same and upgrading their older installations.

    I have yet to see a battery double decker bus in operation in Wellington. They are apparently out there somewhere.

  24. Ben, 6. October 2018, 18:06

    We have a group of people ruling with a hidden agenda, these people say one thing and do another. They vote on major actions that will impact us greatly without using either reason or intelligence.

  25. Citizen Joe, 6. October 2018, 22:49

    @ Ben – to alter Thomas Jefferson’s quotation slightly: “the people we elect provide the governance we deserve”.

  26. Ross Clark, 9. October 2018, 0:36

    The issue is getting freight off the roads and onto rail; that makes much more of a difference than whether that freight is hauled by diesel or electric locomotives.

  27. Farmer Bill, 9. October 2018, 8:07

    I’m looking forward to more logging trucks getting taken off the Remutaka Hill! For far too long, there’s been no road/rail terminal near Featherston. There are as many if not more logs that come out of the forests near Martinborough than those near Masterton so it’s a mystery why Kiwirail/forestry/Centre Port haven’t got their collective ‘a into g’ and put in a terminal like Waingawa near Masterton. Transporting logs 70kms over the hill is just plain stupid. They should be on rail even if the trains are diesel. I guess some powerful locals don’t want the terminal near their properties so getting the consent for the terminal must be difficult? Anyway, let’s get it built and make driving over the hill a more pleasant and less risky business for everybody!

  28. Ross Clark, 10. October 2018, 2:48

    @Farmer Bill. Transporting logs 70kms over the hill is just plain stupid. They should be on rail even if the trains are diesel.
    Ah, you’re forgetting the costs of double or even triple-handling; from the truck to the train and off again. This is the fundamental reason why truck freight volumes have grown in the way they have over the last forty years.

  29. Farmer Bill, 10. October 2018, 9:03

    Ross – yes double handling is an issue, but the Chinese and Indians who are buying our logs just have to pay the extra to get the logs off our roads especially when they crawl up and down Rimutaka Hill. And then there is the port and the amount of free-standing area now devoted to log storage. Tsunami risk? You bet. Far better to store them this side of the hill and rail them in on long trains when the ship is on its way.
    Talk about improving transport – a log hub and regulation that log trucks can only go over the hill in certain circumstances is a no brainer.

  30. Ross Clark, 31. October 2018, 2:09

    Well, the electrics have been saved, but only because the Government fronted with the $35m needed to do it – a lot more than the $12m figured quoted by Dr Blakeley. This also explains why Kiwirail were having to look at the diesel option, because the Government had not given them the extra money to look at keeping the electrics.

  31. Dave B, 31. October 2018, 17:36

    I would be interested to know where that $35million figure came from and how substantiated it is. It may have been an upper-limit figure that was bandied about as a sort of scare-off when the intention was not to proceed anyway, but I am guessing here. The news is that only now is KiwiRail properly scoping out the refurbishment project, so any earlier figures are likely to be premature. It may be that the government sufficiently-values retention of the electrics to commit (if-necessary) this sort of amount, but the actual cost may well come in lower. It will depend on exactly what is needed and that is not fully known yet.