by Michael C Barnett
The recent Kaikoura earthquakes, and and other climate-related events, highlight the apparent fragility of New Zealand’s transport infrastructure.
A region was cut off by massive slips wiping out sections of road and rail along a primary transport route. The quake also impacted on Wellington and Lower Hutt, with the closure of several parking buildings and the demolition of at least two. The quake damaged several buildings on Wellington’s waterfront (some probably condemned for demolition) and shut down container operations.
Efforts to repair and restore the road and rail links north and south of Kaikoura, and the response of the Wellington and Regional Councils and CentrePort to keep their cities functioning and the port back in business were admirable. However, these and similar shocks in recent years raise the question whether transport planning and development in New Zealand – with its primary emphasis on developing the road and port infrastructure – may have been too narrowly focused since the end of World War II.
During this era, we have seen a rapid increase in the number of motor vehicles on our roads, and we have witnessed the privatisation and subsequent buy back of an extensive rail network which struggles to survive along its central spine and has been abandoned along some sub-regional routes. There’s also been a revolution in the shipping industry with the introduction of containerisation, the demise of coastal shipping and the expansion of an air transport network that favours major centres, but occasionally struggles to adequately serve smaller regional centres.
Good transport infrastructure for the movement of goods and people is essential and roads, rail, shipping ports and airports all form an important part of this.
But have we got the balance right? New Zealand is two main islands stretching north and south and a collection of smaller islands. External trade is served by eight competing container shipping ports, two main international airports (Auckland and Christchurch) and several other airports catering for the rapidly expanding tourist industry. Internal movement of freight is highly dependent on a truck and trailer units of ever increasing size operating on roads that are of barely sufficient standard to accommodate them, an underfunded state owned rail company, plus an important ferry link across Cook Strait. People movement is achieved by aircraft, cars, coaches and trains operating between the same network of airports and along the same network of roads and rail. Apart from the Cook Strait ferry, coastal shipping is almost non existent.
For a nation of its size and geographical layout, New Zealand has an under-utilised coastal corridor and arguably too many ports established to accommodate large foreign container vessels of ever increasing size, that require deeper channels than are available in the likes of Auckland and Wellington. Looking at transport options in the wider context, there would seem to be a strong case for reducing the number of ports set up to accommodate these supersized ships, more investment in coastal shipping, and a fully electrified rail network for transporting freight up and down the country, with east west distribution on shorter routes by road.
As noted above, there are eight container ports competing for the import and export of goods. From a local perspective this may seem good economics, but from a national perspective does this really represent sound investment? Auckland lacks space and a connecting rail link, Wellington and Dunedin lack a deep water channel needed to accommodate the modern day supersized container ship.
To keep pace, CentrePort has grandiose plans to dredge a deeper channel at the entrance to Wellington Harbour, posing unknown environmental hazards.
Perhaps it would make more sense to have fewer import/export shipping ports, with the deep water ports of Tauranga and Napier servicing the North Island, the ports of Lyttleton and Timaru servicing the south, and utilising coastal shipping to transfer goods to and from the other 21 ports.
And what about the benefits of making greater use of a fully electrified rail network to ship freight up and down the country and reducing the number of diesel-belching truck and trailer units traveling up and down our highways. I can think of three for a start: a reduced national fuel bill, health and safety benefits via fewer accidents involving these large juggernauts, and a significant contribution toward carbon reduction.
Some entrepreneurs are talking up coastal shipping and the government has the power to introduce appropriate rules and regulations to influence a change if it chose to do so. It wasn’t so long ago that the movement of freight by road was restricted to a distance of no more than 150 miles. Bringing back this regulation may be a step in the right direction. I can hear the howls of the trucking industry with its heavy investment in fleets of trucks and trailer units and I concede that a turnaround is not something that could be achieved overnight. However, consider this: what may be in the best interest of the trucking industry is not necessarily in the national interest.
I have little to say about airports, for at least here planners and the market seem to have got things right in most respects. However, I remain unconvinced that Wellington needs an expensive extension of its runway and facilities to accommodate the modern day jumbo jet. One of the pleasures of flying out of Wellington to Australia and further afield is the proximity of the airport to the city and the relative ease of entry and exit.
Does Wellington’s economy really suffer from the lack of a fully fledged international airport? I think not. What it does lack is an adequate transport system servicing the airport, which a modern light rail service from the airport to the Wellington railway station could provide for a fraction of the cost of the proposed airport extension.
Michael C Barnett is a retired civil engineer with experience in roads, transport and urban development.
Guy Marriage: Electric locomotion on the main trunk line