Wellington Scoop

Trucks and trains and ships – and quakes

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.

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  1. Robert M, 23. January 2017, 17:26

    The last to be into coordinated transport planning in NZ was Coates in the late 1920s with a twice a day connecting rail passenger expresses and mixed trains on the lesser provincial lines to connect with the Limited. At the time Lyne ex GCR private line in the UK designed comfortable 3 across second hand carriages. The Savage Nash Labour introduced comfortable first and sleeper carriages but for most built 56ft 4 across slab seating which was uncomfortable for more than 2hrs. In 1949-56, faster main line trains were restored with 2 overnight expresses on the NIMT and 2 on the Dunedin – Ch service during the day. These were essentially mail trains and mail and coal trains were the money for rail in the twentieth century. On the NIMT rail – with a monopoly on the traffic with road competition restricted to 50 kilometers – was overloaded. Rail freight took 36hrs between Ak-Wgtn in 1950 and 3 days in 1955. Rail electrification was approved in 1950 but cost and improved diesels meant freight dieselisation was achieved by 1956, Hamilton to Auckland was duplicated and a lot of the second line passenger services between Auckland-Ham and Wgtn-PN and central NI mixed trains were abandoned to clear space.
    The priority in passenger transport was moving MPs and official around the nation in the 20thC, hence the emphasis on first class rail since and an overdeveloped NAC and Air NZ with Muldoon deciding to reduce rail passengers to tourist services and gestures after 1967 and the introduction of the 737.
    Current policies continue to ignore the fact that the Beeching Report of 1963 was mainly an excuse for cutting a rail bill and out of control pollution around London by reducing the rail system on an almost random basis for a quick phaseout of steam and so the hopelessly uneconomic and strategic lines in Scotland and Wales could remain open.
    Surely the priority should be on the development of rail passenger services generally electrified within 250km of Auckland and Wellington. Extending rail electrification Papakaura-Hamilton-Tauranga and reopening Taumaranui- Stratford(NP) would cost less than a billion. Surely three electric passenger trains a day thru the central NI would be useful. In the SI it seems uneconomical to reopen the Kaikoura – Picton line and maybe SI rail should be preserved as a museum with 20 reboilered JA and AB used for 3 mixed trains a day Ch-Du.

  2. Mark Shanks, 24. January 2017, 12:30

    Couldn’t agree more with you Michael. No coherent, sustainable and coordinated national transport policy is a political crime. In the vacuum we get ad-hoc, regional competitive development that in no way serves the greater good of the country as a whole.

  3. Ross Clark, 25. January 2017, 0:49

    Mark – running a national transport policy of the sort you are talking about would be quite a fraught affair politically. E.g. the South Island probably has too many ports for the weight of the business they handle, but any national policy to rationalise would run into a horde of local opposition. This is in contrast to aviation, where the market seems to work well enough.

    Freight haulage is a more complicated picture. The scope to shift more freight onto rail is actually very limited, given the nature of the New Zealand economy, and that export/import container traffic, for which rail /is/ well-suited, faces a lot of competition from coastal shipping. Locally-produced high-value manufactures will tend to stick with trucks, courier services, or even domestic airfreight.

  4. Mark Shanks, 26. January 2017, 7:50

    Ross – thanks for your comments. You and I and very many others who have far more knowledge of the transport industry (eg NZTA) all agree that port over-capacity is encouraged if we do not rationalise development. Should local opposition prevent us from enacting a commonsense approach? Indeed isn’t that why we have central government? All our ports are closely linked to local regional councils dependent upon ratepayer guarantee. They forge ahead with expensive grandiose schemes for the benefit of the regional economy. As ratepayers effectively subsidise these port-dependent industries, then they should have the final word about rationalisation. My feeling is that they are the opposition that should be listened to, seeing as they are paying for it.

  5. Kerry Wood, 26. January 2017, 21:46

    Mark: Well, yes, but if competition is a Good Thing it is more politically comfortable to leave the port companies to it. Look out for stranded assets. A background theme is that the shipping companies placed massive orders for new ships because trade was growing so fast, and then had to buy them when the market went flat after 2008. Larger ships are more competitive, so new and larger ships replaced old and small ones. That put the port companies under pressure to accept larger ships, with big dredging programmes in Auckland and Tauranga. Larger ships are harder to fill quickly, and ports are running out of storage space. So the next step is a flurry of off-site ‘inland ports’ to accept and clear containers, then hold them until a ship arrives. They they go to the ‘real’ port, usually by train because that way they arrive in a known order and are much easier to sort.

    But KiwiRail is not private enterprise and has trouble getting enough capital to overcome asset-stripping during its brief excursion int private enterprise: 15 km to track relays last year, in a 3500 km system.

    You couldn’t make it up.