Why is KiwiRail so far off track with electric trains?

by The Listener / 09 March, 2017

Photo/Getty Images

The Government is moving towards active ­promotion of electric vehicles – the only question being, what’s taking it so long?

It’s a no-brainer to move the crown fleet to electric, as it is slowly doing, and the trialling of priority access to Auckland’s clogged motorways for private electric cars is inspired.

In that light, KiwiRail’s intention to go the other way needs some urgent ministerial prodding. It is ­phasing out its ageing electric locomotives in favour of an expanded diesel-powered fleet. This may be immediately convenient, but it is hardly responsible or far-sighted policy from a state corporation. Debate on climate change has long moved from, “Is it man-made?” to the more pertinent question, “What do we do about it?” No one’s answer to the latter question should be to suggest increasing carbon ­emissions. Yet that’s exactly what our national rail ­company is proposing.

KiwiRail announced its ­decision on December 21, which in itself is cause for closer scrutiny. It may simply have been someone clearing their desk before the holidays, but pre-Christmas announcements reek of cynicism.

The corporation says its small, vestigial electric fleet is unreliable and can run only between Hamilton and ­Palmerston North, the ­electrified section of the North Island main trunk line. Taking a train from Auckland to ­Wellington requires switching locomotives at both those stops to make use of the electrified line. “KiwiRail is essentially running ‘a railway within a railway’,” the company says.

It argues an all-diesel fleet will be more efficient, attracting customers to rail and thereby shifting freight off roads and saving emissions overall. This is a heroic assumption. For a start, it places all the blame for company inefficiency on the 16 electric ­locomotives. What, no other savings can be made in a rundown, highly unionised, Government-owned company?

It’s also a leap to conclude that a more efficient diesel-powered North Island main trunk line will automatically cause so much freight to switch from road to rail as to bring a carbon saving overall. If such analysis has been documented, let’s see the ­numbers. Neither KiwiRail nor the New Zealand Transport Agency, which looks at transport overall, has produced any ­evidence to justify these claims.

That this decision has gone unchallenged by the very ministers now at pains to promote electric-vehicle use shows how urgently the overall role of rail is due deeper strategic thinking. As with most state-owned enterprises, KiwiRail is hamstrung by being Government-owned. In theory, it has an independent board. In practice, SOE boards constantly second-guess what the ­Government of the day wants them to do. On efficiency grounds, for instance, KiwiRail should close its Northland line. It could probably grow vegetables between the sleepers, so little freight runs on it nowadays. It’s estimated about a dozen trucks a week could handle the current levels of railed freight, with the savings usefully redeployed to building more passing bays and stronger road bridges. It’s not financial or ­environmental stewardship keeping the line open, but politics – not least the coalition-building ­imperative of keeping New Zealand First and its Northland MP leader sweet. The ­Government does not want to hand Winston Peters headlines. Thus taxpayers continue to lose money every week on a line that cannot be justified.

Bluntly, New Zealand’s topography and seismicity and freight and passenger volumes make the country ill-suited to rail. Its net benefits are few. The Auckland and Wellington commuter trains are valued, although still needing ratepayer subsidies. We could increase their use and frequency, but – in lieu of prohibitively costly tunnels and underpasses – not without aggravating gridlock by needing more frequent ­rail-crossing stops. Rail between the ports of Auckland and Tauranga probably remains economic, but other lines are relics expensively maintained by public faith and political will, rather than on environmental or economic grounds.

We persist with rail largely because motorists want fewer trucks clogging the roads. Thus there’s cross-party willingness to keep KiwiRail in public ownership, and an implicit acceptance of its losses accorded to few other SOEs.

But for KiwiRail now to think itself exempt also from ­carbon-emissions responsibility is outside the bounds of political – and public – tolerance.

This editorial was first published in the March 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.


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