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Strong line needed over rail route

Nov 20, 2000

Strong line needed over rail route

By Sue Kedgley, MP, Green Party Transport Spokesperson

If ever there was a time to invest in upgrading or buying back our rail network, it is surely now.

Fluctuating petrol prices, rising fossil fuel emissions which add to climate changes, and concern over the carnage trucks cause on our roads, all underscore the urgent need to invest in public transport and alternatives to roads.

Railways use far less fossil fuel per volume of freight than trucks or cars. They alleviate congestion on our roads, and they can transport logs and other goods around the country without creating havoc. So the government's hands-off attitude towards the crisis in our rail network, brought about by Tranz Rail's announcement it intends to close down parts of the network and sell off passenger services, is puzzling, to say the least.

Transport Minister Mark Gosche said recently he opposes buying a controlling interest in Tranz Rail "because it will cost too much". "We don't have the money to fix up a rail system in New Zealand when there are problems with it up and down the country."

The government's reluctance to step in and invest in upgrading and modernising our rail infrastructure could see the demise of key provincial rail links such as the Napier-Gisborne line.

Tranz Rail has signalled it wants to close the line, but has grudgingly agreed to keep it open until next February while local interests seek government support for a long-term solution.

The tragedy is that if the government doesn't come to the party, the Napier-Gisborne line could be closed down, not because it services some future economic backwater or lacks sufficient potential freight, but because Tranz Rail has never marketed the line and instead, has allowed it to run down to the point where it is unsafe. Bridges have not been properly repaired, necessary loading facilities and sidings have not been built, and tracks have not been maintained to the standard required for heavy freight. Some bridges have weight and speed restrictions because they were not restrengthened after Cyclone Bola damage in 23 years ago.

If any region needs a rail line right now it is surely the East Coast. 370,000 tonnes of logs are expected to be moved between Wairoa and Napier this year by one company alone. That is the equivalent of 12,000 road truckloads, or 40 trucks a day.

Within seven years when forests to the north mature it is estimated total volumes to be transported (whether by rail, sea or road) will increase from 650,000 tonnes to 2.5 million tonnes a year.

The Gisborne region is one of the most dangerous in the country on the road, with consistently high fatality rates per head of population. The worst stretch statistically is north of Gisborne. Extra trucks, perhaps taking logs to Tauranga if the rail route is closed, will inevitably add to those already high accident figures.

If the line was closed, the 40,000 tonnes of freight (total each way per year) being carried by Tranz Rail on the East Coast line (made up mostly of fertiliser to the north and horticultural produce to the south) would have to be carried by truck, adding to the severe pressure on the Napier to Gisborne road. The Napier-Gisborne road contains three bottlenecks where trucks going in different directions cannot pass, and Transit NZ and trucking firms are both concerned about the implications of this if there are even more logging trucks using that road.

Coastal fuel ships have recently dropped Gisborne as a port of call, which means heavy loads of diesel and petrol have started being trucked from Napier to the East Coast.

Despite all this, some are urging the government to forget the line and upgrade the Napier-Gisborne road as a trade-off for a line closure instead.

While Gisborne District Council is fighting to keep the link, Wairoa Mayor Derek Fox has written a submission to Transfund strongly advocating road improvements instead, saying his Council is opposed to funds badly needed to upgrade the road being diverted elsewhere". Rather than advocating for the railway, Hawkes Bay Regional Council has set up two studies, one "to decide whether it is feasible to submit a case... to keep the line open", the other study into whether the Napier - Wairoa road should be improved.

Another idea being floated is to turn the rail link into a heavy transport route - an alternative Napier to Gisborne road which would be used only by trucks, perhaps even as a private route. This bizarre option is discussed by officials and logging interests such as the Pan Pac Forest Products Ltd processing plant at Napier.

Another bizarre proposal is to merge parts of the railway route into the road where the rail corridor offers an easier alignment without sharp corners. Studies are underway to see if rail bridges can be improved to take cars.

Converting railway lines to roads makes as much sense today as pulling up all our tram lines did back in the 1960's. It would be a short-sighted and environmentally backward step.

The sensible solution is to keep the line open and upgrade it so that it can carry passengers as well as freight.

One of the difficulties of this option is that Tranz Rail wants to charge the government to keep the line open. Based on the amount they want to charge the government to keep a small Waitara branch line open in Taranaki --$595,000 for 14km of track, or $42,500 per kilometre -- they could try and charge as much as $10 million to buy the Napier-Gisborne railway, before maintenance and business start-up costs.

The other option-- allowing another operator to take over and run the East Coast line--is probably not realistic. To make the East Coast route viable, another operator would probably want to want to extend the journey from Gisborne to Wellington. Tranz Rail's record suggests it is unlikely to allow that.

To ensure the line is kept open, therefore, the government needs to intervene to buy back the railway lines.

Under the present contract, if Tranz Rail says it wants to close the line, the Government has just 90 days to buy back the railway tracks and find another company to run rail services, which is also prepared to bankroll the track purchase and then do the maintenance work needed to bring the tracks up to standard. The costs involved make this an unrealistic prospect.

Government should therefore legislate to extend that 90 day period, or even better to reclaim ownership of all railway tracks. Otherwise Tranz Rail will continue to hold a key transport monopoly (the railway corridors) and will be able to use that monopoly to extract monopoly profits, as they are trying to do in Auckland.

In Australia the government owns the railway tracks and ensures that any operator with a good safety record can have access to them. We need a similar arrangement in New Zealand to ensure that private operators cannot use their ownership of the railway lines to charge exorbitant rentals to other companies.

Clearly, it was a huge mistake for the National government to sell off our railway lines (for a song) and with almost no conditions. Far from 'saving rail' as we were promised at the time, the sale has resulted in a key part of our transport infrastructure, a network built with many generations of taxpayers' money and with the sweat and blood of our forebears, being run down and parts of it threatened with closure.

It is time for the government to acknowledge and seek to rectify that terrible mistake by regaining control of the rail lines, investing in our rail network again, and reconfiguring it to meet modern needs. In the case of the Napier Gisborne line, government needs to invest in upgrading the line so that it can carry passengers as well as freight, and explore ways of encouraging new commercial operators to run it.

As well as transporting freight, the Napier-Gisborne line could become one of our main tourist lines - combining three of the five largest viaducts in the country, some great passages through large sheep stations; with stops at small Maori settlements and occasional visits to the coast.

No-one will make a fortune off the branch line in the short term, but it is an excellent long-term investment for taxpayer funds. It would cost less than upgrading the road and it is a far more environmentally sustainable option. It would get logging trucks off our roads, would be an economic boost to the region and it would maintain a transport choice.

By saying no to Tranz Rail's closure plans, and by legislating to regain ownership of rail tracks, the government would also send a signal that if foreign investors want to come to New Zealand to make money out of our infrastructure, they won't be allowed to kill it off in the process.

Ends

Sue Kedgley 04 4706728 W 025 2709088 04 3849123 H

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