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Rail Freight Increase Good News For NZ Motorists

Rail freight increase is good news for New Zealand's motorists

It may be of little consolation as you follow another truck and trailer unit along one of New Zealand's main highways, but think how worse it would be if it weren't for the locomotives and wagons you see along the way.

Last year, the total rail freight market grew by around four percent - the equivalent of 1,000 truck loads every week.

"That can only be good news for the New Zealand motorist," says Joe Garbellini, group general manager of New Zealand's rail operator, Toll Rail.

"Every wagon on the rail represents one less truck on our national highways. In total, rail freight represents the equivalent of more than 5,000 truck loads every day of the working week.

"That means less frustration for the motorist, fewer road accidents, less wear and tear on New Zealand's main roads, less energy consumption and lower levels of greenhouse gasses," he says.

Despite his enthusiasm for rail, Mr Garbellini doesn't knock trucks. He sees road transport as an important and complementary part of the total transportation mix.

"Trucks are faster for short haul routes and, of course, they complement rail by transporting goods from rail to their final destination."

But when it comes to long haul, rail is the way to go. Toll's domestic freight business, which is mainly long haul, is experiencing annual growth of around seven percent. Mr Garbellini says it is particularly pleasing that the growth has come with the support of some of New Zealand's major transport operators, where the operators are working with Toll to move more freight on to rail.

Rail is enjoying significant growth on particular freight routes or, in rail-speak, corridors.

Take, for example, the Auckland to Palmerston North corridor. It saw an increase in rail freight tonnage of more than 39 per cent last year. Mr Garbellini explains why.

"Palmerston North has become a strategic hub for many businesses in the lower North Island. We provide an over night, next day delivery service from warehouse to distribution centre.

"For example, a Palmerston North supermarket operator checks his shelves late on a Monday afternoon. Soft drink stocks are down. He rings the local distribution centre who arranges for the delivery to be made. At the same time, the distribution centre is alerted to the fact that stock is below a predetermined level. As a result, an order is placed for additional stock to be delivered from Auckland. The order is put together, taken to one of a number of rail-service transport depots in Auckland, the goods are transported over night and are in the distribution centre on Tuesday morning."

Daily, five trains travel the 667 kilometres of track from Auckland to Wellington via Palmerston North. That's more than 120 wagons carrying a total payload of more than 3,000 tonnes of freight. More importantly, that means 120 trucks a day are not clogging up the main highway between Auckland and Wellington.

The Hastings to Christchurch corridor is another example in growth of rail transport. It's grown in both directions - processed vegetables and fruit from the Hawke's Bay pass raw food ingredients and consumer goods coming the other way.

Cook Strait provides its own challenges on this route. New Zealand is one of the few countries in the world where a major rail corridor is bisected by the sea.

The rail corridor linking Auckland and Christchurch remains one of the country's biggest. Every 24 hours, trains make the 1000 kilometre journey, keeping around 280 trucks off the country's already clogged, main road transport route.

Mr Garbellini says the main reason for the growth in business is the emphasis Toll places on meeting customer needs.

"We focus on customer service. We identify the corridors where rail can compete with road from a service perspective. Then we concentrate on providing a cost effective and reliable service.

"We are also dispelling the myth that rail is only good for the transport of bulk materials, like logs or coal.

"The growth in some of our most important corridors shows that more and more businesses are catching on to the fact that rail is suitable for the transportation of a wide range of general consumer goods," he says.

Cars are a case in point.

Toll's auto express service uses rail to move vehicles around New Zealand, reducing the number of long, wide, hard-to-pass car transporters on our roads. It means that a motor vehicle dealer in the South Island can take an order one day, contact the Auckland supplier, and have the vehicle in his showroom available for the customer on the third or fourth day. That is as fast as the service offered by road transporters.

Invercargill dealers have latched on to this one. Toll's auto express has just introduced a service to Invercargill. Already, the response has been extremely positive.

What does the future hold for further growth in the rail freight business?

Mr Garbellini is positive.

"There's 4,000 kilometres of track in New Zealand and a lot of it could carry more traffic. We are investing in our locomotives and rolling stock. We have 165 main line locomotives and around 4,400 wagons. A couple of years ago, we reinstated 250 wagons to meet the increase in tonnage.

"Truck drivers are in short supply and the $500,000 investment needed for a big road transporter means that rail is well placed to offer a competitive service on many main transport routes.

"However, that's only half the story. The New Zealand Government, through On Track, owns the lines. As we are investing in rolling stock, New Zealand needs to invest in the maintenance and upgrade of the rail tracks.

"If that investment takes place, there's no reason why rail freight volumes can't continue to grow to the benefit of the environment and the economy," Joe Garbellini says.

It is a future likely to be welcomed by the thousands of motorists who, daily, grapple with the decision: is there room to pass this brute in safety?


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