National’s $10.5 billion transport bungle


Yesterday, Prime MInister Bill English announced a major new road funding programme that would cost N.Z.$10.5 billion. It involves a series of projects throughout the North Island and upper South Island that would improve road capacity and ease congestion.

But when we look objectively at them, are they all needed and are there not other transport projects more deserving of the funding? Are there not planning issues that arise with an obsession with the car?

My point is simple. Like the roads built in the $12 billion plan unveiled in 2011, National once again has its priorities wrong. They were called Roads of National Significance (R.o.N.S.), and were intended to enable freer flowing traffic in the areas of highest traffic growth, such as between Auckland and Whangarei, Hamilton and Auckland and in the South Island around Christchurch.

More motorways simply because there is more demand is not the whole answer or the only answer. More motorways simply for those reasons have flow environmental and planning issues, in that suburban sprawl tends to follow suit, which poses its own – entirely different and not relevant to this article – set of challenges.

In Christchurch road transport seems to have taken priority during the rebuild with State Highway 1 being upgraded to a dual carriage way from Main South Road to Belfast. A dual carriageway diversion that bypasses Belfast completely is also underway and will pick up traffic from the north end of Johns Road.

New Zealand is about 15 years behind European countries and also large American cities where city planners have put greater emphasis on railways and buses, land use planning that encourages these modes of transport and so forth. This is why my view of transport is that we need to get trucks off roads that the largest of them were simply not meant to be on in the first place. Their cargo can be just as well distributed by rail, the merchant marine or by aircraft. This is why we need to stop looking at these modes of transport in a piece meal fashion, that does not seek to integrate them.

Yes we have a problem in the South Island with quake damaged road and railway lines. However, they are being fixed and will soon be able to have slow freight trains running the length of the Main Trunk Line from Christchurch to Picton. If transport planners really put some thought into it, how about resuming the overnight ferry from Christchurch to Wellington?

This is a bungle. We simply do not need some of these roading projects and others should be scaled back as if rail were given the same opportunities as roading, it could take much of the heat out of our congestion. National are throwing money around funding public transport projects as a desperate attempt to draw some of the votes from Labour. But their lack of cohesion, focus on roads and outright ignorance of some transport modes shows where their real priorities lie.

Report on options for Manawatu Gorge route ignored


For as long as Manawatu Gorge has had transport links through it, they have been subject to slips. Some of them have been cleared in a matter of days. Some have taken several weeks.

With each slip business has been lost by the towns at either end of the gorge. People’s livelihoods have been disrupted, with locals and tourists alike forced to take detours.

A few weeks ago another slip came down. The gorge had not been long reopened after several previous slips. This time it looks like the disruption might be terminal, the patience of the communities having run out and the issue now a political football in election year.

In 2012 after a particularly severe slip event the New Zealand Transport Authority commissioned a report into alternative transport routes in the Manawatu Gorge. There were four options being suggested:

  1. A direct route that is the shortest and involves building a 5.9 kilometre long straight bypass – COST: $309 million
  2. Bridging to provide a straight a carriageway in parts of the gorge – COST: $415 million
  3. Overhaul what is commonly known as the long route, which is about 10 kilometres long and currently carrying most of the traffic, but which is not really suited for the volume of traffic it is carrying – COST: $120 million
  4. A tunnel, which would be New Zealand’s longest road tunnel and start and end about the same place as the direct route – COST: $1.8 billion

The geological structures and strata that any overhaul would have to be worked on is tricky. Large faults including, but not limited to, the Wellington Fault are nearby. The strata is largely sedimentary in nature and likely uplifted by seismic activity on the nearby faults. Old landslide zones abound along the slopes of the gorge

The report was ignored. It was shelved because despite the frequency of slips closing the gorge, it was not considered to be a priority.

Now, finally, with a slip closing the gorge blocking the road indefinitely, the Government has finally admitted there is a problem. But how do we know that this is not simply a case of electioneering in election year to counter resurgent opposition parties?

Tyre scheme a win for both business and environment


It is with considerable interest that I read of a planned investment of N.Z.$13.6 million into technology at a cement plant that uses shredded old tyres to make its products with.

There are significant issues with tyre dumps at large and include (but are not restricted to):

  • Aesthetically displeasing to look at from the road, or air
  • Tyre leachate includes highly toxic elements such as cadmium and zinc
  • Tyre burning releases toxic smoke, which can be a health hazard downwind

New Zealand has been somewhat behind other countries in dealing with waste tyres. It is understood that tyres are generally useless for recycling purposes after about 10 years.

It is therefore important that New Zealand develop a policy framework that enables the recycling of tyres and encourages transport businesses to develop tyre recycling programmes in conjunction with local councils. Although this is apparently underway, the large number of old tyres in dumps, in makeshift storage facilities and other locations around New Zealand mean that there should be a sense of urgency about finishing the framework. Investments such as this where a large number of tyres can be used up – this would take out about 62% of our total annual tyre wastage, and leave about 38% or 1.9 million tyres still needing some sort of recycling.

Tyres also have oil in them. If one thinks a few steps beyond this, what is the feasibility of getting the oil out of unwanted tyres? Whilst not being certain of the answer, certainly it becomes a focus point for a potential future study to be done. Of course, this in itself then raises another set of questions such as whether or not the oil can be refined to a usable state.

A business was set up by a Neil Mitchell in 2014 calle Tyreless Corporation Limited. It was intended to be a processing plant that could extract oil from the thousands of waste tyres in the Hawkes Bay region. Unfortunately just over a year later it was put into insolvency.

A University of Waikato law professor, Alexander Gillespie, believes that the solution to New Zealand’s tyresome problem is to pass costs onto producers. This would act as an incentive for them to redesign their products.

I am not sure if Professor Gillespie means through a Pigovian tax that is designed to act as a disincentive to breach environmental standards. If so, this could only happen if a standard were developed for tyre disposal. It would be debatable whether or not fines would not be a better financial measure as some are dumped deliberately.

So, I await with interest to see where this goes, being aware that past attempts to deal with New Zealand’s tyre problem have not always worked out.

Manawatu Gorge road needs re-evaluating


Once again, the Manawatu Gorge road is closed by a slip. The latest slip is expected to take until mid-May to be cleared. As people who use the gorge road regularly resign themselves to another bout of waiting for it to open again or take alternative routes, it is time to consider the long term future of this slip prone road.

There is an underlying problem that people need to recognize. The problem is not in the road itself, but in the underlying geological strata, which is soft and easily erodible sedimentary material. Because of that, this is a recurring problem that engineers, road users and planners are simply going to have to learn to work around.

State Highway 3 is a major highway that runs between Woodville in the Wairarapa and Hamilton in Waikato. Probably the largest contributor to State Highway 3 traffic and benefactor of it is Palmerston North, on the Manawatu plain west of the Tararua Range.

But the slips are frequent, often substantial in size and clearing them can take weeks at a time. During this period there is significant financial penalty for the communities at either end of the gorge, and significant costs incurred by transport firms such as trucking companies which have to either delay or divert or even put their cargo on rail. Because of these and other problems, it is necessary to evaluate the options for transport and long term remedial work in the gorge.

Manawatu Gorge also has a railway line running through it, though this has numerous tunnels which protect from the slippage problems associated with the road route. One option would be to significantly increase the railway capacity for freight through the gorge. However this would be a long term solution rather than a short term one and would need input from Kiwi Rail.

Although it does not really suit road freight, a second possibility would be to upgrade the Saddle Road route. However this highlights a second problem as farmers need to stand their stock from feeding four hours before travelling so as to keep the resulting effluent to within the capacity of their rigs. It also raises the question of whether this road is really suitable for carrying large vehicles, given its windy nature and grades.

Slips are going to continue to happen in the gorge. This means that long term consideration needs to be also given to whether or not such measures as roofs need to be considered that enable the smaller landslides to pass over the road and go straight into the Manawatu River. One issue here is that slips are the cause of their toe support failing, which means the slip is likely to happen at or below road level. Terracing the potential slip prone slips is expensive and would involve significant alteration of slopes and not necessarily be guaranteed to work.

It would seem that rail is potentially the best option for freight. However there is no passenger service, due to insufficient demand, which means people needing to use the route either take the Saddle Road alternative or they drive to Porirua, over 100km to the south and back up via Featherston – a trip of nearly 250 kilometres.

But as the problem is in the geology and not necessarily the road, this is going to be a continuing issue.

Overhauling New Zealand public transport


We often moan about the state of transport in New Zealand. Columnists, politicians and drivers alike bemoan the time spent stuck in traffic, particularly in Auckland, Wellington and to a lesser extent Christchurch. But how much thought have they given to overhauling the entire New Zealand approach to transport?

When the Roads of National Significance programme was introduced, it was controversial as much for the huge budget it had, but also perceptions that every other transport mode had been short changed. A precursory look at the plans suggested that N.Z.$12 billion had been set aside. That was in 2011. The Government denied this, saying that Labour and the Green Party had crimped private transport.

Whilst it is possible to say National definitely has a bias in favour of the private vehicle, they cannot be entirely blamed for the state of N.Z.T.A. thinking. This is a government agency whose strategic thinking may be as much as 25 years out of date. It focus on roads at the expense of railways has been well documented. Since market deregulation started Kiwi Rail has declined steadily in terms of national coverage. The Southerner disappeared under Labour, and in 2005 they were forced to buy back Kiwi Rail, which Labour did. However no additional investment followed. And no one successfully stopped National a few years ago from buying Chinese locomotives that did not work properly on New Zealand’s narrow gauge railway.

Unfortunately in that same time, there has become a serious danger that the railways in Hawkes Bay, Gisborne and up in Northland may be closed in a further attempt by Kiwi Rail to cut costs. The West Coast line has question marks hanging over it despite Fonterra using it to pick up raw milk product and transport it through to processing plants in Canterbury. With the loss of coal as a major energy source – a fall in demand from China, the growing expense of operating coal mines in New Zealand being the causes – the year round Tranz Alpine express may not be enough to keep Otira tunnel open on its own. The New Zealand First initiative called Railways of National Importance (R.O.N.I) was a welcome, albeit still rather modest┬áchallenge to the “Car is King” philosophy of the Government.

But event within planning for roading, there seems to be little cohesion between individual projects and the overarching goals. There also seems to be little effort to integrate with other transport modes.

In Christchurch for example there was until 2009 a very good bus network which made getting to just about anywhere in the city a breeze. It was affordable, reliable, safe and fairly comfortable too. Whilst the geographic relocation of a large part of the city because of earthquakes has not helped, nor has the change in focus from buses to the private car. In early 2015, a mate who is interested in the use of buses and trains for public transport showed me an online mapping programme where I could map out my own bus route network. The plan was to submit it to Environment Canterbury when completed*. Since 2010 bus patronage has fallen substantially from the 10 million individual rides taken pre-2009.

To the best of my knowledge, no funding or planning has been done to provide for marine transport. As a result the merchant marine as a form of transport for freight has long suffered as well, despite New Zealand being a maritime nation. It was not helped by a significant funding cut when National took office in 2008, or the failure to get another rail based ferry after the Arahura was retired, which was short sighted in the extreme.

The Port of Lyttelton used to have roll on/roll off facilities to enable a ferry service that ran between Lyttelton and Wellington, but this service was wound up over 40 years ago. Following the 14 November 2016 Kaikoura earthquake, consideration has been given to reviving the service.

All in all, there is a clear need for a more even spread of funding and investment for transport modes. The updating of the strategic thinking in the N.Z.T.A. would be of use as well. Until then the congestion will worsen and issues with an already quite large private vehicle fleet will become more complex.

*(The bus map is read only now, and not complete. I had in mind a bike wheel layout with radial route and two ring routes (one can be seen, and the other would have been a larger ring loosely based on the current Orbiter route). The costings had not been worked out, but depended on the number of buses x the length of the route).