Road toll is a matter of common sense


There is a section of State Highway 1 between Hamilton and Auckland which looks quite ordinary. Well travelled, just like the rest of New Zealand’s longest road, yet a complete and horrible mystery to locals, the emergency services and transport planners alike. This section of road passes through rural areas and small towns such as Mercer, Huntly and Ngaruawahia and is the deadliest stretch of road in the country.

As a kid trying to pass time on the drive from Taupo to Auckland during one holiday, I was looking out the window and started counting white crosses. Each one represents a life lost. When I did this in the 1990’s, the number was already quite depressing then – I counted at least 20. Some of them them were in groups. Others were in clusters. Some were well looked after, with photographs and flowers and others were barely visible. Someone’s mother or son, father or daughter….

As I think about them whilst typing this I wonder how it is after years of steady progress, the toll is suddenly running in reverse. Why are safety campaigns, law enforcement and social messages no longer working? Why do people not seem to be heeding the warnings?

Recently – about six weeks ago – I and a few others stopped a drunk from becoming a drunk driver. He was kicked out from a bar I was at. A few others I knew had been trying to talk him out of driving. Then he simply got up and staggered to his truck and tried to start the ignition. I took the key off him whilst another stood in front of his truck to stop him moving. I wondered at the time how often at bars around the country this sort of incident plays out. Sadly the answer is probably too frequently.

Speeding on roads that are clearly not designed for speed defies common sense. But we do it. Running red lights, failing to give way, not indicating are all things that happen far too frequently. Safety advocates campaign for New measures. The police and other emergency services beg for restraint and occasionally politicians vow action. But nothing happens and perhaps there is a good reason for it.

Perhaps, just perhaps it is because this surge in the road toll is caused a loss of common sense. Perhaps if people did not run those red lights, remembered to indicate and gave way instead of sailing through the toll might be lower. Perhaps less of those crosses I gave up counting would exist on the roadside. Perhaps the volunteer fire fighter at a family barbecue might not have his Christmas Day interrupted because a head on collision has taken two lives.

The time has come to stop blaming non New Zealanders for our own crap driving. Until we take responsibility and make the matching steps in exercising that responsibility, the road toll will continue to be a black stain on New Zealand. We can have the best roads, the best road code and the best driving tests, but if a person gets through all of that and decides they want to be a callous numpty and kill someone, they’ll find a way of doing that.

Is that too much common sense to ask for?

I think not.

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.