Lessons from Europe and Singapore: Transport – Part 3


Ship passing through lock, Brugge, Belgium. (R. GLENNIE)

This is the third part in my Lessons from Europe and Singapore series, and the last from the transport segment.

One of the great revelations in terms of transport during my trip to Europe was the canal and lock system in the Netherlands and Belgium. Centuries old, it first began to form when towns such as Ghent and Brugge were reliant on two modes of transport for goods: the horse pulled cart and the barge. Even hundreds of years later one can still see significant ships plying these canals.

In New Zealand obviously, we do not have the appropriate geography for canals that can take ships. Few, if any, rivers are likely to be deep enough to take ships and those that are often have hazardous features such as hidden shoals that would make navigation tricky.

Another mode of transport that I think we should take greater note of is railways. The large cities in Europe all have modern railway stations that at any given time whilst I was there might have had 500 people or more in my immediate or near vicinity, all either coming to or going from a train at the station. The trains were a mix of faster ones that were normally express trains to places like Schipol Airport or cross border ones that ran into neighbouring countries like Germany/Belgium or France. In Sweden for example, there is an express train running between Stockholm Centralen and Stockholm Arlanda (Airport), which reaches speeds of up to 180km/h. Processing tickets was easy – they were purchased at the counter or an automatic teller where one entered the destination, indicated how many tickets they were purchasing and whom they were for (children/adults/seniors, etc).

All I can say is that all of the trains were on time, clean inside and a pleasure to ride. The only problem was the announcements were sometimes not always in English, but a digital display on board saying where ones train was next stopping made things easier. Railway stations are sited in generally central areas with good car, bicycle and foot access. Light railway stops would often be just outside, so that if one needed to transit to something going within a city’s limits they could do that easily.

The railway station at Amsterdam, Netherlands. (R. GLENNIE)

Investing like this would be very expensive and not necessarily worth the cost. A more realistic investment might be to electrify the main trunk line in the South Island and upgrade the rolling stock. I do see a time in the near future with the hikes in petroleum prices when trains might be required to move petroleum in bulk instead of putting it into a fleet of tankers. As for passenger trains, restoring The Southerner in the South Island is perhaps the best bet – there are too few people in the southern half of New Zealand’s land mass to make large scale passenger services economic – Christchurch for example would need by my guess another 100-150,000 people to even get close to considering light rail.

In conclusion, I think it is fair to say whilst numerous lessons can be taken from what I saw and experienced in Europe, not all are applicable. We can learn from their integration of different modules and invest more in non vehicular alternatives, but others such as the canals will not be workable.

Lessons from Europe and Singapore: Transport – Part 2


Continued on from Part 1. This part looks at the logistical issues of owning a vehicle in densely populated European centres, and the advantages of bikes in these locations.

Whilst it is certainly true that the European cities I visited have their share of cars, it is also true that urban planning rules have limited where the cars can go. I visited the old quarters in Stockholm, Gothenburg, Amsterdam and Brussels during my time in Europe. Each city had its own way of dealing with private vehicles.

Some places like Stockholm restricted the vehicular access to emergency and service vehicles. This is understandable. Many of the streets in their old quarter are very narrow and not suited to larger vehicles and would impede foot and cycle traffic. Also to maintain the old city ambiance and not damage the cobbled roads which have been in place since the old city was built.

The old city quarters in Stockholm. (R. GLENNIE)

I also visited Ypres and Brugge in Belgium. These are two towns in rural Belgium in/near the area popularly known as Flanders Field. Here I was able to see other measures that were used to control the number of vehicles in the towns.

One measure, which I understand was in place for Brugge, is that if people live in the old part of town, they cannot bring their vehicle into the old town except for purposes such as dropping off shopping or visitors. On one hand this seemed rather awkward in terms of freedom of movement. On the other it was simply necessary. The streets of the old town were built hundreds of years before motor vehicles were even a remote possibility and therefore without tearing down large tracts of the old town, it is simply not practical or proper to park ones vehicle or vehicles outside their home, for the street frontage might be only a few metres of a house or apartment that is 2-3 stories high. The vehicle, even if parked right up on the footpath would then pose an immediate impediment to the considerable foot and bicycle traffic passing through.

Just a small portion of the bicycles in the vicinity of Amsterdam railway station. (R. GLENNIE)

Bikes are a very popular transport mode in European cities. Their ease of use, low cost in maintaining – a kit for punctured wheels, a lock, working brakes and maybe a helmet (they appeared to be optional, or maybe authorities had given up trying to police any rules) – and one is “away laughing”. Mass bike locks were present in Amsterdam. The ratio of cyclists to other road users was far higher than I have ever seen in New Zealand – or am probably likely to see – and for the most part they were far politer than their New Zealand counterparts.

Cycle ways clearly denoted where the cyclist was allowed to go. There was occasional confusion about what was allowed in the cycle way as motorized scooters sometimes mingled with them as well. Cycle lock up facilities exist in central parts of these urban areas, where the cycle is locked up in a large area with other cycles. But it was just as common to see them locked to lamp posts, canal railings, or simply parked outside buildings.

So, these are just a few observations made of transport on my trip to Europe. Feel free to comment.

Lessons from Europe and Singapore: Transport – Part 1


This article and the next few following it, is based on my experiences from a recent holiday in Europe.

One of the first things I did upon arrival into London was be shown how to ride their transport system. My mate Dave who has been living in London with his wife met me at Heathrow Airport. He made sure I had an Oyster card, which would enable me to ride on the buses. Each day Dave and I got a ticket from Maidenhead into London Paddington railway station. From there we either went walking or used the Oyster card to get on the bus network. Both seemed to be well used no matter which direction we went.

Integrated light right/bus platform at Skansen, Stockholm. (R. GLENNIE)

But it was in Sweden, in Stockholm and Gothenburg that I was able to see a well organized rail and bus system at work. I was able to experience the fast train from Stockholm Arlanda, which travelled into the central city at 180km/h and took about 20 minutes. It was also amazingly quiet inside. From central station it was just a short walk to get onto light rail going in all directions or the buses, which shared platforms with the light rail (see photo). Again, all seemed to be well patronized. I could buy a pass for several days which expired shortly after I left.

Could such systems work here? In Auckland I think the population is big enough that a scaled down system could, but there would need to be a change in the mindset. It would also need to overcome reliability and supply (capacity)problems that still need work done on them. It would need to look at Gothenburg whose population is around 1.5 million, rather than Stockholm.

Wellington has a well used railway system as it is. I am not sure that other than improving what already exists, and being a city of 400,000 people I am not sure that the demand for a larger more comprehensive network already exists. It would be challenging given the city’s geography essentially confines development to two distinct corridors.

What of the South Island cities?

Neither Dunedin or Christchurch are big enough for this sort of planning. Where Christchurch’s strength lies is in its bus network, which is a work in progress. Badly damaged in the earthquakes and let down by some poor planning decisions a spoke and rim network similar to what already exists, but with wider reaching bus services, is the way to go.

Dunedin is further compromised. Its population of 120,000 might be strengthened by a core bus system with an exchange along its one way street system. Its hilly terrain, which includes the steepest street in the world (Baldwin Street) means limitations exist in terms of geographical layout options.

The rise of petrol prices, caused both by taxes being introduced and high international tensions is not likely to bring any relief at the petrol pump any time soon. Whilst biofuel has potential, it is likely to be a complementary source instead of a replacement for petroleum and political reluctance to invest in such sources is slowing its introduction down. That only serves to prolong the pain in peoples wallets.

Time for a petrol price inquiry


I have read of petrol reaching another all time high price in New Zealand today. This is on a commodity that in December 2017 New Zealanders were paying one of the highest pre-tax (i.e before tax added) prices in the world for. Due to some countries like the Netherlands having substantially higher taxes on fuel than New Zealand, we come in about mid field in the O.E.C.D. for total price after tax paid.

Do we need a goods and services tax (G.S.T.)on petroleum and diesel? I am not sure of the answer to that. The Automobile Association New Zealand has long called for a removal of G.S.T. on fuel, and says that it would lower petrol prices by 10c/L, and reduce pressure on already pressurized budgets.

Sure there is a petrol tax coming and petroleum companies do not want to have dollars shaved off their profit, but since when was that new? Sure the Middle East looks dicey at the moment – but that is the way it has been for most of the last decade. Sure there are costs incurred in refining product and getting it to the market, but again, that is the way it has been for yonks.

Basically it is theft and New Zealanders are blindly thinking “she’ll come right” eventually.

Well, no. It will not come right unless we kick this mentality that has cost us much as a nation, and is set to cost quite a bit more before long, to the curb. This notion that somehow the market will correct things and petroleum prices will come down is stuffed.

So, who is going to petition the Minister for Energy, Dr Megan Woods about the disgusting theft that petroleum companies are getting away with? There is no justification for any of the companies whose global parents hundred hundreds of billions of dollars (U.S.)per annum and are comparable in some cases to G.D.P.’s twice as big as New Zealand to not pay tax in full and on time.

Exxon Mobil NZ in 2017 made N.Z.$143 million profit, up 57% on the previous year. In the same year B.P. New Zealand increased its profit 65% to N.Z.$243 million and Z Energy increased their profit in the same time to N.Z.$263 million

It would cost me $100.80 to filll a 1.4 litre Hyundai Getz from completely empty at $2.24/L. A 3.0L Toyota Surf would cost $89.05 to fill its 65L tank with diesel at $1.37/L.

Yes, we need to be cutting down on carbon emissions, but until there is a serious uptake in electric cars, which still have a number of barriers in the way and hybrids, New Zealand is not going to make inroads on its Paris Accord obligations. But to get there, those vehicles must first become more affordable. Right now a hybrid or electric vehicle is simply not in the budgetary of many New Zealanders.

Queenstown faces economic crunch


Queenstown: urban population 13,500.

When one thinks of Queenstown they think of a year round tourist play ground that thrives in both summer and winter. A play ground with a stunning scenic with lakes, mountains, fast rivers and a rich history of gold mining and more recently tourism. People fly in direct from all over New Zealand and from Sydney in Australia to take advantage of the Lakes District’s many offerings.

But is the same stunning landscape that makes it a magnet in the first place a potential choke? Sadly the answer is yes.

The geography of Queenstown, whilst ensuring its popularity as a scenic spot/holiday town, is also a potential choker on growth. Constrained by Lake Wakatipu on one side and high mountains on the other, Queenstown can only spread along the lake shore and into adjacent valleys.

Vineyards, orchards, gold mining relics are all nearby. There are multiple festivals such as the WInter Festival as well as the bi-annual Warbirds over Wanaka airshow and many others. But if Queenstown is subject to rampant growth for the sake of growth, a whole set of factors are likely to combine to make it no such a great place after all. Let us have a look at them.

Rents are high. For years it has been a place that has been barely affordable for locals, who no longer recognize it as the sleepy place it was 30 years ago. The demand for services, with new buildings springing up all the time, combined with its year round attraction means a continually booming tourist town, but with an under current of socio-economic problems that are not pleasant.

There is exploitation. Non New Zealanders have moved into the town, which is fine – the problem is not whether people come or not, but whether they are willing to comply with New Zealand labour laws. People moving in to make a quick dollar are not necessarily going care about the fact that there is a minimum wage applicable to all workers in New Zealand; 40 hour working week and holiday provisions for those who have to work statutory holidays.

There is a land issue. Queenstown cannot continue spreading endlessly outwards, or it will risk undercutting the businesses on the towns periphery that help to make it and the surrounding area so special. Going vertically up also has its problems. The taller the building, the correspondingly deeper the foundations will need to be and on land that is already at a premium, that might just be some sort of impenetrable ceiling. The geology of the land, relatively close to large faults means shaking intensities are likely to be fairly high in a large earthquake, which will make lateral spreading, landsliding and liquefaction likely.

And then there is the transport issue. The exponential growth of Queenstown and the accelerating growth of Wanaka has put major pressure on the roading network throughout the area. The airport has a plan to increase tourist numbers from 2 million currently arriving per annum to possibly 5 million. These are the only two transport modes in and out of the town. No railways exist – where would you put one even if it was viable? – and catering for 30,000 vehicle movements on peak days – that is about 20 a minute, every minute, all amount to a distinctively unattractive problem.

By all means come to Queenstown. Stay a couple nights. Travel on the T.S.S. Earnslaw up to the end of the lake. Visit the nearby gold mining sites. But don’t be surprised if this place is close to hitting its limits.