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 This is a government agency whose strategic thinking may be as much as 25 years out of date.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 challenge 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).