Labour Government releases transport spending priorities

Yesterday marked a significant step forward for New Zealand’s economy and transport. After years being campaigned for by the Greens, Minister of Transport Julie Anne Genter announced that the Government was ready to release a draft Government Policy Statement on transport.

The key highlights of this major announcement are:

  • $11.7 billion for public transport
  • $1.1 billion for pedestrian and cycling infrastructure
  • $6.1 billion for regional and local roads

This is a great start to addressing the waylaid priorities of New Zealand’s transport needs. I look forward to the opportunity in the next few weeks to lay down more formal thoughts in a submission to the draft Government Policy Statement that has been released by Ms Genter, and her New Zealand and Labour colleagues Shane Jones and Phil Twyford.

For years I have been pushing for a much bigger investment in railways, the merchant marine and to a bit lesser extent, public transport. Many of the points on which I campaigned look like they will be addressed in this.

There is however one significant question. For all the great announcements that come out of this draft Government Policy Statement release, I have one niggling question:

What sort of investment is going to happen around merchant marine? We are a maritime nation. It is saying something that one of the major modes of transport is not being given the due investment that is needed to reduece congestion on our roads and help take some of the pressure off the easter South Island where quake damage is still being fixed.

No one should be surprised that there is a fuel tax coming. Especially seeing as the Government did not make specific tax announcements at the election, where people were expecting something to happen. Not surprisingly, the right are out in force talking about how no one can afford the proposed petrol tax. This is the same right that spent $12 billion of N.Z. taxpayer money funding “Roads of National Significance”, which were in several cases completely meaningless  and more about appeasing the trucking and private users lobby.


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.

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 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).

The case for making life jackets mandatory on boats

A week has passed since a charter boat sank at the entrance to Kaipara Harbour in bad weather. In that time many people have come forward and commented about the accident, about the skipper and about the boaties who were on board. All well and good, but one glaring question has been ignored.

The list of maritime tragedies that could have been avoided if boats going to sea had carried the proper safety equipment is long. Following each of them people have renewed calls for life jackets to be made compulsory. Following the renewed calls each time, nothing has happened. How many more people are going to die before the maritime equivalent of wearing a seat belt in a car becomes compulsory?

Bill McNatty, a 68 year old charter boat operator was trying to cross the Kaipara Bar, a risky proposition on the best of days, when his boat struck trouble. The weather was bad and other boaties had decided to stay ashore that day because of deteriorating conditions. There were 11 people on board, of whom seven would die, three would survive and one is still missing – most probably drowned.

Locals say that Mr McNatty was a very good skipper who took good care of his boat. Perhaps he did, but unfortunately it does not change the fact that not all of the people aboard The Francie had life jackets on. Aside from being in breach of Maritime New Zealand regulations regarding them, more than anything else, life jackets could have prevented most if not all of the deaths caused by the fatal crossing of the Kaipara Bar.

If the boat skipper was competent like the Kaipara locals say he was, then why was he rescued in a prior incident to the fatal accident of 27 November 2016? And why did another boatie raise issues with the Harbour Master about the competence of Mr McNatty?

Politicians seem reluctant to act to reduce the unnecessarily high rate of boating accidents that occur in New Zealand waters. It is ironic that while much effort goes into railway and road safety, boating safety seems to be a low priority despite New Zealanders love of both salt and fresh water being well known.

Maritime New Zealand recommends the following equipment for boaties:

Make sure you have the following items on board:

  • Boat hook and throwing line
  • Warm clothing
  • First aid kit
  • Navigation equipment
  • Bailing system
  • Rope
  • Waterproof torch
  • Alternative power (a spare outboard, oars or paddles).

Put together a floating ‘grab bag’ that contains all the emergency gear you would need should you need to abandon your boat. The bag should contain:

  • ways of calling for help, i.e. emergency distress beacon, flares or water-proof VHF radio
  • lifejackets

Sometime from now there may be a memorial to the tragedy on the Kaipara Harbour bar of November 2016. If so, hopefully it will be in full view of any boaties trying to cross it, to remind them that there can be a dreadful price to pay for getting it wrong.

Christchurch-Picton portion of S.H. 1 in need of overhaul

After years of the obvious risks to big trucks being demonstrated by crash after crash, New Zealand Transport Authority has finally admitted that there is a need to overhaul the section of State Highway 1 between Christchurch and Picton. With the narrow, tight corners of the coastal stretch from the Conway to the Kowhai Rivers proving too much of an obstacle, the time is long overdue to overhaul this stretch of New Zealand’s main road.

So, as we digest an announcement that should have been made years ago, what are the potential options for mitigating the problem?

The first option is the obvious one as New Zealand Transport Authority suggests. That is upgrade State Highway One. There is no doubt that if trucks are to continue using this particular segment of road that there needs to be significant remedial work done.

There is a second option that negates the tricky stretch between the aforementioned rivers. That is to go inland on State Highway 7 through the less treacherous Weka Pass, via Rotherham come out just south of Kaikoura. This route does not have as heavy traffic, lacks the numerous short one lane tunnels that pepper the coastal route and avoids the steep drop at many of the tight corners into the Pacific Ocean. This would be advantageous for inland Canterbury towns which would have a small economic boom from the trucks passing through and if truck stops are needed, it would be easier to build them there than on a coastal strip that is only tens of metres wide or less in some places.

A third option is even better. New Zealand Transport Authority is supposed to work with all forms of transport in New Zealand – road, railway, and the merchant marine. Given many of the crashes are involving large trucks that are simply not suited to navigating that stretch of road, why not put it on rail? One good size freight train can take many times the volume of a single truck. If it is going to the North Island, it can be put on railway freight ferry at Picton and cross Cook Strait in 3.5 hours.

And then there is our grossly under utilized merchant marine. Whilst the merchant marine is certainly the slowest option, for non-urgent and large bulk consignments that do not need to stop at a railway yard and get shunted onto a ferry or wait in a parking area in Wellington or Picton, why not send it from Lyttelton?

The reasons for deliberately exploring these other options are numerous. The primary one is simply getting the most out of our transport networks through the various modes of transport. Another one is reducing our environmental footprint by reducing carbon emissions. And a third would be reducing the risk of a major toxic other spill into a sensitive environment which could impact on both sea life and human health. With these considered, it is definitely time to act.