New Zealand transport policy still favours roads


Five days a week I drive 6km from my home to my work near Christchurch Airport. Each time I approach the Harewood Road State Highway 1 intersection I am reminded what a road loving nation we are. And two facts about New Zealand transport are undeniable:

  • There are too many cars on the roads with only one person driving them.
  • Too much freight goes by truck.

However getting people to get out of their cars and take more appropriate transport is proving difficult. For example car pooling is something that can only be done at community level. Because of that it might only be successful at community level and organized on social networking sites like Neighbourly.

In Christchurch the geography of the city, even post earthquake supports buses, and a crude bike wheel (ring and spoke) model would be best. A central exchange like the one that currently exists should have an inner bus ring (currently lacking), and an outer ring (currently serviced by the Orbiter bus which runs at 10 minute intervals during daylight hours. Spokes spaced at regularly intervals around the compass connect the ring routes. The Christchurch model is trying to reconcile with the post earthquake changes to the bus network.

What might work in Christchurch I accept will not work everywhere. This is why Wellington has a regular commuter train service out to Porirua, Upper and Lower Hutt, as well as Waikanae, and its inner suburbs. But whilst Wellington is lucky enough to have a good railway network its bus services seem to be in need of an overhaul, if the political debate in the lead up to the 2019 local government elections are anything to go by.

Trucking is an obvious mode of transport on New Zealand roads. The rental car company I work for knows this well as we often have long haul drivers coming in to pick or drop off cars. But also there are New Zealand roads where trucks simply should not be, because those roads immediate physical environment does not and will not in the future permit their safe transit – the roads around Kaikoura are one such example. And this is where I think the merchant marine might be useful. For non-urgent freight that simply does not need to be on the road, send it by ship might be more cost efficient. This model might also enable a ferry network to operate along the South Island’s east coast – a regular ferry from Lyttelton to Wellington did indeed used to operate.

In those same nine years, there was an opportunity to tighten up the road code and safety regime for buses. It was not taken and now we are having cowboy companies driving dungers or overseas companies with no knowledge or experience of our roads and road code. Fixing these will help to give people confidence in the bus networks again.

National M.P. for Rangitata Andrew Falloon in a sponsored Facebook advert was promoting a four lane highway from Christchurch to Ashburton. When I challenged him, he pointed out that National had subsidized Kiwi Rail by $250 million per annum. What Mr Falloon did not say was that National chose to back diesel locomotives from China instead of working with Hillside workshops in Dunedin and others who might have been able to design locomotives for New Zealand conditions. I had also in the past heard of drivers on lines in the North Island being concerned that the level crossing alarms were not working properly and having to approach level crossings on sections of the track where the speed limit was much higher than what they were doing. Mr Falloon might have to have a look at the state of the railways post-National.

The Leader of the National Party, Simon Bridges is claiming that National is environmentally responsible, yet he is promising to undo environmentally responsible things other parties have done. For example on one hand, yes, the Government has not properly thought through the oil and gas announcement. But here would have been a great opportunity for National to rip the rug from underneath them by announcing a nationwide biofuel programme that would:

  1. Create jobs in a sector not really understood
  2. Justify a suitably bigger investment in research to understand whether the N.Z. vehicle fleet is ready
  3. Show some environmental credentials by reducing the carbon emissions

The resistance to biofuels probably does not come from politicians so much as from petroleum companies, upset that their business model is no longer fit for purpose and trying desperately to stave off anything that end it. If a suitable blend can be developed the waste stream in Christchurch, Wellington and Auckland might be able to sustain it.

I am however waiting, like much of New Zealand for substantive policy announcements on these issues by the Minister for Transport Phil Twyford. No timetable has been set, and maybe in that time, tired of a lack of direction New Zealanders might realize we need to own the problem.

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.

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).