$40 million to improve the whole train system?

Motorway designers dream of these types of gains….

Another new motorway project has been announced recently, this time a ‘connection’ between Penrose and Onehunga. It will cost a billion dollars ($1,000,000,000). As usual there are the pro-transit people (rightly) screaming about what a waste of money it is, interestingly, Richard Prebble has chimed in, and Brian Rudman and The Herald’s Editor seconded that. Of course, the road is really about moving trucks around the Auckland isthmus and trying to get them North – utilising the new waterview connection and artificially increasing the case for Puhoi Holiday Highway – a RONS project – and like all RoNS’ it has a poor economic return on investment.

Better, say some commenters, would be to proceed with the third main to allow rail freight to flow from Auckland unhindered. This project is claimed to have a cost of forty million dollars ($40,000,000). That’s 25 times less. Anyone would think that 25 times less money in cash-strapped times would be a no-brainer, and that transport funders and planners like NZTA and ARC would be falling over themselves to fund it. Sadly, given that NZTA only funds roads, and Auckland Transport does not do freight, it is difficult or impossible. The sad part is that a third main project – along with other rail projects that would ‘unlock’ capacity are relatively cheap and huge gains in efficiency can be realised with small budgets compared to motorway projects. A short list of these projects includes upgrades to the Northland Line, Electrifying the Main Line south to Hamilton, fitting electric braking to trains.

  • The proposed $50 million to upgrade the North Auckland Line’s track to take heavier axle loads and enable its tunnels to take hi-cube containers on the route – a deal-breaker for exporters wishing to use rail.
  • $40 mil would electrify the tracks between Pukekohe and Hamilton and allow electric passenger and freight trains to run continuously from Auckland – overall, everyone wins – fewer emissions for the community and cheaper running costs for business.
  • Electric braking is another project that could be covered for about $50 million and would increase rail’s overall safety and speed, while also reducing maintenance costs by better information gathering that is possible. It would also be a retrofit that covers the entire network, not a single, small civil works upgrade. In railway lingo, this upgrade is called ECP, or Electro-Pneumatic Braking and is common on other railway networks internationally.
  • The immediate benefits to the Auckland Metro system are that the third main line will likely not be needed for a bit longer; freight and suburban trains could be mixed safely without disrupting the passenger timetable –  meaning freight trains are less restricted as to when they can run.

But going back to the main topic, which was about a billion dollar project, not some flash-in-the-pan $40 million project.

It is amazing how the NZTA can somehow find funding for projects that have an incredibly low return on investment, and in many cases they don’t solve the problems that they aim to fix – instead they make the problem worse by increasing traffic flows and creating a greater dependence on the roads. Soon they are clogged like all the roads they are supposed to help, perpetuating the problem.

A billion dollars has been invested in KiwiRail since it’s inception in 2008, and the Minister and Treasury painfully lurch their heads about having to keep subsidising it as if an invisible hand has got their balls. Given that it moves 13% of the nation’s freight and 30% by volume, and requires a mare $142 million per year ($1b / 7 years) to ‘subsidise’, they are getting a bargain – the roading network draws much higher subsidies. Add to this that no maintenance or upgrades were done on the railway for the 20 years before 2008, and the price is even cheaper.

So, what could be done with $1b if given to rail? In the Auckland Region? The projects outlined above:

  • Third Main (~$40 million)
  • Completion of double line between Hamilton and Auckland (~$80million)
  • Electrification of the Line between Pukekohe and Hamilton (~$300 million @$2.5m/km)
  • Upgrade of the North Auckland Line from Hellensville to Whangarei ($50 million)
  • Electrification of railway to Mt Maunganui (~$300 million @$2.5/km)
  • Curve straightening to improve average speeds (~$50 million)
  • Network-wide ECP installation (~$35 million)
  • General upgrade of rail to 22 tonne axle capacity – bridges, culverts and sleepers.

The above projects would not reach $1b, but would bring the standard of the network much higher. Compare that with a single project in Auckland with small and isolated benefits, if any.

Really, the funding mechanisim must change – the alternatives to road scheme never funded any projects and has faded away, and since, the RoNS scheme has been introduced and siphoned any money that was available – mostly to projects that little economic or social sense – but really it is about votes – popular with the pubilc that want to drive everywhere, and convenient for trucking companies who stand to benefit from the vote-grabbing RoNS the most.





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