Are KiwiRail’s Electric Trains Really Uneconomic?

Just before Christmas, KiwiRail announced that they would be withdrawing electric freight train services in two years. Their decision is not only at odds with other railways around the globe, but also with global environmental direction.

The timing of the withdrawal will coincide with their newest diesel locomotives arriving from China; but the official rhetoric is that they will not replace the electric locomotives.

The full KiwiRail press release and some commentary is here, but I’d like to expand and break down some of the points in that press release. KiwiRail’s words are in Blue

How many new diesel locomotives will be bought and how much will they cost?

Eight locomotives will be required to replace the EF fleet. The cost is commercially sensitive.

They cost $3.8 million each, 2012 money. (ODT) The first 40 locos were plagued with reliability problems and then asbestos contamination which cost a whopping $12 million to clean up. The asbestos added $300,000 to the cost of each loco, nudging the price to $4.1 million each. You could then add the opportunity cost of the trains not working, and the resulting loss of business, but that would mean facing their real issues.

A big, beefy american train costs about $3 million US dollars or $4.3 million NZD (quick interweb search).

Clearly, buying Chinese means good quality, and also good value. 

Why doesn’t KiwiRail buy new electric locomotives?

They would be more expensive and would take longer to get into service. Simply replacing the existing locomotives also would not address the difficulties caused by operating both electric and diesel locomotives on one network, which creates a railway within a railway. It is equivalent to an airline requiring those flying from Auckland to Wellington to change planes at Hamilton and again at Palmerston North.

Balking a the term ‘expensive’ without qualifying it is a cheap shot. A new electric locomotive would cost slightly more than the Chinese-made DL loco, but would be much cheaper to operate over it’s life. 

As to this changing planes at Hamilton and Palmy – you’re only changing the pilot/driver, who normally gets out at Hamilton and drives a different train back to Auckland anyway. KiwiRail is making a big deal over the changeover time at Hamilton and Palmerston North, while actively adding hours to the journey time by ditching their road ferries and not maintaining tracks for higher speeds.

Why don’t you electrify the whole North Island system?

It would be very expensive. The cost estimate is $2.5 million per kilometre of single track. Electrifying the parts of the North Island Main Trunk currently not electrified would cost at least $1 billion for the infrastructure alone and feeder lines would still require diesel trains. There are additional complications in that the Wellington electric network uses a different power system to the Auckland electric network.

‘Complications’ between the different overhead wire voltages are fictitious; again KiwiRail are trying to put up a smokescreen. Trains in Europe and Japan commonly operate between two or three different power supplies. Its just not an issue.

The term ‘very expensive’ is Donald Trump rhetoric, and misleading; no infrastructure project is ever cheap. Lets have a look at a few recent transport infrastructure projects – unsurprisingly, roads get the lion’s share.

  • Waterview Connection: $1300 million
  • Auckland CRL $1200 million
  • Christchurch Motorway Projects $800 million
  • Kapiti Expressway $660 million
  • Transmission Gully $640 million
  • New Auckland Trains (Depot, Trains, Electrify) $550 million
  • Waikato Expressway$500 million
  • Nelson Street Tunnel $240 million
  • Dowse to Petone $90 million
  • Wellington ‘smart’ motorway $50 million
  • Wellington Railway Throat $40 million

So, how would adding electric trains between Hamilton and Auckland fit in that list?

The Auckland Electrification project cost $80 million for 200 km of electrified tracks and supporting infrastructure – a cost of $0.4 million per km of track. So electrifying the mostly double-track, 80 km between Hamilton and Papakura would cost $64 million for 160 km of overhead wire. Seems reasonable given the Auckland Electrification Project was installed in a busier and more constrained environment, with a lot of work on weekends and Christmas shutdowns.

KiwiRail estimate $400 million, we reckon $64 million. Even if it were $100 million, the KiwiRail estimate is four times more.

So if the Hamilton to Papakura electrification costs $100 million, it would fit somewhere at the lower end of the new infrastructure scale; somewhere between the Wellington’s ‘smart’ motorway and the Nelson Street Tunnel project.

Not bad for what would bring a step-change to the transport network, and set the stage for electrifying through the Kaimai Tunnel to Tauranga – when complete, the line will serve 40% of the country’s population and the two largest export ports.


What was the difference in cost between buying new electric or diesel locomotives?

The exact cost of locomotives is commercially sensitive. However the overall costing of the diesel option was estimated at 20% – 30% lower than the overall cost of the electric option over its operational life.

So how much are KiwiRail paying for some Chinese rubbish their diesel trains? When they say “commercially sensitive” they really mean ‘we’re embarrassed to be paying this much for such crap’. KiwiRail locomotives are costing $3.8 million each (as above, ODT) which is a low-ballpark cost for a trains bought from established suppliers in the US or Japan. The cost of KiwiRail’s Chinese locomotives has probably increased since the South African Railways have placed orders with China,  but also, and very smartly, hedging their bets with American and European trains too.

After the asbestos was removed from each Chinese loco at a total cost of $12 million, or $400,000 each, the price of each locomotive rises to $4.1 million. A bitter pill when compared with a modern electric loco from Japan cost (yen)400 million or $5 million NZD. The key benefit is that the Japanese locomotive is a mature design while incorporating new-generation technology and systems. The locomotive is plug-and-play for New Zealand.

Claiming that electric trains are more expensive is an ‘interesting’ claim; my guess is that the rubbish Chinese trains only have a 10 – 15 life expectancy, and the lifetime cost of electric trains have been calculated over the same period; making the Chinese locos look cheaper.

Key benefits of electric trains are:

  • Fewer moving parts compared with a diesel train – the still have wheels, brakes and a few cooling fans though
  • More powerful and faster acceleration
  • Chinese trains have a ten year service life, electric trains last 30 years+.
  • No exhaust fumes are emitted; good for passenger trains
  • Power is cheap, renewable and resilient to oil price shocks, especially in NZ
  • In NZ, renewable power is used for electric trains and the price of power is insulated against oil shocks, whereas diesel carries a full-exposure to international fuel prices.


What part in the decision did environmental issues play?

Environmental factors were considered as part of the overall decision, which also looked at operational efficiency and economic viability. When KiwiRail delivers a more consistent and reliable service it encourages more freight to move by rail. Emissions from rail are less than 1% of all transport emissions, with transport accounting for 17% of New Zealand’s overall emissions. A shift to diesel on the NIMT will increase the emission factor for freight carried by rail in New Zealand from 30.80 gms per Net Tonne Kilometre to approximately 34 gms per NTK (The sum of the tonnes carried multiplied by the distance travelled). There is no comparable figure for road freight in New Zealand but the United Kingdom produces an annual figure for Heavy Goods Vehicle. This is currently 114 gms per NTK.

And almost none by electric train.


What will happen to the old electric trains?

They will be decommissioned over a two year period

Not if a Labour-led government is formed “Regional and long distance rail”


NZ’s ‘Foremost Transport Economist’ ?

Why is the $1.8b East-West Link is being funded but a $58 million rail project is being ignored despite yielding more value?

Julie Anne Genter’s line of questioning leaves little doubt that idealology is the main driver in funding the 2-billion-dollar road, and Bridges’ ‘answers’ confirm it.

With Maggie Barry looking as smug AF in the background, Bridges tries to hack his way through the argument with distractions and slander. So muddled in old and new reports, costs and benefits, that Bridges begins to claim a transport policy that sounds a lot like the Greens’, and even goes as far as calling Genter NZ’s foremost transport economist, twice!

Check out the full clip on Julie Anne’s Facebook Page (below) or InTheHouse – Bridges quip about NZs transport economist might be on the money.


Waikato Commuter Train: Council Gets on Board

Waikato Regional council has commissioned a report to investigate a rail option to connect Hamilton and Auckland. Quotes are from a Stuff Article published on May 17

Campaigners have had a few tries at getting the service resumed, but with no luck – although Hamilton’s Councillors appear to be softening with worsening congestion in Auckland, and the contrasting success of the new Auckland Trains. With more people commuting between Auckland and Hamilton, and the likely rubber stamp for the 3rd mainline into Auckland will make train journey times more attractive.

The good news is that the timing is good. Auckland’s old trains have been parked as new electric trains have entered service, and could be refurbished cheaply or even rebuilt to re-establish the services. The Wairarapa Connection style of train is an example of what Auckland’s old trains could be rebuilt into.

The Wairarapa train connects Wellington to Masterton five times each day, and has become more popular since the introduction of the new carriages in 2008 and an expansion of the service is likely in the next couple of years.


Wellington to Masterton train provides a modern and comfortable commute that rivals car journey times. The train is also popular with young people in the holidays, and gold card holders in off-peak times.


The decision to investigate an inter-regional commuter rail service has been heralded as a sea change in regional council thinking.

Waikato District Mayor Allan Sanson said the results of a detailed business case were in more than seven years ago, and outgoing Labour MP Sue Moroney said it’s about time regional council got on board.

On Tuesday, Waikato Regional Council’s strategy and policy committee voted in favour of a detailed business case into a passenger rail service between Hamilton and Auckland.

Indicative costs are set at $30,000 to $50,000. The business case will define the need, recommend solutions and funding options.

Hamilton City councillor Dave Macpherson, who has been nudging regional council on the issue at regional transport committee meetings, said a comprehensive study is a big step forward.

“They’ve been unenthusiastic in the past about taking on any leading role in that,” said Macpherson. “It is their role to manage public transport operations in the region and it’s always been difficult in the passenger rail debate when they have been lukewarm.”

In 2010, rail advocates collected more than 11,000 signatures in support of a rail link between the two cities. It was taken to the select committee but failed. The following year, the Rail Working Party made its case with a feasibility study but has been in limbo ever since.

The need for commuter rail is even greater now, said Macpherson, adding that the regional council’s position is “clear cut”.

Labour MP Sue Moroney has advocated for a commuter rail service to Auckland since 2008.

Labour MP Sue Moroney has advocated for a commuter rail service to Auckland since 2008. | FAIRFAX NZ

“It signals their willingness, if all of the other ducks line up, to go ahead,” he said. “Several things might derail it and it might be outside of anyone in the Waikato’s control.”

Mayor Sanson said the regional council  is recreating the wheel.

“It has been done. I can get why they probably think there may be some differences but I can’t see anything that has fundamentally changed in seven-and-a-half years,” Sanson said.

“I’ve been banging on about it for that long that we have to do something, but let’s do it in baby steps.”

Cost blowouts, the capacity of Auckland’s network to take extra services, getting a Waikato-based train into Britomart Station and a two-hour trip still exist as huge barriers, he said.

“It took 2 hours 20 minutes and it just took too long to travel that distance. It’s still, probably in a lot of cases, faster by car.”

The first of Sanson’s baby steps is to extend Auckland’s rail network to Mercer.

“What we’ve always advocated is getting a train down as a far as Mercer and putting in a park and ride, allowing those people to commute from there by train.

“That is the key to getting a start in Waikato.”

Moroney, who has advocated for the rail connection since 2008, said regional council needs to represent the region’s needs.

“I really hope this time they will press ahead, irrespective of whether they get push back from central government or not,” Moroney said.

“Can we please just learn the lessons from the mistakes made in Auckland.

“That’s exactly what I’ve been saying to those organisations for years now.”


KiwiRail to Dump Electric Trains – Dominion Post

The following article was first published in the Dompost in January. A list of other articles, opinion pieces and documents that relate to KiwiRail’s Electric Trains can be found here

KiwiRail has announced plans to ditch its North Island electric rail fleet and replace with diesel freight engines – a decision derided by environmentalist and Opposition MPs. 

But chief executive Peter Reidy says the switch will improve reliability and efficiency for Kiwirail’s customers.

Plans to replace 16 electric trains – each about 30 years old – which operated between Hamilton and Palmerston North would see diesel locomotives begin operating in phases over the next two years.


An electric freight train is to become a scarcity in the next two years.

Continue reading →

KiwiRail “EF Q and A”

KiwiRail’s reasoning or defense for quitting Electric Trains is published below, and can also be found on their website. I’ve added a few comments in blue.

A list of other documents found online media is in this post 

Why is only part of the NIMT electrified?

The project was one of the so-called “Think Big” projects of the Muldoon era and a response to the oil price shocks of the 1970s and early 1980s. A factor in the decision was that the diesel locomotives at the time were not powerful enough to transport the freight up the gradients in the central North Island, meaning a second locomotive had to be used. Electrifying the relatively level sections of line between Wellington and Palmerston North and between Te Rapa and Auckland was not considered economically justifiable at the time. Technology has advanced to the point that diesels can now deliver this horsepower. The DL locomotives are powerful enough to negotiate the gradients without needing to be doubled up.

NZ first used DX class locomotives in 1972. Compare this with the Chinese DL locomotives, and they are the same weight, horsepower and drive system. Just that 1972 was 14 years before the first EF locomotive.

The poor reliability of the DL locomotives means that they are often doubled-up  Continue reading →

KiwiRail announces fleet decision on North Island line

I can’t read this with a straight face.

The title implies that KiwiRail have been mulling over the ‘decision’ for a while, just that they had to write a press release and make it seem credible to get it over the line. Then they gave up, wrote some drivel, and released it the day before Christmas in the hope that no-one would see it. Happy reading, especially the bit where the CEO drags Air New Zealand into it.

A list of Electric train press articles is here.

KiwiRail announces fleet decision on North Island line

21 December 2016 11:11AM

KiwiRail will improve its reliability and efficiency for customers by employing an all-diesel fleet on the North Island Main Trunk line, KiwiRail Chief Executive Peter Reidy says.

The small fleet of almost 30 year old electric trains that currently operate only between Hamilton and Palmerston North will be phased out over the next two years and replaced with diesel locomotives. The decision allows for the electric infrastructure on the line to remain in place and be maintained to a safe standard for any future use.

The North Island Main Trunk (NIMT) runs from Auckland to Wellington but is electrified only between Hamilton and Palmerston North. Mr Reidy says KiwiRail is essentially running “a railway within a railway” by having the electric section.

“Imagine having to change planes at Hamilton and again at Palmerston North, just to fly from Auckland to Wellington. That’s not efficient, it’s more costly and ultimately delivers a less reliable service.

Continue reading →

KiwiRail de-Electrification

KiwiRail has decided to axe the electric locomotive fleet running between Palmerston North and Hamilton. This post aims to document all the news media on the topic.

Upper Hutt Station – Second Track, Second Platform

Probably the biggest choke point on the Hutt Valley train line is between at Upper Hutt and Trentham, where commuter trains leaving Upper Hutt have to negotiate a stretch of single-track between the two stations. Continue reading →

Replacing Electric Trains with Diesels

So, cash-strapped, third-world countries might do this sort of thing, but most would expect forward-thinking countries like NZ to be expanding its electric railways, given climate change, sustainability and general ‘green’ stuff, right?

KiwiRail's EF locomotives and their infrastructure could be axed as KiwiRail "reviews their future". Photo: J Christianson / Wiki Creative Commons

“Performing Poorly”: KiwiRail’s EF locomotives and their infrastructure could be axed as KiwiRail “reviews their future”. Photo: J Christianson / Wiki Creative Commons

Continue reading →