So it’s now about three and a half weeks since we got back in New Zealand. Life feels like it’s returned back to normal, although obviously we’re still talking obsessively to anyone who’ll listen about how cool Europe was. The utter normality of life back in NZ has been a little depressing I suppose, although it does feel that over time that has settled down a bit. Going from the warmth of a European summer (especially the hot cloudless days we had in Venice) back to the New Zealand winter, which has seemingly got colder and wetter, hasn’t particularly helped things though.
I suppose with this blog, Europe did help kick start it back into action, although I’ve spent much of my last three weeks trying to backdate entries so that I didn’t miss anything particularly significant from our holiday. Obviously there was masses to write about, whereas once again back in NZ I’m often thinking “hmmm… not sure if that’s really worth writing about”. I suppose that a few posts in a row that get me back into the habit might help. As I was discussing before the Europe trip, I probably need to develop an obvious new direction for my blog, as what seemed to work in the past doesn’t seem to be working particularly well anymore. Perhaps a subtle shift from explaining what’s happening in my life, to an outlet for me to have a bit of a rant about things, might be a good way for me to still be motivated to write in this blog. As always, I think it will just take something to spark me back into the habit of it all… and then I’ll be sweet as.
OK, so rant number one is going to be about trains. I suppose that going around Europe and seeing the awesomeness of their trains has frustrated me about their pathetic state in New Zealand. Fortunately, this year has been somewhat promising for the country’s rail future. A few months ago the government paid a crap load of money to buy back what seemed to be a few rusty locomotives and a few more rusty wagons. At close to $700 million for all this, it did seem like a heck of a lot, but it does seem like this is a step in the right direction towards us finally developing a rail system that does not belong back in the 1950s. While I don’t know particularly much about how rail freight works around the country, I know that there is only one inter-city passenger train service (and that barely survives) and I know that while Auckland’s passenger system has improved a lot in recent years (most obviously through constructing the Britomart terminal) it’s still pretty crap. Less crap than it was though, as when it plumbed its depths in the early 2000s there was usually just one train per hour across the lines off-peak (up to one per half hour at peak times) and not even any services on Sunday.
With fuel prices going nuts, in particular the deisel which powers all Auckland’s trains and buses, it seems like if there’s ever going to be a time when train commuting in Auckland takes off, and also potentially where inter-city travel by train becomes viable again, now is that time. I’ve looked into catching the bus to work myself, and may well either end up doing that or finding a good bike to ride on the days when I don’t have to head over to the Shore after work to pick up Amalia. However, as all the buses and trains are powered by deisel, it seems inevitable that fares will rise again soon, just as they did back in 2005 when petrol prices first started to increase dramatically. For now, the Regional Council is doing their best to stop that from happening, through subsidies to the bus companies, but it seems like it’s only a matter of time until bus fares start going up again. Train has the potential to break free from its link with deisel – as we found out in Europe with just about all the trains there running from either a ‘third rail’ or from an overhead power supply. However, unfortunately once again we’re stuck in the 1950s with our trains still running on deisel. Electrification plans have been around for a while, and are taking good steps towards actually happening, but in the meanwhile we’re still stuck with noisy, slow, polluting deisel trains.
I don’t think I can over-emphasise how important the project of electifying the rail system is. Auckland is already pushing deisel trains to the limit through Britomart, which is actually the largest underground railways station in the world that is used by deisel trains. The trains are slow in their acceleration, they’re noisy, they can’t travel in the long-tunnels that will form the future of any expansion to our train system, and they’re just way crappier than what a modern electric train can be. Electrification doesn’t come cheap of course, with a good $500 million needed to upgrade the lines and about the same again to buy new trains. However this investment is essential if our train system is to move into the future. By not being reliant upon deisel for power, rising fuel prices won’t necessarily mean that train fares will need to go up, giving train a comparative advantage over cars as the means of commuting for a sizeable chunk of Aucklanders. Furthermore, the trains will be faster, more reliable, and much quieter. Wellington has had an electrified train system for decades now, and manages to transport significantly more people around the city by train each day than Auckland does – even though it has barely one third the population.
If Auckland’s train system is to develop beyond what is currently an incredibly limited system, electrification is utterly essential. A CBD loop tunnel has been proposed, which would turn Britomart into a through station, continuing underneath the city and eventually linking up towards the current Western Line near Mt Eden. Obviously, such a long tunnel could only be used by electric trains. Another potential project, a harbour tunnel, has also been proposed (although probably not to be built within the next 10-15 years) would involve a deep tunnel underneath the Waitemata Harbour, linking with the current busway next to the Northern Motorway (the busway would obviously be turned into a rail line). With another deep-level tunnel proposed, obviously once again electrification is essential. Another project, a rail link to the airport, isn’t quite as dependent upon electrification, but it would still be very much beneficial. In any case, while electrification is up in the air nobody’s going to buy new trains and nobody is going to want to invest on expanding the rail network.
There is good news though. With the government now owning the railway tracks and also the existing rolling stock, they’re in a position to want to invest in upgrading the stock. Just last week the government also passed a law to enable regional councils to raise money through a fuel tax they would impose within their regions. This allows the regional councils some certainty that if they decide to proceed with purchasing electric trains (which for some reason Auckland is expected to do, whereas Wellington got the government to pay for 90% of their new rolling stock, but this isn’t going to be a rant at how Auckland always gets shafted), they have some certainty about being able to pay for them. So I suppose that nothing really stands in the way of electrification happening… well at least unless the National Party wins the election at the end of the year and decides to reverse everything. Which I guess is possible. Perhaps I can have a politics rant next time.