While I have often complained about transport not being in the top of people’s minds when voting in nationwide elections, yet so many decisions are made by central government – the flip side of this (and unfortunately it seems that we do get the worst of both worlds) is seeing the transport debate becoming more and more partisan. For some reason, in New Zealand it would seem as though the political right tends to support roads-first transport policies; while the political left is more friendly towards public transport. There are some fairly obvious ideological reasons behind this: the individualised nature of auto-focused transport may appeal ideologically to those who lean to the right, while the more ‘collective’ nature of public transport can appeal to those on the left. Public transport also usually requires a level of subsidy, which further puts off those to the right of the political debate.
What’s strange though is how centre-right governments overseas often take a very different viewpoint of public transport – even of rail, which seems to be a particular dislike of centre-right politicians here in New Zealand. For example, just a few days ago we saw the Conservative Government in the UK approve the £30 billion+ High Speed 2 rail scheme, even in times of significant economic troubles. And, reading through the press release and reasoning behind the decision, it’s a far cry from our government’s approval of electrification – which seemed to be a very reluctant “oh we’d better continue this because we reluctantly promised to do so before the 2008 election”. Here are some sections of the UK government’s position on High Speed 2:
I have decided Britain should embark upon the most significant transport infrastructure project since the building of the motorways by supporting the development and delivery of a new national high speed rail network. By following in the footsteps of the 19th century railway pioneers, the Government is signalling its commitment to providing 21st century infrastructure and connections – laying the groundwork for long-term, sustainable economic growth.
High Speed 2 (HS2) is a scheme to deliver hugely enhanced rail capacity and connectivity between Britain’s major conurbations. It is the largest transport infrastructure investment in the UK for a generation, and, with the exception of High Speed 1 (HS1), is the first major new railway line since the Victorian era.
The HS2 Y network will provide direct, high capacity, high speed links between London, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, with intermediate stations in the East Midlands and South Yorkshire. There will also be direct links to Heathrow Airport and to the Continent via the HS1 line. It will form a foundation for a potentially wider high speed network in years to come.
A recognition that rail is the way of the future, and not (as I sometimes sense the attitude towards it in NZ is), some relic of the 19th century. The benefits of the project are well understood by the government, and clearly articulated. No Ministry of Transport hatchet job here:
HS2 will be built in two phases to ensure that the benefits of high speed rail are realised at the earliest possible opportunity. The line from London to the West Midlands and the connection to HS1 are expected to open in 2026, followed, in 2032-33, by the onward legs to Manchester and Leeds and the connection to Heathrow. The capital cost at 2011 prices of building the complete Y network is £32.7 billion. At present values, it will generate benefits of up to £47 billion and fare revenues of up to £34 billion over a 60-year period.
The benefits of HS2 will extend beyond the network itself; links to current lines will enable direct trains to run to cities such as Liverpool, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh and, with long-distance services transferring to the new network, space will be freed up for new commuter, regional and freight services on other lines, opening up new opportunities for Britain’s existing railways. Links to key urban transport networks, such as Crossrail, will help to spread the benefits further still.
There’s also some clear recognition of the project’s environmental benefits:
HS2 is entirely consistent with the Government’s objectives for carbon emissions. Electrified rail is a comparatively low-carbon mode of transport, especially with the continued decarbonisation of the grid. Speed increases power consumption, but also makes HS2 more attractive to those currently flying or driving. The faster journeys on HS2 – Edinburgh and Glasgow will be just 3.5 hours from London – could transfer around 4.5 million journeys per year who might otherwise have travelled by air and 9 million from the roads. HS2 will also create more rail capacity on existing conventional speed lines for freight – removing lorries from our busy trunk roads. HS2 is therefore an important part of transport’s low-carbon future.
I can’t quite imagine those words coming out of Steven Joyce or Gerry Brownlee’s mouth.
Another example is the Victorian State Government elections of 2010, where the centre-right Coalition was generally found to have better transport policies than the incumbent Labor government – which (apparently) played a significant role in their victory. Here’s what the politically independent Public Transport Users Association said about the respective policies heading into the election:
With public transport the big issue for many voters, the Public Transport Users Association (PTUA) has given its verdict on the transport policies of the parties going into the State Election, with the Greens coming out on top, followed by the Coalition.
PTUA President Daniel Bowen said that packed trains, slow trams, and infrequent buses had voters looking to all political parties for a solution to Melbourne and Victoria’s transport woes.
And he said the Green and Coalition promises for reform through an independent public transport authority were crucial in their party policies receiving the best marks.
“The Greens scored an A, and have an aggressive agenda to upgrade public transport, with a Public Transport Authority being central to better managing and planning the network. The vision of frequent public transport across Melbourne is welcome, and would provide more residents with a genuine alternative to car travel.”
Of the two major parties, Mr Bowen said the Coalition had come out with a stronger set of policies than Labor, and scored a B.
“The Coalition has a number of positive policies, underpinned by a pledge to buy 40 additional trains, and introduce a Public Transport Development Authority to provide central management and planning.
“While we have concerns over the Coalition’s push for the east-west cross-city road tunnel, the pledge of feasibility studies for rail to Doncaster, the Airport and Rowville, as well as level crossing eliminations are very welcome.”
Mr Bowen said that Labor were promising some worthwhile upgrades, ultimately they fell short of what is needed, scoring a C. “Labor seems to have no overall vision for a fast, frequent, connected network across Melbourne and Victoria, and have ignored community calls for a shakeup of the management of public transport, which has scores of organisations involved but nobody taking responsibility for such essentials as making sure buses meet trains.”
Mr Bowen said that despite Labor deservedly trumpeting Smartbus as a success story, it was disappointing that they had not pledging any new Smartbus routes. Labor also lost points for continuing to push the destructive North-East freeway link.
I am rather struggling to understand why New Zealand has to be so different from what is happening elsewhere in the world – where we see centre-right governments that really value public transport and genuinely want to see it improved (rather than having to be dragged kicking and screaming into any steps in the right direction). There doesn’t seem to be any particularly logical reason why the Conservative Party in the UK would value public transport investment so much, while our National Party seems instinctively suspicious that the whole thing is a communist plot.
But perhaps more important than speculating on why this is such a problem in New Zealand, we should start looking for ways in which we can change this. How can we sell the benefits of a smarter and more balanced transport policy to the political right? How can we reassure them that spending on public transport isn’t flushing money down the toilet? How can we enlighten them to understand the benefits of a well functioning rail network, so they’re actually pushing for improvements – rather than always being the skeptical ones sitting on the hand-brake? I know that readers and commenters on this blog come from right across the political spectrum, and I know many people with right-leaning tendencies who agree with the general thrust of posts on this blog – but something’s missing here. Some connection isn’t being made and I really feel that, as a country, we will probably only really start to make long-term structural changes to the nature of our transport system – so it’s more balanced, sustainable and sensible – when we can shift the debate away from being so partisan.
But how do we do that?