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.
This is a Guest Post by regular commenter Patrick Reynolds.
One big structural advantage public transport has in the contest for patronage is the freedom from the responsibilities of driving. You know; have a drink, use your phone, read a book, make a new friend.
This advantage is not exploited enough. Well here’s an opportunity. Time spent waiting for a train or bus as well as on the trip itself can be considered wasted. Of course we expect AT and their partners to be constantly working to increase frequency, speed, and reach of their networks as well as daily reliability and efficiency in order to reduce wasted time for their customers. This is their core task. However this often requires very expensive capital works that take time and money [and political will] to achieve.
So it is important to pursue every good quick and cheap improvement possible. These will primarily be qualitative improvements. And our experience of time use is the big one. Understanding that time is elastic, that time spent pleasurably or productively is not considered wasted can help.
Free Wifi. At least at transport stations, but also on all trains and even buses. This could be pursued through a partnership with a provider. It’s a no brainer, certainly for trains and stations. It’s a huge winner in the ideas contest. It marks rail as the future mode. It should then become the centre of a marketing campaign, it’s a ‘coolness’ win. It’s a public connectivity good. So a perfect fit with public transport.
An interesting report on the likely effects of Peak Oil on the UK has been released by the UK Industry Taskforce on Peak Oil and Energy Security. Here’s a summary from Going Solar:If the UK’s transport system is considered at risk of being seriously impacted by higher oil prices, I’d hate to even think what the risk is to New Zealand’s highly car dependent transport system.
As I noted in yesterday’s blog post, which went on to rather dominate the comments thread, I will be out of the country in North America between September 3rd and September 26th. Leila and I are taking a three week holiday that has been about two years in planning. The plan is as follows:
September 3rd: fly to New York
September 3-7: stay in New York
September 8th: Amtrak train from New York to Boston
September 8-10:stay in Boston
September 11: Flight from Boston to Montreal
September 11-16: staying in Montreal and Quebec City (train between cities)
September 17: fly from Montreal to Washington DC
September 17-20: staying in Washington DC
September 21: Amtrak from Washington DC- New York
September 21-23: staying in New York
September 23-24: flight back to NZ
From a transport nerd perspective I am very much looking forward to seeing the New York Subway and the Washington DC Metro in particular, although the transit systems of Montreal and Boston are certain to also be fascinating.
One issue which has been at the back of my mind in recent times is what will happen to this blog while I am away. It will be during the last weeks of the lead-up to the Super City elections, the time the Onehunga Station (finally) opens and the time that the CBD rail tunnel business case is first released. I’ll probably be able to do a little bit of blogging from internet cafes: although I will probably take that opportunity to share my experiences in the various North American cities I am visiting.
I do have my handy blog assistants, who I am sure will keep things running a bit with what’s going on here in NZ. But I think it’s probably timely to remind people that I am open to people submitting “Guest Posts“, and in particular if there’s a transport issue that you think is worthy of being raised by way of a guest post then I’m quite happy to schedule quite a few posts to “pop up” while I’m away and keep things reasonably busy.
Oh, and if there are any really useful tips for visiting any of the cities listed above I’d be more than happy to hear about them!
A couple of days ago I posted about my worries that the true benefits of the CBD rail tunnel: such as its ability to transform Auckland’s city centre and its ability to allow further development of the rail network – may not be being fully taken into account in the current business case analysis for that project. There was a very interesting discussion in the comments thread of that post, particularly in terms of whether we really should be simplifying everything in a business case down to effectively a single number: the project’s cost-benefit ratio. If not every benefit can be fully or accurately monetarised, then perhaps we need a more effective system of working out “is the project worth it?”
I’m reading the excellent book “The Limits to Travel: how far will you go?” by David Metz at the moment, and he takes a very detailed and in my opinion insightful look into what he calls “the economics of travel”. Metz states that the process of undertaking cost-benefit analyses is to offer an alternative to fully politicising the process of choosing what projects get prioritised:
The idea is that the sum of all the anticipated benefits of a particular project is compared with the total of all the anticipated costs. If the benefits are greater than the costs, the project is potentially worthwhile. Where there are more possible projects than funds to finance them, then best value may be obtained by preferring those projects with the highest ratio of benefits to costs.
Cost-benefit analysis allow for the flow of benefits and cost over time by bringing these to a single point in time for comparison (using a ‘discount rate – somewhat analogous to an interest rate – to reflect that each dollar next year is less valuable to us than it is today). Cost-benefit analysis also requires that all the benefits and costs can be expressed in monetary terms, which in practice can be problematic.
In New Zealand we use NZTA’s “economic evaluations manuals” to undertake a cost-benefit of each project and determine whether it’s worthwhile proceeding. The manuals are incredibly complex documents, and the information that gets fed into their calculators is often enormously complex itself – for example to model traffic flows and work out the difference that a project is anticipated to have.
Generally, the majority of benefits from a project are described as “time savings benefits”: the time saved by using the new road (or railway line) compared with making the same journey by the previously available route. In New Zealand we tend to exaggerate this difference to an even greater extent, by projecting how bad things are going to get by a certain date in the future, and then comparing that estimated scenario with other estimated scenarios that involve various options for a project, or just the anticipated difference that the project is expected to make. For example, the 2008 alignment of the Waterview Connection had these as the main costs and benefits:
I must say I still haven’t quite worked out the difference between “time savings benefits” and “congestion cost savings benefits” as they appear to be basically the same thing, but either way it’s obvious that time savings represent the vast majority of the benefits that arise from this project. While the detail of the project’s design has changed quite significantly in the past few months, its traffic effects are probably very similar so therefore the Waterview Connection is largely being justified on the basis of its time savings benefits.
Metz explains the rationale behind time savings benefits a bit more:
In economic terms, the point of travel has been seen as permitting people to get to destinations that allow more value to be gained than by staying at home. So travelling to work allows income to be earned, and travelling to the shops allows good to be purchased. If, for simplicity, we assume that the origins and destinations of our journeys are not altered by making available a better transport link between them, then the benefits of the investment could be the total travel saved by those making these journeys (since the benefits associated with the destinations would be unchanged.
As will become obvious soon, the assumption that the origins and destinations of our journeys remain unchanged is critical in the analysis of time savings benefits. But let’s return to Metz’s description of the benefits:
Time is money. If travel takes place in working time, then less productive work is done. And travel in non-working time means that we are deprived of activities that we would otherwise wish to do. So if we are able to reduce travel time for the trips we need to make, that represents a gain in value. Techniques have been developed for estimating how much value we attribute to travel time savings for different kinds of journey. For instance, time saved on journeys during working time is considered to be worth some five-fold more than time saved on non-work trips. These values of time saved are multiplied by the number of people benefiting from the time saving to estimate the benefit from some new transport infrastructure improvement.
Now I’m not sure whether such a distinction is made between work travel and non-work travel in the NZ method of calculating time-savings benefits (Metz is writing on the UK system). I certainly hope that there is such a distinction, because I have some doubts about what the real economic benefits are or simply allowing commuters to leave home later, or get home earlier. Surely if we want to give people more free time, then the government should start buying each household a dish-washer?
But that’s not the only flaw with the focus on time savings benefits. Metz has done significant research that shows average travel time has remained pretty constant in Britain since early 1970s. If anything, travel time has seemed to creep up slowly, rather than decrease as “promised” by all these projects that have been justified on the basis of their supposed time-savings benefits. Metz looks a bit further into this interesting outcome, seeking an explanation:
This prompts the question: what has happened to all the travel time savings claimed to justify public expenditure on roads in Britain of around £100 billion over the past 20 years? One possible answer would be that average travel time owuld have been higher than it has been, had it not been for the time savings associated with this investment. However, the pattern of investment in road infrastructure in Britain over the past 20 years has shown marked swings in expenditure, as fashions for road building have come and gone. Spending on roads has varied between £3.5 billion and £6.4 billion a year (at constant 2004/2005 prices). The amount of new road capacity coming on stream would show a similar swing. But the steady trend of travel time shows no hint of any such variation in new capacity. There is no support for the idea that average travel time would have been higher in the absence of new road construction.
What has actually happened is that because the new road investment has made the process of travelling faster (at least until induced demand kicks in and triple convergence clogs everything up again), people have simply travelled further. This is shown in the graph below, which shows that while the number of trips per year has remained fairly constant over the past three decades, the length of the trips has increased dramatically. What road investment in the UK (and the same is undoubtedly true here in New Zealand) has actually achieved over the past 30 years is not “saved time”, as was promised by all those time savings benefits used to justify projects. What the investment has actually achieved is that it has enabled our trips to be longer. Because we now have faster roads to drive along than we previously did (at least when they’re theoretically not horribly congested) we can travel further within the seemingly set time that humans allocate to travel each day (on average not particularly much over an hour).
I would argue that all this has achieved is an enabling of urban sprawl, a highly unsustainable form of urban development, and an encouragement of greater and greater levels of travel, which over time has generated the ‘induced demand’ that now clogs our roads despite the masses and masses of money that has been spent on them. There is a benefit in making a city easier to get around, or more accurately a city where it’s easy to do what you need to do. That’s an accessibility issue, and it is improved access that was promised by time-savings benefits. However, I think what we’ve actually ended up with is increased mobility but no improvement in accessibility, or arguably a reduction in accessibility (in that you’re not pretty screwed if you don’t own a car and want to drive it everywhere).
What I think we need to measure is the ability of a project to “increase the number of people within “x” minutes of “y” location” (ie. measure the number of people whose accessibility has been enhanced), rather than hope that a particular project will save a certain number of minutes off travel time, and then measure those minutes. We must take into account induced demand: both in terms of triple-convergence, but also in terms of longer-term changes such as whether the project is inducing people to travel further, or whether it’s encouraging land-use patterns that will eat away at the project’s benefits over time. I think it is only then that we’ll be able to truly measure the benefits of our transport investment accurately, and I think such a change could throw up some interesting results.
This is William S. Lind, he is the Director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism (sounds like someone I wouldn’t get along with usually) but he is one of the biggest conservative supporters of public transport in America and co-author of, Moving Minds: Conservatives and Public Transportation, here he is talking about some of the points made in the book. (3.20 mins)
So lets set up a meeting with him, Steven Joyce, John Key and Bill English. I’ll chip in for the plane ticket (and three copies of the book) if you will?
I think his points about road subsidies and the inaccuracy of quoting PT’s total percent of trips are especially relevant to NZ.
The USA has dramatically altered the way in which it assesses which transportation projects should be funded, their equivalent of our cost-benefit analysis. The big shift is that impacts on overall urban form and “livability” need to be taken into greater consideration – rather than just simple “time savings”.
Obama Administration Proposes Major Public Transportation Policy Shift to Highlight Livability Changes Include Economic Development and Environmental Benefits
In a dramatic change from existing policy, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today proposed that new funding guidelines for major transit projects be based on livability issues such as economic development opportunities and environmental benefits, in addition to cost and time saved, which are currently the primary criteria.
In remarks at the Transportation Research Board annual meeting, the Secretary announced the Obama Administration’s plans to change how projects are selected to receive federal financial assistance in the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) New Starts and Small Starts programs. As part of this initiative, the FTA will immediately rescind budget restrictions issued by the Bush Administration in March of 2005 that focused primarily on how much a project shortened commute times in comparison to its cost.
“Our new policy for selecting major transit projects will work to promote livability rather than hinder it,” said Secretary LaHood. “We want to base our decisions on how much transit helps the environment, how much it improves development opportunities and how it makes our communities better places to live.”
The change will apply to how the Federal Transit Administration evaluates major transit projects going forward. In making funding decisions, the FTA will now evaluate the environmental, community and economic development benefits provided by transit projects, as well as the congestion relief benefits from such projects.
“This new approach will help us do a much better job of aligning our priorities and values with our transit investments” said FTA Administrator Peter Rogoff. “No longer will we ignore the many benefits that accrue to our environment and our communities when we build or expand rail and bus rapid transit systems.”
FTA will soon initiate a separate rulemaking process, inviting public comment on ways to appropriately measure all the benefits that result from such investments.
I wonder if/when New Zealand will join the 21st century and do the same?
A few nights ago I had an interesting dream that somehow included trips to both Sydney and London. Since I got back from Europe a few months ago it has been fairly common for me to have dreams about some new overseas trip that I find myself on. Nothing particularly new or exciting there. However, it seems that with increasing regularity I’m finding that the dreams seem to particularly involve the ways in which I’m getting around those cities.
It’s always interesting to see the similarities and differences between real places and how they appear in my dreams. I know that throughout the course of many hundreds of different dreams over the years I’ve managed to almost create an ‘alternative Auckland’ in my mind. In particular, the central motorway junction area is highly modified in my mind, and yet at the same time it’s reasonably consistent throughout different dreams, often ones that I’ve had years apart. For example, where Morningside Drive crosses the railway line (a railway crossing I went across a lot as a kid because it was near my primary school) my dreams have that as the start of a motorway that pretty quickly turns into a fairly giant interchange – which although complex seems reasonably surprising consistent and easy to remember. However, in recent times times those motorway dreams have seemed to end up being replaced by new railway dreams. I guess a sign of how my subconscious has changed with relation to transportation.
However, these dreams are almost always linked to overseas trips (probably because the only decent transit systems I’ve come across overseas). The other night I managed to experience both the Sydney rail system (although it was a rather strange version of it) and then also the London Underground. I don’t remember much from the Sydney part of the dream (or in fact even how I got there, or got from there to London), but once I was in London I distinctly remember from the dream that Leila and I were going to the Victoria and Albert Museum (I must have a subconscious sense of guilt that we never got there even though I know Leila really wanted to). We had to get on the District Line to go to South Kensington station (which is actually quite correct as South Kensington is probably the best tube station to access the Victoria and Albert Museum and it is also on the District Line), although the District Line on the map in my dream looked very very different to how it actually looks in reality. Once again I guess it’s my subconscious being fascinated by rail maps, but is not quite able to transfer my actual knowledge of the London Underground map (which is probably unhealthily extensive for someone who’s only been in that city for 8 days) into my actual dreams.
Perhaps I’ll be having dreams about what an electrified Auckland rail system will look like eventually.
I’ve had dreams about travelling for the last two nights, and surprisingly enough I actually remember a reasonably decent amount from both dreams (or at least a feeling of what they were about, which I know will lead to more details as I think about them).
In the first dream, I was in Sydney. I think on a holiday that included (at least) Leila, Ella and my mum. We were out and about, and I think Leila and I had gone off on our own to some place, planning to meet back in a bit. We were at Central train station, I think waiting for a train to take us further into the city, but they weren’t turning up and the wait for the next train was forever. So we ended up taking a train out the other way (to the west) in order to hopefully hook onto another train that would eventually take us where we needed to get. When I think about it, perhaps we weren’t starting off at Central, but I know we were somewhere close to the centre of Sydney’s train network.
But anyway, the first station out from Central on the main line is Redfern. I always remember Redfern because Jannatun told me in no uncertain terms to NEVER get off the train at Redfern. Although, by the sounds of it, things have improved and it’s reasonably busy because uni students use the station all the time, Redfern is a bit of a dodgy spot. There were riots there a few years ago I think. But anyway, for some reason in this dream Leila and I did get off the train at Redfern. It seemed like an OK place, although I was aware of its reputation. We wandered over to the platform where our next train would come from and waited. I was a bit fearful for our safety after the train didn’t arrive for a while (I think in reality every train stops at Redfern to ensure that people don’t have to wait there for long!) There were kids playing everywhere, including all over the tracks. At times trains would emerge seemingly from a tunnel, the kids would rush out of the way and the train would pass through. I think once or twice Leila and I had to carefully pass over the tracks to change platforms in hope of a train arriving, but nothing happened.
Eventually a train did arrive, and we caught it (although it did seem like we were heading even further in the wrong direction). The train line then was really really weird, as though it had mutated into some sort of gondola to pass from one high-point on the landscape to the next. I guess to explain this more clearly, my memory from the dream is of looking down and not seeing the train tracks below us. It seems like the power supply lines above us were actually ‘holding up’ the train, in a similar sort of way to what you could expect from a gondola. Although this seems weird, I kind of accepted it, as you do in a dream, and thought it was a fairly quick way for trains to ‘jump’ over areas. We ended up getting off the train at Tempe, a rather randomly small station that I wasn’t sure actually existed until I rechecked it on Wikipedia a moment ago (I guess my subconscious memory of Sydney’s system isn’t bad). We waited around for ANOTHER train (this time really making an effort to finally head in the right direction for once) although at one point a local lady saw how far away the next train was, exclaimed how suckful that was, and wandered off.
Nevertheless, eventually we did indeed make it back to Central station, perhaps where the dream had started, or perhaps not. I stood looking at a picture of the Sydney train network that was on the station wall, trying to make sense out of it. It seemed to me like there weren’t really enough suburban lines, with most of the network being for inter-city lines. As my confusion mounted, I think I must have woken up.
Then last night my dream, I was going on another Europe-type holiday with Leila. However, this time we were WAY less organised. I had this general feeling that the plane was leaving tonight, and yet we hadn’t even got around to deciding where were we actually going (other than the flight, but even then it seemed like we’d booked tickets to London and booked tickets to New York City), let alone organising accommodation and transportation within the places we were to visit. As the dream unfolded, and as my stress levels began to rise with the realisation that it was going to be an enormous effort to get everything packed in time for the flight, we slowly put together something of an itinerary. It included visiting Leila’s relatives in northern England, parts of Germany and the Netherlands. Oh, and Madrid. Interesting to see where my subconscious seems to think I need to go.
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.