There has been a flurry of activity since a post I made last week called for information on why the heck it’s taking so long to find out how the electric trains for Auckland’s rail system will be funded. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that the ARC finally got around to making a press release on the matter the day after I made that post, or perhaps after reading my post they went “crikey we’d almost forgotten about that!” In some ways, I do hope it was a coincidence.
In response to this long-overdue questioning of Steven Joyce about when we’re going to finally get the electric train funding announced, we’re starting to hear some rather worrying stories emerging through the various channels that news reporters go to for information on such matters. Firstly, a Herald article on Friday stated the following response from a spokeswoman for Mr Joyce:
But a spokeswoman for Mr Joyce said: “There is a process going on with officials that Mr Lee is well aware of.
“It involves finalising the governance of metro rail, including in Auckland, finalising the scope of the project, and funding.
“Recommendations on all those issues are expected shortly.”
Finalising the scope of the project? Surely that had already been finalised in terms of the whole system between Swanson and Papakura being electrified? Or are we talking about the scope of the electric trains purchase – in terms of the number of trains being purchased and how the purchase will be structured?
Another article today, by Brian Rudman, indicates that the answer to the question above might well be “both”, and that it all looks like pretty bad news. Some exerpts:
Reports now leaking out of Wellington paint a dispiriting picture of the alternatives being considered.
They suggest that far from being driven by a desire to create a first-world rapid-rail system such as any other city city of a similar size enjoys, the major driving force for this minister is a desire to meet the deadline as cheaply and Third Worldly as he can get away with…
…Industry sources suggest the Government now wants to almost halve the size of the new rail fleet to 75 and to make up the difference by collecting up all the second-hand electric locomotives that can be found around the country, giving them a lick of paint and an oil change, and pressing them into service dragging Auckland’s existing fleet of tarted-up old carriages.
Apparently a stockpile of retired electric locomotives in Palmerston North is being eyed up.
As well, some main trunk freight locomotives will become surplus to requirements, once the recently ordered fleet of 20 new freight locomotives arrives from China.
One report suggests more carriages may have to be bought.
Instead of the trains being short and swift and new, they will, because of the heavy freight locomotives pulling them, be long and slow to accelerate.
Another worry is the possibility that to save more money, the resurrected Onehunga branch line will not be electrified – a diesel shuttle will run back and forth instead – and the planned Parnell station will be shelved.
This really is depressing news. The point of electrification is to bring Auckland’s rail system into the 21st century, to provide new trains that will be able to operate on the system for the next 30-40 years without the enormous maintenance bill that currently cripples the system’s viability, to offer users something of a high enough quality to truly attract people out of their cars and onto public transport. The point was not to find the cheapest possible option, because (of course) that wouldn’t actually result in the aforementioned goals being achieved.
So, I guess the question is ‘why are we being screwed over here?’ Apart from the obvious reason that the government doesn’t see any value in rail and only perceives it as a blackhole for funding, I actually think there’s a worry within government that if a good rail system was provided, people would actually use it. And they’re quite aware of the capacity constraints of Britomart, and don’t want to have to stump up $1.5 billion for the CBD Rail Tunnel any time soon. So it makes sense to do a “bare minimum” upgrade, to keep people from shifting to public transport “too fast” (the concept of having a mode-shift to public transport too quickly is specifically mentioned in the government policy statement on transport as being a negative). I guess if people shifted to using the rail system in their droves it would also make it harder to justify spending billions upon billions of dollars on new state highways. David Bennett, National MP for Hamilton, recently opposed the proposed Waikato Rail Service on the ground that it might divert attention away from the Waikato Expressway – basically saying he was worried it might be a success and reduce the need for his pet project.
There are plenty of reasons why the government would want to ruin electrification. However, they’re all unacceptable and it’s time they were called on it.