This is a guest post by Wellington commenter Guy Marriage
Do the locomotion with me.
I am surprised and a little disappointed that there has not been much discussion here over KiwiRail’s decision to axe the electric locomotives on the main trunk line. If that sort of discussion should happen anywhere, it really should be on Transport Blog, and so I’ve written this piece so that the questions can be raised and debated amongst a group of knowledgable people, willing to share their opinions, in a sane and rational manner, as you always do.
So let’s run over a few facts first. Currently we have an electrified section of the main trunk railroad, from Hamilton to Palmerston North. We also have suburban rail that is electrified in Auckland’s districts, and metro rail in Wellington’s regions are also electrified. Wellington’s region of electric motive power is, however, starkly different.
KiwiRail’s current mode of transport is (admittedly highly inefficient) to have to run diesel locomotives from Auckland to Hamilton, change to electric for the middle run to Palmerston North, and then change back to another set of diesel locomotives for the run into Wellington. That’s tedious, time-wasting, and a silly state to be in for anyone, so we can understand that KiwiRail wants to make a change and just have one set of power for locomotives all the way through. Their argument is that by buying a new set of all diesel locos, it gives “customers more of an incentive to shift their freight on to rail which is a more sustainable option for the country” (Peter Reidy, CEO KiwiRail, DomPost, 20 Jan 2017).
Although KiwiRail used to be a separate business from OnTrack, the Government has merged them since 2012, so while for a few years Toll and then KiwiRail had no control over the track network, its my understanding that now they are more in control of their own destiny. And that destiny, they clearly see, as being reliant on diesel for locomotion, rather than electricity.
The North Island Main Trunk line (NIMT) has 411km of electrified line running at 25kV at 50 Hz AC power, undertaken as part of Muldoon’s “Think Big” projects in the mid 1980s. Wellington’s metropolitan area has in total 95km of electrified track, but this is a DC system running at 1.5kV and so is not compatible with the NIMT system – it was installed way back in the last century. Auckland’s trains however, being electrified later than Wellington’s train network, were deliberately designed to also run on the same system as the NIMT – an AC line running at 25kV. So that leaves a gap of just 81km from Auckland to Hamilton currently without a suitable electric power system for freight locos and there is a similar-sized 80km gap from Palmerston North to Wellington’s northern reaches at Waikanae.
KiwiRail’s argument against buying new electric locos to replace their existing EF electric locos is that it is inefficient to have to change over to diesel and back, as well as that having more freight going by rail is just generally better for the country too. While Reidy does not address the claim that electric power will generate less emissions than diesel, he claims that as more freight will get routed via rail this will automatically be better, whether powered by diesel or not.
Others may disagree with him. The Green Party certainly disagree with him, with Greens spokesperson on Transport, Julie-Anne Genter, saying on 21 Dec 2016 that “New electric trains are cleaner, quieter, and have lower fuel and maintenance costs over their lifetime. They’re also powered by local renewable energy rather than imported oil. Diesel trains will also cost more to operate long-term, which could encourage more freight to move off rail and onto dangerous trucks on the road.”
Those comments are absolutely right, in that electric locos are capable of pulling bigger loads, at faster speeds, and if you have a renewable source of energy (as we mostly do), then emissions are severely reduced. And who wants a fine spray of diesel dust all over our 100% clean green country? Well, near 100% anyway. Maybe 80%. Maybe 50%. Let’s skip the details, OK?
It is a political decision, of course, whether to spend more money on electrification of the two remaining sections of track, but it is one that needs to be carefully debated. Clearly KiwiRail have debated it in house, but we (the public) haven’t been privileged to see the outcome. Their last “Sustainability Report” is from 2014.
But there is another way of looking at this as well. Auckland’s reach, always slightly beyond its grasp, is outwards to the north (but blocked by the issues of harbour crossings) as well as to the south (unblocked and at the edge of a big fat highway). At just over an hour away by car (127km), Hamilton is already on the edge of becoming a commuter town for Auckland (the current drive is the killer commute) but Palmerston North is just a little too far away (140km) from Wellington at a more realistic two hour commute. But while Wellington’s reach is unlikely to ever reach to Palmerston, it is certain that the Waikato is already deeply involved with Auckland and there is a strong argument to be made that in order to preserve the agricultural lands at Pukekohe etc, the NIMT should be electrified all the way through to Hamilton, not just for freight, but for passenger rail too.
Much as I dislike the expression “no-brainer”, this decision really is one that can be easily made. The land is flat. The tracks are already in place. The need for suburban rail is rising relentlessly in Auckland. There is already a nascent need and want for a decent public transport link from Auckland to Hamilton, something not currently served by either buses stuck in traffic nor the current once or twice a day train. Flying between the two is just not an option. Wouldn’t it make a lot of sense to at least electrify the network continuously between the Waikato and the outer reaches of Auckland, so that trains could all operate continuously in the region solely on electric power?
Yes, there is a branch line to Tauranga that is diesel powered too, and yes, there needs to be a separate decision about that as well, but the electrification of the main line is the priority, not just for now, and not just for KiwiRail, but for New Zealand, and for the rest of our lives. There is a strong argument, to me at least, to just change the power source once, in Palmerston North, and keep all those diesels down south, and allow a fully electrified rail system to flourish up north. Yes, of course I want the section down here to be converted to electric as well, but I realise that the problems with the current DC vs AC lines may mean that is a problem for the too-hard basket right now. But at least for now, it seems to me, KiwiRail and its 100% owner, the NZ Government, is doing our country a gross disservice by proposing that the existing electric NIMT is effectively mothballed or scrapped. There is a huge amount of money that has been invested in this incomplete network that is effectively going to be completely wasted if it is not used. We need, as a country, to be thinking better and more long term than this. We need, I believe, to start by electrifying the remaining NIMT between Hamilton and Auckland.
Note: we’re all volunteers with limited time so if you ever feel like there’s something we should be discussing, be like Guy and draft a guest post.