Over the last decade or more we’ve seen many of the historic ‘pro-road’ advocacy groups, such as the AA, business lobby groups and even some of the big trucking companies, become much more moderated or even supportive in their views around multi-modal solutions. But not every organisation has.

Submissions to the draft Government Policy Statement 2021 were due on Monday and the following day the Road Transport Forum, the lobby group representing many trucking companies around the country, put out a press release which gives a taste of what is in their submission. So, I thought I’d deconstruct the press release

In an economy battered by Covid-19, the Government should prioritise infrastructure spending on roads, Road Transport Forum (RTF) chief executive Nick Leggett says.

“We certainly hope to see some significant commitment to this in Thursday’s Budget,” Leggett says.

The government certainly are focusing on roads and just a few months ago announced billions in new spending with most of it going to build a bunch of large roads. The industry is going to have its hands full with just delivering those as well as the current projects on the go.

“Yesterday, we filed our submission on the Government Policy Statement on Land Transport 2021-22 – 2030-31, but in the current environment, the policy outlined in that document seems redundant.

“The document favours using money collected for roads, via taxes and road user charges, for other transportation including cycling, walking, and rail and heavily promotes rail freight over road. That means less money for roads that badly need the spend.

If all we focus on is roads, all we’ll get is traffic. More traffic on our roads is surely the last thing truckers want to have to deal with, particularly in our major cities where drivers may now only be able to make a couple of deliveries a day due to congestion. Surely the last six weeks have highlighted just how much easier it is for trucks to operate when there isn’t a heap of cars on the road. If anything, it should have made them more supportive of efforts to get people out of their cars.

Regardless, it’s incorrect to suggest we’re not favouring roads, the GPS proposes spending more on roads in the next-three year cycle than ever before.

Of course, let’s not forget that it’s not only road taxes that go towards the building and operation of our roads as local authorities also have to contribute at least 50%, often more, towards projects that also benefit trucks. And this is before you consider costs that come about specifically to support the trucking industry. For example, just over a decade ago the government increased weight limits allowing trucks of up to 53 tons. That change has required bridges and other structures all over the country to be upgraded to support that extra weight. That extra weight also causes more damage to road surfaces increasing the cost of maintenance and those costs are paid for by all of us.

“There seems to be some push from Government to demonise trucks and we have noted our objection to the constant framing of trucks as dangerous and unsafe.

“They are not unsafe. Where there are safety concerns it is due to lack of infrastructure spend making New Zealand roads unsafe for the traffic demands placed on them; nothing to do with the performance of the vehicles themselves which are in fact, made ‘safe’ via a number of New Zealand laws, rules and regulations.

To respond to this I think it’s important to differentiate between trucks on the road and truck drivers. Starting with the latter, I think most truck drivers are professional and safe on our roads and drive better than most regular road users. I haven’t looked but my guess is they’re probably less likely to be fault in a crash than other road users. But physics dictates that when they are involved in a crash, the consequences will be more severe.

Nationally, heavy vehicles (which includes buses) now travel about 3.4 billion kms in a year on our roads which is just under 7% of all kilometres travelled. Data from the Ministry of Transport shows about a similar percentage of minor injuries come from crashes in which a truck is involved, this rises to 8-9% for serious injuries. But crashes in which a truck is involved account for about 20% of all road deaths that occur. That’s clearly disproportionate to the number of trucks on the roads or the distance they travel and so any freight we can move to rail helps towards making all road users safer.

If the RTF care about improving safety through better infrastructure, surely they should be all for the government’s focus on getting widespread safety improvements through things like side and median barriers as opposed to improvements on just a handful of roads.

“The re-engineering of the transport system to satisfy ideology is not only costly, but flies in the face of economic reality. In a Covid-19 world, many people will be waking up to the fact that New Zealand needs export and import trade to survive. For that critical supply chain to work in a way that allows New Zealand to compete, you need a good roading network. We haven’t walked our products to market for some time.

It’s kind of odd to complain about ideology after just claiming we should only invest in roads and then next to go on complaining about rail. It’s also a hell of a strawman to suggest that if we don’t invest in more roads we’ll be walking our products to market.

“While we support passenger rail, road freight is simply more flexible and immediate than rail freight will ever be. There are some 93,000 kms of road in New Zealand and only 4,000 kms of rail track. That split isn’t going to change significantly and the freight customers (the market) will continue to make business-based choices, no matter how much money the Government throws at rail.

“Road freight carries 93 percent of the total tonnes of freight moved in New Zealand.

“We do not support any heavy-handed State intervention to counter market choices. It appears the mass return to rail freight is a fantasy, rather than policy grounded in evidence.

“Just last week KiwiRail said the proposal to restore the train line between Gisborne and Wairoa did not stack up and there was not enough rail freight on the route.

“The Covid-19 experience has confirmed the adaptability of road freight to meet a disruptive market, something rail is unable to do. We find it difficult to see a future with rail services supplanting trucks, especially when truck transport’s environmental performance is continuing to improve with not only better engine and power train technology, but also better load management and delivery efficiency.

“All of this has been achieved without Government intervention by way of subsidies or favourable tax policy. In international transport circles, truck operators are considered one of the most innovative business groups in the world.

I doubt there’s anyone claiming we should give up our road network or stop using trucks. I also doubt there are many who don’t think that trucks will continue to play a key role in our transport story. But even if we just use the numbers presented above, rail makes up just 4% of the total network length but carries 7% of the freight.

The anti-rail rhetoric is even stronger in their actual submission. While rail might comparatively seem small, it does play an important role, especially on long routes and for moving bulk goods. Perhaps the RTF should talk to some of the big trucking companies like Mainfreight and Toll who all use rail to move goods, thereby freeing up resources to focus on distribution.  The below example was from just last year on the announcement of investment in rail to Northland.

Don Braid, Group Managing Director Mainfreight, said he was delighted at the investment in the NAL.

“It’s long overdue and Mainfreight looks forward to working with KiwiRail to establish a new set of freight services in and out of the Northland region.”

Stan Semenoff, former Mayor of Whangarei and head of Northland’s largest transport company also welcomed the Government investment.

“It’s great to see a revival of rail taking place, following the long-term underinvestment in the rail line. This will be significantly beneficial to the Northland local economy. In particular, we’re looking forward to working with KiwiRail on transport solutions. More widely, we’re looking forward to a future that combines road and rail for the greater benefit of New Zealand. This is the first great step forward.”

Back to the RTF comments, state intervention happens all the time and with every decision the government make (or don’t make). That earlier mentioned increase in truck weights was expected to see Kiwirail lose 15% of its revenue. I’m not sure if that’s what actually happened but it was certainly a state intervention and a form of a subsidy to the trucking companies. And if we’re talking subsidies, as well as paying for the majority for roads they use, let’s not forget we effectively subsidise the industry when it comes to safety and environmental outcomes.

“To aid economic recovery, we would like to see the Government acknowledge the importance of road freight and the necessity of good roads,” Leggett says.

Is this a bit like asking to be told you’re a good boy for doing your chores?

It seems we’ve still got some way to go with some organisations to them supporting more balanced outcomes.

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  1. “nothing to do with the performance of the vehicles themselves which are in fact, made ‘safe’ via a number of New Zealand laws, rules and regulations.”

    I like that the RTF have put safe in quotes, as if even they are acknowledging trucks aren’t safe. Most of the NZ truck fleet wouldn’t be allowed to operate in London, for example, because they lack side underrun protection and don’t have high visibility cabs

  2. The RTF are actually in favour of congestion pricing (that we should be calling decongestion fees). They wrote the forward to the NZ Initiative report “The Price is Right” on Congestion Pricing. Here is a quote from the start of that forward: ” The road transport industry is pleased to endorse the principles contained in the Price is Right.” here is the link to the report: https://nzinitiative.org.nz/reports-and-media/reports/the-price-is-right-the-road-to-a-better-transport-system/

    1. Congestion pricing without alternative modes in place creates transport poverty and inequity.

      So it’s not ok to support congestion pricing while complaining about investment in those other modes, “The document favours using money collected for roads, via taxes and road user charges, for other transportation including cycling, walking, and rail and heavily promotes rail freight over road. That means less money for roads that badly need the spend.”

      Their quote also shows that they don’t understand that – even before we discuss taxpayer-funded programmes like NZUP – money collected from drivers doesn’t cover the externalities of driving.

      Even the National Party strategy document about funding roads accepted that keeping pedestrians and cyclists safe on the roads was a cost that drivers – not taxpayers – must bear. Not that the Nats then followed their own strategy document.

      1. “favours using money collected for roads, via taxes and road user charges”
        The quote also shows that the RTF, in common with many drivers, don’t understand that taxes and charges paid for using roads does not mean that money is collected *for* roads.

        1. Yes, looking at the LTMA, it appears these taxes and charges may only be used if the activity takes into account:

          (iv) national energy efficiency and conservation strategy; and
          (v) relevant national policy statement and any relevant regional policy statements or plans that are for the time being in force under the Resource Management Act 1991; and

          Do we really have no national energy efficiency or conservation strategy that these NZ UP traffic-inducing boondoggles contravene?

          It seems anything in the GPS, policing, environmental health, safety and modeshift included, are approved uses of the funds, according to the LTMA.

          And even if it’s not in the GPS, these taxes and funds can be used for activities that are “in the urgent interests of public safety”.

          We’ve got a whole system that requires improvement “in the urgent interests of public safety”.

      2. I like the idea of ring fencing money collected from congestion charges for spending on alternative modes in the same corridor where the money was collected. It means we would all have a choice of paying the money and have shorter travel times, or be a beneficiary of the charges. Everyone wins something. It gets rid of the suspicion that it would just be another tax to be wasted or daft ideas like studios for tax avoiding movie millionaires.

        1. Yeah, I agree, but only once the backlog’s been cleared.

          And once there’s a mechanism for road charges to pay for some of the non-physical environment costs, like public health, social development, environmental clean up, carbon sequestration.

        2. I tried suggesting this idea to a senior state government transport official when I was living in Melbourne and was told “Governments can’t pick winners and losers” which dumbfounded me as I was seeing only winners and no losers (and what policy doesn’t have winners and losers in any case?).

          I agree with Heidi that good alternatives need to be in place first (as they largely are in Melbourne), and that the broader environmental, health, social development, etc., costs and opportunity costs need to be brought into the charging calculation, e.g.:

          -> less vehicles on the road = less pollution (even if 100% renewable EVs, there’s still tyre dust polluting soil and waterways, road noise disturbing wildlife, etc.) = less load on the overall ecosystem services budget = less tax that vehicle users have to pay in their overall tax bill to pay for rehabilitation of ecosystem services for maintenance of a biosphere that can continue to support human life, mitigation and/or adaption to alleviate any climate change effects (e.g., inundation of low-lying land, buildings and infrastructure, etc.), etc.;

          -> less vehicles on the road = less accidents/illnesses = less tax that vehicle users have to pay in their overall tax bill to cover the national health budget (plus loss of work hours arising from injuries, and loss of subsequent downstream tax events, etc.), etc.;

          … so the environmental-related, health-related, and other tax-saving benefits for vehicle users arising from less vehicles on the road should really go to benefit those who created those benefits by using alternative transport modes (the heroes), to continue to encourage them by funding further improvements to the alternative transport modes, i.e., to fiscally represent and reward the positive feedback loop/virtuous spiral being provided by the alternatives.

          If we’re serious about internalising all the externalities in order to get a truer picture of what’s going on, then it would appear that we have to include factors such as these into our calculations and charging regimes.

          I don’t know how many $ per vehicle trip that adds up to, but it might be quite a lot. Some factors would be fixed (e.g., tyre dust pollution) and other factors would be variable with location, time, and congestion conditions.

          (I’m not sure how much vehicle users might benefit pedestrians, cyclists, bus and train passengers by decongesting footpaths, cycleways, buses and trains, but if they do, this can be taken into consideration in the calculation of the vehicle trip charges.)

          It’s time to start rewarding the heroes.*

          (* We’ve had ~40 years of an ‘economic’ system that rewards villains and punishes heroes. It’s failed us, it’s failing us even more rapidly now, and it will completely fail if we don’t change it very soon – the sooner the better – later might be too late.)

  3. Childishly poor. Always the case when the ideology accusation is used. All it means is; ‘you’re not acting in line with my ideology’. After all if they had facts to support their argument, they’d use them.

  4. Looks like RTF got some of their wishes already; Light Rail in Auckland has been put “on hold”. Also, I am sure the budget today will announce a lot of “shovel ready” roading projects.

  5. Interesting that the RTF seem to have fiddled their numbers recently. Back in January they claimed: “With 93,000km of road and only 4,000km of rail…trucks transport about 70 percent of New Zealand’s land-based freight…”.


    …which if you do the math means rail carries 42% as much freight as roads, on a network that is just 4% as long. This means that rail is literally ten times more efficient at moving freight per km. So remind me why this is an argument to build more road-km instead of building more rail-km?

  6. “We haven’t walked our products to market for some time”

    All you need to know about the RTF’s attitude is right there.

    1. I wouldn’t have used Mainfreight’s image in the header. They seem to be a road freight operator which actually has a clue.

      1. This is acknowledged in the text, though I doubt they would be wanted to be called a trucking company. Their support of rail transport shows this- they want all possible options to get their customers’ freight around in the most timely and cost effective manner.

  7. Tranzrail got rid of most of the sidings and Kiwirail charges eye watering amounts to put new ones in so it’s probably a bit of a surprise rail carries as much as it does. Apart from Kiwirail’s big industrial customers and its import export container trade from port to inIand port and industrial sidings cartage of bits and pieces ie domestic freight is confined to the main trunk with interisland and intra Island routes like Auckland Palmers ton North. This leaves huge amount of freight that can only be carted by truck. So not to sure why we would want to cast the Road Transport Forum as villains. When I see containers of domestic freight being loaded on to trains and being carted from say Auckland to Kawerau taking of rail and delivered around Whakatane Opotiki and through to Gisborne then I will know rail is trying to compete. And they will deserve even more funding. Meanwhile the RTF have a point.

    1. Royce, your argument is the same as that used against any form of alternative transport to roads: Not many people walk/ride bikes/catch buses/use trains, so why would we spend money on it? The whole point is to improve the infrastructure so that more of these things can take place. Improve the railways and more freight can be carried by trains. The RTF don’t want this to happen because they see it as competition

    2. It’s a very odd point of view that uses Kawerau, of all places, as some kind of litmus test for rail competitiveness. After decades of asset stripping and managed decline don’t you think there would be higher priorities in the NZ rail system than Kawerau?

      1. I am picking Kawerau because nil domestic freight is carted there dispite it being the rail gateway to the Eastern bay of plenty and Gisborne so every single item that ends up there or comes from there except logs wood chips or paper and pulp is carted on a truck. In the days of NZ Rail Taneatua was an important hub in the countries distribution network now Kawerau is just an industrial siding so trucks and roads are needed. Of course Taneatua is closed but really Kawerau being only a few mile away is it natural successor.

  8. Your argument is the same as that used against any form of alternative transport to roads: Not many people walk/ride bikes/catch buses/use trains, so why would we spend money on it? The whole point is to improve the infrastructure so that more of these things can take place. Improve the railways and more freight can be carried by trains. The RTF don’t want this to happen because they see it as competition

  9. Unfortunately the RTF doesn’t have to worry about modal shift to rail, because it isn’t happening, and won’t be happening. When KiwiRail was formed in 2008 they carried 18 million tonnes per year. 11 years on, in 2019 they’re still carrying 18 million tonnes per year, though the NTK figure has slightly improved.

    Reading through the current government’s Draft NZ Rail Plan they state the intention of the network investment is to maintain current tonnage levels for the next ten years. They are actually planning to keep growth at zero!

    Meanwhile, KiwiRail is removing locomotives from service and refurbishing them for export to Australia for use there, along with some rolling stock. A lot more is being scrapped instead of refurbished.

    Protectionism of KiwiRail’s freight business (other companies are banned from running freight trains in NZ in order to protect KiwiRail, despite this being illegal) is really stuffing rail’s future. There’s just no growth happening or ever likely to happen under the state-run monopoly model.

    1. It seems to me that it’s focus is on pleasing the voting electorate; with improvements to the urban rail of Auckland and Wellington.

      Freight, which is where the money could be made and where the environmental benefits could be most felt, has been ignored. I suppose that’s because the voting electorate isn’t as aware of it.

    2. 42 minutes ago: KiwiRail Group chief executive Greg miller said the $1.2b investment in rail will help the business attract more customers and get more freight moving on rail.

        1. Nothing new from the already indicated ten year plan was announced today. It’s all asset replacement, not asset base increase.

          They’ll scrap or sell existing trains as fast as new ones arrive, and they’ll continue blocking other railway companies from accessing the network.

          It’ll be the same tonnage level year after year, and still no passenger trains. They just don’t have any change on the horizon.

        2. You buy new equipment to replace old worn out old equipment. You don’t see trucking companies hanging on to 60 year old trucks. Given the huge advance in technology over that time the new equipment should be a lot more capable than an old unit even if they were both brand new.

        3. Geoff – of course they haven’t increased tonnage, they haven’t had the money available to improve the network and grow capacity. You can’t just magically grow a business without investment, Kiwirail has done well to maintain existing tonnage on very limited funds.

  10. Ridiculous the amount of anti rail bias in New Zealand in some circles I think it’s stems from such a bad impression of a previously run down resource during the (mainly?) 1980’s era.

  11. Someone coined that the RTF see rail as competition. The goal then is to integrate the two. Road companies won’t hand freight and revenue to a competitor, less so a government owned one, unless it assist them to get the job done.

    Pricing road freight to reduce indirect subsidies could be spent in the same corridor or to provide a rail corridor over key routes. Where that is not viable the road pricing could reflect that. Road companies, using computer systems, can group into collectives, own and buy locomotives and wagons, and operate to a national standard. So where it would be efficient to use rail, they could so so and keep revenue within their company, and not hand it to a competitor. It would also get around the fact that many trucks are simply replicating, in a less efficient manner, what trains do best, move bulk loads between two or more key locations. Why have 50 trucks doing the same task as one train, assets and staff could be more productive. They could then use truck resources to distribute. Having intermodal bodies and systems would assist.

    But at the end of the day it will need to be a decision the RTF and other truck users are onboard with, and this idea is not mean’t to deprive, its mean’t to enhance the freight task, safety, efficiency and keep hard working truck companies in business, and it still needs a road network to function.

  12. To explain a bit further, the collectives could be a body of 100-200 truck companies with a centrally located computer system picking when key routes have enough freight to load a train, where a rail corridor is available. It is possible…..just needs a bit of co-operation and economic incentive. It does not mean heavy handed regulation, it is intended to provide for choice to haul by road as the client demands also need to be met efficiently, and it is the freight operator/s who are best placed to decide this. Im not in favour of forcing freight and revenue off trucks into Government hands, its best moved and operated by the private sector. This can include co-operation with Govt, but must avoid monopoly implications.

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