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.