There is talk – from a number of quarters – about shifting some of our freight from road to rail. What would this involve?
To move forward, we need to look back for a moment. What was the freight sector like in New Zealand a dozen years ago? How – and why – has it changed since? As I remember it, things in 2010 were reasonably similar to today:
- There was a bias towards road freight, with insufficient use being made of rail – the safety, maintenance and sustainability benefits it provided were largely ignored.
- Our trucks were too large – for open roads and city streets alike – and involved in too many serious crashes.
- On particular roads and parts of the country, people restricted their movements to avoid coming into conflict with heavy trucks. People walked, cycled and even drove less, and certainly placed restrictions on their children’s movements, in order to keep safe.
Solutions to these problems were readily available. For example, the Dutch Advancing Sustainable Safety had been published five years earlier, with plenty of advice about designing a sustainable freight system:
We need to acknowledge that there is a high level of incompatibility between the heavy goods vehicles and all other road users. There is very little else that can be done about this structural problem other than separating heavy goods vehicles from other traffic. From the Sustainable Safety vision, everything possible has to be done to prevent unnecessary movement, and then to manage the mileage travelled as safely as possible.
A fully separated truck road network was clearly impractical, but good policy would have sought solutions that combined:
- Smaller and safer trucks
- Slower speeds
- Shifting freight to rail
- Isolated stretches of truck only road
- Ongoing professional driver training and monitoring
So what’s interesting is what the Government decided to do instead. They permitted heavier trucks – up to 62 tonnes – on certain routes. And they set about increasing the number of routes that could take those heavier trucks.
This required a bridge strengthening programme, and it required a more intensive road maintenance programme. While the government acknowledged at the time that ratepayers would be picking up a fair bit of the cost of the additional road maintenance required, they justified it on the basis of “benefits” to ratepayers:
The ministry says local authorities will receive 50 per cent of the cost of extra wear and tear as Government subsidies, leaving ratepayers “who benefit from the regional stimulus and economic and community benefits” to meet the rest.
Local Government NZ initially objected, but eventually said they were convinced that there would be “mechanisms” to mitigate the effects.
Bridge Strengthening – are they done yet?
In August this year, Waka Kotahi announced they’d found damage in the SH2 Esk River Bridge, just north of Napier:
Recent assessments have identified the bridge does not have enough capacity to sustain increased traffic demands. The bridge is 81 years old and wasn’t designed to carry modern day traffic, specifically, the number of heavy vehicles and the weight of these trucks…
The bridge is on the route taken by trucks carrying wood pulp from the Pan Pac mill in Whirinaki to the port in Napier. This is one of the earliest routes permitted for use by the largest (62 tonne) trucks.
Five years ago, trucking lobbyists were hailing the shift to the monster trucks on this route as a “magical story of success”:
Bridges are not insignificant in the asset base of the Hastings District Council. Their website gives details of their bridge strengthening programme required for the bigger trucks, and a link to their interactive Bridge Restrictions Map:
Neither Hastings District Council Mayor Sandra Hazlehurst, nor the Regional Transport Committee Chairman Martin Williams have been impressed about the problems with the Esk River Bridge, with the mayor saying:
When the government brought in new restrictions around vehicle weights and dimensions for bridges in 2017, Hastings District Council committed $9.9m over seven years to strengthen 22 bridges on our roading network in our 2018-28 Long Term Plan to ensure our bridges met the new specifications…
We took ownership of what was required on our network, and it is disappointing that yet again we don’t seem to see the same commitment from Waka Kotahi on the network they are responsible for.
The nation’s scale of bridge strengthening work required to cope with the bigger trucks has been significant, and is ongoing. Just north of Hastings District, for example, the $137 million Connecting Tairāwhiti programme of capital projects across Tairāwhiti and northern Hawke’s Bay seems to be a mix of:
- bridge strengthening for heavy trucks
- bridge widening, (with strengthening for heavy trucks at the same time)
- passing lanes, slow vehicle lanes, slow vehicle bays and resilient roads (plantings to stabilise slopes).
Had we invested all that money in rail, rather than in strengthening bridges for bigger trucks, what would our rail network look like today?
Maintaining the Roads – how’s that going?
There is increasing media coverage of potholes and the problems they pose for everyone on the road network:
Transport Minister Michael Wood has responded to the pothole coverage by posting the road maintenance figures on facebook last Wednesday, and twitter took no time in linking the shortfall in maintenance funding during the National Government with the monster truck policy:
Meanwhile, road building ramped up. As Matt wrote in 2020:
The money that should have gone for maintenance was sucked away to help pay for the Roads of National Significance.
Councils all over New Zealand are now feeling the pinch. In this RNZ article, Waka Kotahi siphons $500m out of Taranaki to spend elsewhere the New Plymouth mayor Neil Holdom says:
Targeted Rates for Forestry – is this the best solution?
Wairoa District Council has introduced targeted rates for forestry operators, to help cover the costs of maintaining the roads their trucks damage. In response, forestry operators took the Council to the High Court for judicial review, and lost, which paves the way for more councils to follow suit. Stratford District Council is another council taking this pathway. John Williamson’s article Let’s have a closer look at the cause of the pothole problem is worth a read.
However, is this the best solution? The benefits of directly charging truck-related costs to the trucking companies instead include:
- All trucks would pay to maintain the roads they use, not just trucks from one industry.
- Industry would be encouraged to consider other options, to avoid the truck-related costs – such as rail.
The extra danger to communities – how is that panning out?
This video shows some of the progress being made. Unfortunately, it also showed that some basic safety misconceptions linger on at Waka Kotahi. Safety is not something to ‘balance’ with ‘the economy’:
“We’ve got to strike a balance between keeping everyone on the road safe, whilst also keeping the economy going and keeping freight moving around the country”
A safe transport system is a non-negotiable platform upon which a sustainable economy can be developed. Fundamentally unsafe practices – such as permitting these oversized trucks to operate on the same corridors as other people – are preventing human activity of all kinds, including the activity of sustainable businesses.
To get a feel for the danger involved, watch the trucks roaring past each other between 4:54 and 5:12 in this video of trucks at the Whirinaki Mill. And compare the curves taken by the drivers when turning right to enter – depending on whether a truck or a car is present.
Can rail provide a solution?
Given the problems larger trucks create in terms of bridge strengthening, road damage, safety and transport choice, it’s good to see that the Hawkes Bay Regional Council’s Regional Land Transport Plan 2021 – 2024 identifies the need for shifting some of this freight to rail:
A focus on rail for freight, including consideration of re-establishing rail links north to Gisborne is also relevant. Substantial forestry planting occurred in the 1990s, with peak harvesting expected to occur over the next 10-20 years. Heavy vehicle traffic is predicted to increase due to forest harvests… Renewed rail links offer the opportunity to take some pressure off logging truck movements.
Increases in heavy vehicle transport near Napier Port could increase conflict with other land uses in the area, although there is sufficient network capacity for growth. The significant primary production in Hawke’s Bay means a range of slower agricultural machinery and stock uses of rural roads and state highways.
But what about a place like Pan Pac mill, which doesn’t have a rail connection?
One regular email I receive – always topical and interesting – is “The view from across the ditch… an expat railwayman’s view on rail in NZ” by Stu Dow. In August, Stu wrote about the bridge over the Esk River:
In my opinion, this situation is but the tip of the iceberg…
This debacle goes all the way back to the Government of the day allowing the construction of the mill at Whirinaki between 1971 and 1973 and not ensuring that Carters (now Carter Holt Harvey), the major shareholder with 60 percent initially, should connect to the adjacent Napier – Gisborne railway line, approx. 2 kilometres away. (The plant is now 100 percent Japanese owned)…
In addition, this is certainly NOT the only large forestry related facility around NZ that – even if it has a rail siding – is subject to little or no service from KiwiRail, which is a scandal in itself
It’s surely time to look at all the disused rail lines, opportunities for new sidings, and question KiwiRail priorities.
At least the Labour government has already indicated it wants to shift some freight to rail in the New Zealand Rail Plan, and mentions the emissions reductions benefits from doing so:
At present, freight carried by rail saves at least 70 percent of the carbon emissions compared to heavy road transport, so each tonne of freight that moves from road to rail makes a tangible difference to New Zealand’s carbon footprint. There is much more that could be achieved, and choices to be made on whether to pursue a more aggressive carbon reduction strategy.
Yet, as we noted in July, they are still intending to subsidise truck growth, if the Waikato & Bay of Plenty Freight Action Plan is indicative of their direction, with only $88m earmarked for rail, out of the $2.6b being spent:
We built a railway for this country once. We need to do so again – to look after our people, our roading assets, and our planet.
Don’t forget to submit on the Inquiry into the Future of Regional Passenger Rail.