The last week has been a rough one for KiwiRail. Understandably huge attention was paid to their enormous stuff-up about a track inspection vehicle needed in Wellington that was both faulty and not even scheduled to be in Wellington when it was needed. Then on Friday, Auckland’s entire rail network (well, what’s left of it, given the Eastern Line is closed for months due to another KiwiRail stuff up) was brought to its knees by a humidity induced equipment failure. A review into the Wellington stuff-up has commenced, while here in Auckland we wonder what it might take for a similar review into the dire state of our rail service to be instigated, or for our local politicians to even care, let alone grow some teeth and demand one.
With Kiwirail’s incompetence brought to the forefront it feels like we’re at a tipping point because, as rail historian Andre Brett highlighted in a post for The Spinoff, recent events are not isolated incidents:
It is hard to avoid the impression KiwiRail has little interest in running a railway or serving those who want to use it. It is doing potentially irreparable damage to the future of rail in New Zealand. Wellington’s fiasco is only the latest inconvenience KiwiRail has thrust upon rail users. Auckland is experiencing months-long shutdowns on every line. Most of the country does not even have passenger rail as an option: car dependency is baked into our transport system. As for freight, insiders tell of existing or prospective users being cold-shouldered.
It’s now 15 years since KiwiRail was established, when the previous Labour government ‘bought back’ the train system from Toll in mid-2008, a few months before losing the election. A few years before then they had bought back the track network for $1, after it had been privatised in 1990. Between 2004 and 2008, when the Government owned the tracks but not yet the train system, an organisation called “ONTRACK” existed, which led much of the early work on revitalising Auckland’s rail system through projects like double-tracking the Western Line.
In KiwiRail’s early years, the new government was hostile to spending money on rail and reluctantly made a series of fairly minor investments through a “Turnaround Plan” into upgrading old rolling stock and other facilities, while looking to downscale the rail network by closing or mothballing some of the less used lines. More recently, investment levels into KiwiRail from the government have skyrocketed – last year’s budget alone allocated around $2.1 billion of investment into rail, with most of that going to KiwiRail (alongside other investments like City Rail Link).
Throughout these past 15 years there have been questions raised about the future of KiwiRail. Even recently, a series of reviews into rail have looked at how to improve outcomes and performance, especially given the vast increase in investment the government is making.
- The 2019 “Future of Rail” review looked at how to better integrate rail into normal transport planning and investment decision making processes, eventually proposing an extremely complicated system involving the New Zealand Rail Plan and the Rail Network Investment Programme.
- A more recent review into KiwiRail’s status as a State Owned Enterprise bizarrely reached the conclusion that no changes to current organisational arrangements were necessary.
I chat with quite a few different people involved in the wider rail sector and nobody agrees that we should simply continue with the status quo. There are a few big reasons for this:
- KiwiRail wear far too many “hats” in the roles that they play in the rail system. An obvious example of this is the Auckland Metro Rail Network where KiwiRail freight trains and Auckland Transport passenger trains essentially must ‘compete’ for a limited number of ‘slots’ in the rail network. Yet it’s KiwiRail wearing another hat who make the decision on this. It’s no wonder that despite rail forming a critical part of the “frequent public transport network”, it doesn’t actually meet the standard of off-peak services at least every 15 minutes.
- There seems to be extremely limited competition or innovation in many of the tasks KiwiRail performs. How can we be confident that the Auckland rail network rebuild couldn’t be done much faster and in a less disruptive way, if it’s only KiwiRail’s own internal team who are allowed to carry out the work? When it took a month for them to clear what looked like a small slip near my local station recently, and more than two months after that there are still significant speed restrictions around the site, it’s very hard to have any confidence. Note, City Rail Link don’t seem to have few issues with track work in part because they’re using experts and equipment from overseas.
- It seems unhelpful that planning and investment of rail continues to be separated out from other types of transport projects. There are endless horror stories in the transport sector of how difficult Kiwirail are to deal with on issues but they’re especially unhelpful whenever anyone else tries to use some of their unused land for something like a cycleway. Also, it seems nearly impossible to plan new passenger services on the existing network, or future rapid transit corridors (like in Christchurch or perhaps even Tauranga) that might be heavy rail or another mode that interacts with the rail network.
- Kiwirail are hard to hold accountable for their poor performance due to a lack of transparency, for example, they say their rail network rebuild in Auckland will result in faster and more reliable services and fewer cases of shutdowns, like we experience every long weekend/holiday period. But they refuse to say just how much faster and more reliable services will be, making it hard to judge the level of benefit we’re getting from all this disruption.
It seems to me that we have fiddled around while Rome burns for long enough when it comes to KiwiRail. More significant change is necessary – with rail playing such a major role in helping to achieve many of our transport goals and with so much government investment at stake. The detail of any such change will obviously be complex, but should focus on the following:
- Splitting off the freight part of KiwiRail’s business from the tracks. The freight business can keep going as a State Owned Enterprise, as it seems to do OK whenever it’s not asked to fully cover the costs of looking after a nationally significant transport network.
- Requiring much more competition and transparency when it comes to the track improvement and maintenance activities required – so we can have confidence that these tasks are getting done as quickly and efficiently as possible – especially if network closures and major government investment are required.
- Merging the track part of KiwiRail into Waka Kotahi, so that we create a truly multi-modal national transport agency that has responsibility for all our national transport networks. This will have the added benefit of properly forcing Waka Kotahi to shed its historic state highway culture as it will have another major task and network to look after.
Of course, it’s impossible to know whether changes like these made earlier would have prevented much of the mess that we find ourselves in with rail in this country. But I’m fairly confident that no amount of eye-watering investment into rail will prevent this from continuing to happen unless we see finally properly reform KiwiRail.
We’ve had enough.