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The third main: why is a $58m rail option being ignored while a $1.4 billion road rolls on?

The Official Information Act is being badly undermined and our transport planning system is broken. Researcher Harriet Gale reports on the nonsense at the heart of both problems.

Sir Geoffrey Palmer has written just recently about the failure of the Official Information Act to provide true government transparency. He noted that as a country we have fallen in the Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Rankings from 8 to 13 and that one the primary reasons why is the weakness of the OIA.

The Ministry of Transport was caught just this month trying to pressure KiwiRail into not releasing information to me. Although KiwiRail argued there was no legal reason to withhold the information, the ministry decided to go up the KiwiRail management chain. KiwiRail was about to give up when NZ First leader Winston Peters tabled the emails of their dispute in parliament. As a result of the extensive publicity, the information was released but heavily redacted.

This was not the first time I have encountered problems with the OIA process. I’ve had many information requests rejected. Some refusals might be reasonable, such as  those citing commercial sensitivity. Others are downright odd: claiming I’m harassing them, for example. I encountered that one in response to a request for a Rail Development Programme, despite a different agency having already released much of the information, including indicative costings, in response to a different OIA request.

This points to the significant weakness of the current process. It relies on government institutions to have a culture of openness, and this openness varies considerably from institution to institution.  

And while we debate the quality of government transparency, what easily gets lost is the information itself. So, now the Ombudsman has written to the PM and a full investigation into the OIA request in question has been launched, we would be remiss not to discuss the information itself – especially as it shows the seriously broken nature of our transport system.

The information in question was a business case report (BCR)  on the “third main”: a new rail line to run between Westfield and Wiri. The BCR was put up for this year’s budget but rejected. Curiously, it was on an NZ Transport Agency document template rather than a KiwiRail template, which may have been one of the reasons the MOT didn’t want it released.

What is the third main?

The third main is an additional track on the currently double-tracked rail line, to run between Westfield, just north of Otahuhu, and Wiri near Manukau. This section of railway is one of the busiest in the country: the Eastern and Southern passenger lines use it, along with a significant portion of KiwiRail’s freight movements in Auckland. Due to existing congestion, passenger trains are delayed and slowed, while the amount of freight KiwiRail can move is also limited.

Source: KiwiRail third rail Business Case Report

A third track would take hundreds of trucks off the roads, not just in Auckland but also on regional roads feeling the strain from heavy vehicles. It would speed up passenger services, increase safety, potentially allow express and intercity trains to run, and permit Auckland Transport to use its trains more efficiently.

If it’s not built, tough decisions will need to be made. There will be less ability to increase train frequencies when the City Rail Link is open, and/or rail freight will be restricted, which will mean hundreds more trucks on our already congested roads.

Source: KiwiRail third rail Business Case Report

Why then has it not been approved? Is it too expensive?

No. The third main is expected to cost a mere $50-58 million. The benefit-cost ratios are redacted in the report as released, but it says, “This option is economically efficient, as the forecast benefits significantly exceed the expected costs.” The proposed East-West Link, a new highway, is also supposed to enable freight movement in the Onehunga area and is expected to cost between $1.5-1.8 billion.

The East-West Link, however, is being funded no questions asked, even though its costs have escalated from $800 million and it may have a benefit:cost ratio of less than 1.

On Newshub’s The Nation over the weekend minister Simon Bridges disputed that the BCR for the East-West Link had changed, even though the cost estimate has more than doubled. He agreed under questioning to release the current figures to the public and we look forward to that being honoured.

The outcome will be interesting, especially as NZTA released just yesterday a report by John Williamson, an economist it engaged to review critiques of the East-West Link. In that report, Williamson made it clear there was no up-to-date BCR, and that such an assessment is not even relevant. Essentially, NZTA and the government are pushing ahead with the road, having decided not to undertake the usual assessment of its economic value.

This situation shows exactly why our current transport system is broken. Roading projects favoured by politicians are funded no questions asked, they can bypass usual planning requirements and can even be exempted from strategic planning discussion (the East-West Link is not part of the Auckland Transport Alignment Project).

Meanwhile, rail projects go through a completely separate planning and funding process. They need to be begged for and are only funded when public pressure forces it. As for coastal shipping solutions, they no longer get discussed at all.

To maintain this separation of planning and funding is so absurd, perhaps even the government has decided on a rethink. Is this one of the reasons Bridges announced a review of KiwiRail at the end of last month, with a focus on funding models?

To be clear, all transport modes – rail, road, coastal shipping, walking and cycling – should be funded without bias and they should be planned to complement each other, not compete. Until this happens, we will continue to suffer in a downward spiral of worsening congestion and poor transport outcomes.

The National Roads Policy needs to be replaced with a National Transport and Freight Policy. As Bridges himself put it last month, “We want to have a really good look at that and put them on a good even footing.”

Bring it on, minister.

Harriet Gale is a researcher at the transport and urban development advocacy group Greater Auckland.


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