A sheep that thinks it is a train. Photo: Getty

Labour had a bold vision for rail revival. But does it have a plan?

In campaigning, Ardern’s party proffered a range of bold railway intentions. Now we’re waiting for the bold coalition blueprint, writes former National cabinet minister Wayne Mapp

I am a fan of trains. I have lots of books on lost rail lines in New Zealand. For instance, losing the line to Rotorua seemed the ultimate in short term thinking. When overseas, I travel by rail whenever I can. So I have followed with interest the government’s plans for KiwiRail.

The future of rail featured quite strongly during the election campaign. In Labour’s transport policies there was going to be an investigation of rail to Marsden Port, rail to Gisborne, passenger trains to Hamilton and Tauranga, and a reversal of the plan to replace the main trunk electric locomotives with diesel. Interestingly the commitment to passenger rail between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga was the most developed. Obviously, an MP or researcher had a particular interest in this. It was very ambitious, envisaging a future with 160 kph plus trains connecting the three cities. Maybe it was more of a vision rather than a real plan.

On top of the heavy rail plan, was the plan for light rail in Auckland. These seem to be modern trams. The announcements to date have been quite impressive, though trams to the airport is a questionable investment. Wouldn’t an airport bus using the Waterview tunnel be quicker?

The heavy rail plan set out during the election campaign wasn’t really a knitted together package, but at least the direction was clear. Rail would be a priority for Labour, just as it is with the other two parties of the coalition government.

So how have they done after one year of government? And do they now have an integrated plan?

Well, there have been some good announcements, but there are some noticeable gaps. We also don’t really have an overall plan, a sense of what rail in New Zealand might look like after ten years.

The announcement in recent days that the electric locomotives on the main trunk line would be upgraded was most welcome. This replaced the previous government’s intent to replace them with diesel locomotives. The electrification of the main trunk line was one of Rob Muldoon’s Think Big projects, probably the best one of them all. It was a pity the electrification only covered Palmerston North to Hamilton. Logically one would expect any government concerned with rail efficiency and climate change to extend electrification to Wellington and to Auckland. I know that will be expensive, but it will be cheaper than light rail to Auckland airport. The weekend Labour Party conference passed a remit calling for electrification from Auckland to Wellington.

The first rail announcement by the government was reopening the line from Napier to Wairoa. In itself that made little sense; it is only relevant if the line is being reopened all the way to Gisborne. Presumably that is still the intent.

There have been very strong expectations that rail will be extended to Marsden Port, with improvements in the line all the way back to Auckland. Instead of announcing that as the plan, the government instead announced in June that the Business Case for such improvements would done, to report back in nine months, say March 2019. This was frustrating. The government needs to just get on with it, not announce another review.

As for the passenger trains to Hamilton and Tauranga, nothing has been said. Again, why not? The initial decision of a basic passenger service is not that big a deal. Just get on with it.

Perhaps the core of the problem is that the government does not have a comprehensive overarching plan for rail. Sure, all the parties in the government say it is a good thing, but every little decision seems to go through an arcane and convoluted decision making process. One of the real values of National’s Roads of Significance, whether you agreed with it or not, was that it was a clear plan. You knew that the priority for roads was the major motorway projects, from Wellsford to Cambridge and from Wellington to Levin. The super dangerous Katikati to Tauranga road was also in the mix for four lanning.

Labour, New Zealand First and the Greens need the same approach to rail. Set out your plan, then build it. Around about now, or at least within the next six months, New Zealanders should be seeing a rail plan that knits together all the plans of the three parties. It would discard the fanciful, but would guarantee the obviously doable. It does need some ambition. After all the plan will define New Zealand rail for the next 30 years. Even though the government won’t last that long, their decisions will impact over that time.

Each government gets to set its priorities. For National it was roads, in particular motorways. But also the Central Railway Link in Auckland. Just about all of them will be opened by Jacinda Ardern.

For Labour and its coalition partners, the priority is rail. Maybe, just as with National and the CRL, there will be a future motorway project that will also be included. Perhaps the New Zealand First priority of four lanes to Whangarei will be the one. But it will likely be a future National PM who will open the majority of Labour’s transport projects.

The transport plans of both major parties illustrate the yin and yang of politics. The priorities of Labour and National combine to provide an integrated transport plan for New Zealand. While this may not be accepted by the partisans within each party, it is almost certainly, at an intuitive level, discerned by the wider electorate.


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