This week’s Wellington disruptions are the latest episode in an epic saga of rail network inadequacy. But it doesn’t always have to be this way, writes André Brett.
If you are travelling by train, do you want to know the railway is safe? Obviously, you do. Luckily, track evaluation cars can provide precise technical information about the state of the track, meaning faults can be detected before they become dangerous.
The thing is, KiwiRail owns one track evaluation car. This vehicle, EM80, must regularly inspect a network spanning two islands and approximately 4,000 kilometres. Also, it’s over 40 years old.
To meet regulatory requirements, KiwiRail’s lonely old EM80 visits Wellington every four months. Essentially, each line has to get its Warrant of Fitness. The Kāpiti Line needed to be inspected by the start of May; the Hutt by 7 May. But it transpired that EM80 was being repaired in Auckland. Consequently, trains have had to observe speed restrictions this week, and fewer services can operate. Oops.
Worse, it turned out the original announcement last Friday was incomplete. Even if EM80 had not been under repair, it was not scheduled to inspect Wellington’s network until May, too late for Kāpiti, and this blunder somehow was not identified sooner. Transport minister Michael Wood summoned KiwiRail’s bosses to the Beehive and subsequently announced an independent review.
New Zealand has a completely inadequate national rail network. It is inadequate in scope, frequency, and management. There have been few upgrades and many cuts since the 1950s. The North Island Main Trunk’s last major upgrade occurred in the 1980s, when the central section was electrified. Imagine if State Highway 1 was last upgraded in the 1980s or if the highway network as a whole was stuck in the 1950s.
How did we get here? Two attitudes have underpinned railway operations for decades. First, a focus on goods. Since the 1950s, passengers have been seen as a noisy inconvenience. Containers and coal do not talk back. Second, managed decline: a process of minimising losses and public objection to the winding down of rail services. New Zealand Railways, one of the largest government departments, was corporatised in 1982 and privatised in 1993. Privatisation led to asset-stripping by a monopoly focused on immediate financial gain, and the Clark Labour government renationalised the network as KiwiRail in 2008.
KiwiRail is a state-owned enterprise, required to turn a profit, and it operates within legislative and political restrictions. I have in the past been generous to it. I’m a historian: if I cannot scour an archive, I temper my formal assessments. KiwiRail must cut its coat according to its cloth, so I’ve cut it slack.
But recent events are beyond a joke. 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.
KiwiRail’s responses to proposals for improvement are often a crude better-things-aren’t-possible attitude. Take its response to intercity rail proposals in the South Island. This is “not operationally viable” because the Main South Line is at capacity with… 10–14 trains daily. It handled many more until 1980s–90s penny-pinching slashed track capacity. Now that capacity is needed again, KiwiRail seems incapable of seeking it. How is this organisation so cowed that it cannot publicly advocate for funding to expand rail use?
Our railways are so emaciated that nobody in New Zealand has experience in running a modern, growing network. Moreover, we are so hostile to enabling transport without four rubber tyres that we struggle to attract talent: when Wayne Brown, a man with a car-shaped brain, won the Auckland mayoralty, an international appointee for CEO of Auckland Transport said “yeah nah”. Our railways need to be run by people with experience expanding network scope and usage.
It is time to ask if KiwiRail should be broken up. A non-profit public body could maintain the network and allocate train paths, with local/national authorities operating urban and regional passenger rail collaboratively for public benefit. KiwiRail can remain a state-owned enterprise seeking profits from tourist trains and goods but compete with any private operator willing to have a go. Unlike the existing state of affairs, which lacks accountability or ambition, this structure would foster innovation and not discriminate against passengers in favour of goods.
There has also been some good news – indeed, the timing suggests it was intended to soften the blow of Wellington’s delays. The government will support new trains for Manawatū and Wairarapa services. This is essential: the existing 1970s rollingstock has been refurbished to within an inch of its life and a 2021 report identified a positive benefit/cost ratio of 1.83 to purchasing 22 trains (unlike many road projects with negative BCRs). Penny-pinching continues, since the order is only for 18. Hopefully it is expanded for regions nationwide.
KiwiRail will buy a new track evaluation car, too – but only one. Why not one for each island? Sydney has two for its urban network alone. They cost up to $40m, justifiable expenditure for decades of safe operation. New Zealand talks a lot about resilience, but when it comes to investing in equipment, infrastructure, and redundancy to provide resilience, the talk is often hollow. Alas, “redundancy” is anathema to many who have run New Zealand’s railways as a cost-cutting exercise for decades.
Kiwis often think of cars as freedom and congestion as other people, rather than modal choice as freedom and public transport as opportunity. Even similarly car-dependent Australia does better – Melbourne, for instance, has hourly trains to towns of a similar size to our regional centres that have no trains at all. If they can make it work, New Zealand can. The current state of affairs is depressing, but better things are possible: we can have good, accessible, sustainable transport.
Dr André Brett is a Kāpiti Coaster who is currently lecturer of history at Curtin University, Perth. He authored Can’t Get There from Here: New Zealand Passenger Rail since 1920 (Otago University Press, 2021).