Gordon Campbell on Kiwirail’s latest stint in the dogbox

The denigration of Kiwirail continues. The latest review (based on a 2014 assessment) of the options facing the company have enabled Kiwirail to be hung out to dry once again as a liability and burden on the taxpayer.

The company is an ‘economic cot case’, in the words of one media report this morning. In reality, the review’s sole consideration was whether (and how) Kiwirail could be turned into a ‘for profit’ business, as construed on very narrow commercial grounds. No consideration was given or value placed upon the social and environmental benefits of Kiwirail’s freight and passenger operations.

The only options on the table proved to be these: (a) a ‘trimmed’ network, with some un-economic rail lines being closed down entirely (b) the separation of Kiwirail into separate North Island and South Island networks with the interisland ferry service being scrapped (c) a business operating only in the upper North Island and focused mainly on the Tauranga to Auckland corridor and (d) the closing down of Kiwirail’s rail freight business altogether. Ultimately, the government chose to adopt none of the above.

Even on these narrow, ideologically loaded grounds, the 2014 review found that Kiwirail was actually running its daily operations on a profitable basis. What was sending its balance sheets into the red was the $200 million annual cost of repair and replacement of its essential infrastructure: the tracks, bridges, tunnels etc. Again, it’s worth asking why is Kiwirail being singled out here for such rigorous attention?

Elsewhere in the world the value of rail as a conduit for moving passengers and freight is well recognized and is widely subsidized as a public good without very much debate or political dissent. Moreover, public ownership of rail is seen to deliver social and environmental gains that have value in the real world, even if they can’t be allowed a place in Treasury’s economic models.

The tut-tutting pressure on Kiwirail is highly selective. As this column has been pointing out all year, huge amounts are being allocated to Defence without the public (or the media) even blinking, even though – officially – no external security threat is deemed to exist in the South Pacific region. In February, the government spent $440 million for a weapons upgrade on our all-but-obsolete frigates, which would still be sitting ducks in any genuine war-fighting situation, regardless. We don’t ever seem to run a proper cost/benefit analysis on the investment of taxpayer dollars in Defence. We also choose to ignore the lack of a viable cost/benefit rationale when it comes to the massive investments in roading. Yet we regularly kick Kiwirail all around the block when it requires only a fraction of the amounts being freely spent in other areas.

Historically, Kiwirail’s potential contribution of this country’s r&d has never been capitalised upon. The closing of the Hillside workshops in Dunedin for instance, came to mind again this week, after reports that a French company had won the submarine contract for the Australian Navy. Those submarines will be built in Adelaide, using Australian steel and creating Australian jobs while – along the way – contributing to Australia’s research and development reservoir of knowledge, with spinoffs back into the private sector.

That sort of thing can’t seem to happen here. It would involve state planning and a rational investment in a future beyond this year’s short term balance sheet – and that sort of thing is still shunned as a sinful, inherently dangerous activity by the mullahs at Treasury. Grudgingly, the government is doing the right thing by continuing its support for Kiwirail.

Lemons, Lemons and Lemonade.

Can’t add much to the torrents of commentary this past week on the death of Prince and the release of Beyonce’s Lemonade ‘visual album.’ Loved that Onion headline though : “Nation Too Sad to Fuck, Even Though That’s What Prince Would Have Wanted”. This piece on Prince’s admiration for Islam was also interesting.

Footnote: on the same day that Prince died, so did the great Southern guitarist and singer Lonnie Mack, whose 1963 instrumental version of Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” inspired a whole generation of budding guitarists. Mack’s deep soul ballad “Why” also proved that even pudgy 22 year old white guys got the blues, and could sing them, beautifully. A few years ago, critic Greil Marcus wrote an essay that celebrated Lonnie Mack’s rendition, and the song’s inexorable, escalating sense of despair.

Two days in, I’m still working out my reaction to Beyonce’s Lemonade. Easy enough to admire the visual imagery, and the music is striking. “Formation” sounds even better in this context “Hold Up” (to take just one example) wittily uses its Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Andy Williams samples. Great guest appearance by Kendrick Lamar on “Freedom” too. Yet the extent to which Lemonade lays claim to being a general statement of vulnerability/empowerment seems to sit uneasily alongside the reality show ‘Kanye & Kim’ elements. The Jay- Z cameo is especially odd. Sure, the personal is political, but too much personal specificity (aka gossip) risks undercutting the claims to a more general truth. Among the deluge of analysis that’s been published this week on Lemonade, these comments by Amanda Petrusich also seemed interesting:

Insomuch as it’s possible to distill any one theme from the last couple of decades of pop music, it’s the presentation of—and insistence upon—self-empowerment as an infallible path toward joy. Those sorts of affirmations can induce a wild ecstasy in the moment—I AM THE BEST! NO ONE CAN TOUCH ME! SUCK A DICK, JERKS!—but eventually, one has to worry about whether those same notions are not, in fact, a deeply odious and toxic force in the world. It can’t be great for whole generations to come of age hollering self-aggrandizing anthems that never quite acknowledge the most gratifying and dangerous thing a human being can actually do: courageously make room for another person in her heart.

To which the obvious rejoinder is that… until the oppressed can first find the means to assert themselves, they’re not going to be in any position to re-open themselves to vulnerability further down the track, no matter how therapeutic that might be in theory. (Still, Petrusich is right about righteous anger only taking you so far.) The other fascinating strand in Lemonade is that… as a cry of pain and empowerment against the Jay Z who did her wrong, it seems ironic that Beyonce chose to initially release Lemonade exclusively on the Tidal streaming service, thereby all but ensuring that Jay Z’s investment in Tidal will finally pay off. It is easy to see why the comparisons with the Clintons are being made.

Sure, it may be more courageous not to kick the bum out – as many Beyonce’s admirers are claiming. Equally and arguably, a somewhat careerist form of co-dependence could also be at work here. Her choice, of course. Ultimately, people stay in relationships or go, for their reasons. Here’s Etta James, who also knew a thing or two about heartbreak:

And here is her original hit version of an Etta James song that – to James’ dismay – Beyonce famously chose to sing to Barack and Michelle Obama at the White House.

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11 Comments on Gordon Campbell on Kiwirail’s latest stint in the dogbox

  1. The govt never even tried to fix the problems(like pricing passenger costs too high which deterred public usage)they have mismanaged kiwirail.
    No public transport system can be based on gross mismanagement ending with the “desire for profit” used as a cheesy old sell off motif.

  2. Meanwhile Roading gets billions of new investment pumped into it every year. If Rail could access some of those funds we could have a first class network.

  3. The roading is part of the ” climate change scheme(sic) .It includes millions on the un-needed so called ” smart” technology in roads as you can’t have a “1984” grid without it.
    Toll roads, mass surveillance and big odious debt seems to be the LTP (which is coated under a stinking thick “Carbon” coating).
    How these Carbonized bureaucrats can (with a strait face) pour so much, record amounts, of money into( toll!?) roading and new diesel buses while simultaneously whining obsessively about NZ ” Carbon” emissions is astounding.

    It appears that ministers/politicians are now paid to deny problems not to fix them.
    Even system failures in the NZ health care system are lied about so solving them is made impossible by the denials.
    What does the DHB do when they serve patients slop? …they just pay more for “experience coordinators”. “How was your experience of hospital food-slop today Sir” ?
    The DHB will not end the contract and try to get decent hospital food to patients as that would solve the food problem. Far better to keep giving patients slop and pay more for doing it.
    And patients are not all getting needed specialist referrals and specialist treatments in a timely manner, instead the health data is being massaged.
    I believe they ran Kiwirail down on purpose for a sale.

  4. My MA thesis was on the rather minor issue of the Railcar replacement issue in the 1967-77 period but it became clear to me in this work in 1980-1 that the general view that NZR would be an economical long distance rail freight hauler and had no future in the passenger was the absolute opposite of the truth. Distances and population in NZ is far too small for economical general freight business. Combined with that is the problem of steep grades throughout the rail system, a nation divided into two islands meaning transfer off and on very expensive unique rail ferries. in the North Island the Main trunk is split into four incompatible systems of power Electric DC from Wellington to Waikanae, Chinese diesels from Waikanae to Palmerston North, British AC Electric from Palmerston to Hamilton and GE Diesels from Hamilton to Papakura and AC electrics from Papakura to Auckland so effecively half a dozen transfers of motive power from Christchurch to Auckland which removes any chance of use of efficient freight by rail plus the Chinese diesels are noisy heavy overweight growlers, the US GE and Gm diesels inefficient even by 70s standards.

  5. “Again, it’s worth asking why is Kiwirail being singled out here for such rigorous attention?”

    Because for rail to work efficiently it must be a government monopoly which means that the private sector can’t get profits out of it. And because it is so efficient and cost effective it means that profits in the other transport sectors goes down – especially in the fossil fuel sales.

    “Yet we regularly kick Kiwirail all around the block when it requires only a fraction of the amounts being freely spent in other areas.”

    And Kiwibank. In fact, anywhere that government services will impact private profit gets attacked as being inefficient and costing money. That which boosts private profit gets loudly acclaimed even though it’s less efficient and costs more.

  6. @Alexandra the govt’s record breaking spending on roading while simultaneously launching a campaign against demonized plant food(C02) is a bit of a give away. New Zealand’s (unmeasured) emission estimate is less than .2% emissions.
    Long term local govt plans have even been based on unmeasured C02 emissions and the myth of “man’s emitted C02 causing global warming”.

  7. Crown NZ govt monopoly for efficiency is a non reality, the Crown( as a monopoly) always has and would be protecting corporations/private business interests. The Crown NZ govt has a conflict of interest.
    You can see the Crown interest in its actions with the sell off public owned assets cheap without consent to make the taxpayers buy back syndrome. Having the PM sign the TPPA.
    The fact is the Crown historically protects and generates wealth for itself ( foreign banks and global corporate interests )at the cost of the people of NZ(its debt slaves).

    The stealth privatizations and wealth transfers through various tricks has always been a fact with the Crown monopoly.

    “The rail workers’ union is condemning the Greater Wellington Regional Council’s (GWRC) decision to privatise Wellington’s metro rail services, says RMTU General Secretary Wayne Butson.
    “We’re saddened to see the GWRC opt for privatisation.””
    The latest Kiwirail BS is just part of the scheme. If a foreign corporation wants Kiwirail but wants money poured into it first, then this story will be worded to pour money into it for private money benefit.
    Follow the money.

  8. I would regard the main North Island freight routes Wellington-Auckland, Auckland-Tauranga and associated timber lines and New Plymouth to Wellington or Auckland (via Marton) as reasonably justified. The Waairapa loop should clearly be maintained and new intercity DMUs obtained for Wellington- Masterton-Woodville and Wellington Palmerston North services at least 6 times a day. All the evidence is DMU operation will be much more succesful than the very expensive locomotive haulage of the current rebuilt Brit rail 1980s second hand stock.
    The Government clearly regards the South Island system on a ten year timeline for closure and the reduction of rail equipped ferries to one and plans clearly announced not to proceed with its replacement guarantees that. Many academics like Lincoln Transport professor Kissel regard sea transport from Lyttelton to Wellington as more economic and that was allways the view of Mr Grout and his competing straight shipping. The Solid Energy collapse means the West Coast Buller line is in doubt and possibly should be confined to running the Trans Alpine twice daily to Arthurs Pass.
    My own view is that the railway south of Christchurch has been of doubtful value since deregulation in the mid 1980s allowing unlimited road and bus competition and cheap import of high emission 2nd hand cars, ute and trucks to put idiot drivers on the road who could not afford cars before the mid 1980s and who increase the number of accident who including crashing into trains frequently. By the years preceeding privatisation rail traffic had dropped to levels easily carried by roads and it has to be said in the 1994-9 Tranz Rail, invested far more in track renewal in the South Island and indeed in much of the overall sytem than the Toll Co ( the one’s who rode their engines thru the country in Aussie war bonnet colors and looked like Mafia) or the current Key Government truckers.
    My own suggestion would be that the South Island should be partially redeveloped as a tourist museum and 14 steam engines (8 JA, 2, KA and 4 AB be restored to twice a day return stean train mixed train services between Christchurch and Dunedin on regular runs of say 9hrs hauling say 250 tons of freight and 250 passengers on each trip.
    The Dunedin- Invercargill line would be sold off as a shortline with operating rights to Pt Chalmers and Bluff and given 6 DC locos for a perercorn $6 payment and the same done about the Woodville- Napier- Gisborne route. The Northland route is too twisty and outof the way to be worth modenising. Road is 50% shorter distance to Northland.

  9. No that would not make kiwirail efficient, the governing system is dysfunctional as it serves the interests of foreign corporations. Funneling public money to private hands is not efficient.

    What about the costs of foreign operators? GWRC has selected Transdev Australasia in association with Hyundai Rotem as the preferred future operator for Wellington’s metro rail service.”

    “The government is preparing to assent to the Government Procurement Agreement which opens up New Zealand Government contracts to foreign companies and closes the door on local businesses and their workers” Mr Butson RMTU

  10. The Railways of course really lack completely any modern equipment outside the Auckland and Wellington suburban areas and reequipment and implementation of reequipment and electrification proposals has been an incremental and poorly coordinated shambles for which Muldoon, Prebble and Clark are most to blame. Muldoons decision to electrify the central section of the NIMT from Palmerston North to Hamilton rather than Auckland Tauranga or Welington Palmerston North, beggars belief, apparently motivated by his life long hatred of Mayor Robbies rapid transit rail for Auckland which Muldoon believed was unnecessary, a socialist dream and hugely money wasting. Nevertheless the poorly thought out electrification proceeded because Muldoon found the idea was popular with the voters and even his worst left wing enemies.
    Prebble the worst rail minister in history a man who refused to fund modern fuel efficient Dash 7 and 8 and 9 diesels which were 20 more fuel and cost efficient and would buy any new carriages. No matter how briliantly run, trains like the Southerner, Endeavour or Northerner or Coastal Pacific could never work unless they had modern carriages, with comforable seats, adequate capacity, 1920s innovations like proper enclosed carriage connections and modern suspension systems and covered the route at least 3 times. It also helps if train crew is not 30 cooks and stewards to service a train with capacity of 90. No matter how hard Fay and Richwhite ran the railways adequate number of passengers to reach break even as low as 60 on the ruthlessly, fast and in some ways brilliant run Richwhite trains. You simply have to have modern carriages, at least over 200 seats in the train and locomotives that are efficient and clean not junk like the Chinese grap growlers which make noise and smoke than a J and have such a poor power to weigh ratio that running in multiple they probably weight as much as A Canadian U2 4-8-2 of 1945.
    Clark’s approach to rail was remarkably, slow and incremental she was too gutless to even repeal the worst of the Richardson Finance and Transport legislation which attempts to make subsidisation of intercity passenger rail trains running more than 50 miles impossible and its first legislation to rip out as modern railways are for passengers. Up until the end of the 20C economical operation of rail depended on mail and coal which were only business rail could really be profitable but now economic profit for rail in a strict sense required heavy loads of container train proceeding at least 1000 miles which is irrelevant and impossible in NZ.
    In terms of Clark the modernisation of Wellingtons suburban system and its extension to Waikanae without converting the system to modern AC power when your getting new wiring and units anyway beggars belief and takes the prize as the worst transport decision in NZ History

  11. Not the worst transport decision as now there are so many to pick from. But its no wonder the UN claim all Australians support Helen Clark for the UN promotion, she is an under-armer.
    Didn’t matter who the PM was the Crown has always funded its preferred companies.
    This pattern was clear from the from actions of the Crown’s ” The NZ company” that sent to make the people work on and develop resources for the Crown sold land it did not own.

    Unaccountable crooks and shysters so nothing has changed. The long and boring details fill in the years of continual accountability in a galaxy far away from being transparent.I am still waiting for the people of NZ to work it out (and to stop reciting the Crown’s history books).

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