As the immediate task of repairing and re-opening SH1 north and south of Kaikoura begins, the configuration of rail, road and shipping likely to emerge in the longer term, post earthquake, still remains opaque. According to Rail and Maritime Transport Union secretary Wayne Butson, about 200 jobs are involved in providing and maintaining the pre-earthquake rail link service between Lyttleton and Picton. After an initial flurry of comment in the days after the earthquake, he says, things have since gone very quiet.
By general consensus, the task of repairing the rail link along the route between Seddon and Cheviot will be a longer, harder and – potentially – even more expensive task than repairing and re-opening SH1, which will be hard and costly enough. Interim freight measures could well involve a direct ferry link between the North Island and Christchurch, and Kiwirail is believed to be currently engaged in putting together a business case to that effect. If implemented, such supposedly interim measures have a tendency to harden into semi-permanent solutions. That ferry link – if it does happen – would not only displace some of the existing jobs in rail. Among other things, a direct ferry link would have an immediate impact on the economics of Picton, a town that’s already taking a hit from the demise of Solid Energy’s planned operations on the West Coast.
Inevitably, Kiwirail’s footprint in Picton will diminish, the longer the rail link between Lyttleton and Picton remains out of operation, or under-used. Across Cook Strait, Kiwirail’s lucrative business is based on its freight operations, given how competitive Bluebridge is with respect to passenger traffic. In sum, any transport re-configuration based – even temporarily – around a North Island port to Lyttleton direct ferry link would have major economic and employment repercussions across the region.
As Butson indicates, the decisions on the future rail/road/shipping transport configuration for the upper South Island have yet to be made, or at least announced. What we do have in the way of public comment are the statements that were made in the immediate wake of the earthquake. Transport Minister Simon Bridges told the House on November 15 that the ferry link was being investigated:
Eugenie Sage (Greens): Do the shipping options being examined include an investigation of an additional ferry service and whether that could be established between a North Island port and Lyttelton to transport freight?
Hon SIMON BRIDGES: In short, yes, it includes the coastal shipping options. I think the truth there is that a number of coastal shippers are continuing to work. Possibly there is a question of capacity around that, but we are looking at that actively.
That work on the transport/freight options – which will need to take into account the de facto re-alignments of road and rail corridors caused by the slips generated by the earthquake – is being co-ordinated, Bridges said, by the Transport Ministry. The previous day, Prime Minister John Key’s ministerial statement seemed to make a firm commitment to the repair and restoration of the pre-existent road and rail links:
…..Damage is extensive but New Zealand is well placed to respond, and we are well-practised. We have been presented with yet another challenge but, as we have done time and again, we will rise to that challenge and we will rebuild. We will repair our roads, rail, and other infrastructure, and we will help our affected communities.
Cost would not be a determining factor, Key added:
…. The financial cost will be significant but we will bear that. Our books are in order and our debt levels low, so we have the financial capacity to fix our broken infrastructure and to support our affected businesses and communities. We have been here before and we have overcome those challenges. We are stronger as a result, and I can assure you we will do the same this time.
Of course, Key made similar ‘bear any burden/meet any cost’ promises in the wake of Pike River, and those commitments turned out to be a lot more conditional in practice than they appeared at first blush. However, the Taxpayers Union were sufficiently alarmed by the apparently open-ended nature of the government’s commitment to rail to leap into action:
“Cool heads need to prevail. The best option may be rebuilding the rail, but it may also be using that money for a higher capacity, or more secure, road corridor inland from the East Coast.”
Jim Rose, an economic advisor to the Taxpayers’ Union, and author of a number of reports which have examined the economics of rail in New Zealand, says, “We can’t simply write Kiwirail a blank cheque. If the line was economically questionable pre-quake, the relative merits of spending hundreds of millions repairing the line vis-à-vis using the money for a better road, needs to be analysed.”
A better road? More trucks? Mainfreight to the rescue? Historically, the National Party has always lent a sympathetic ear to the needs and desires of the road transport lobby And still listed on the board of directors at Mainfreight is one R. Prebble.
Might Richard Prebble arise to ‘ save’ rail once again? On past performance, that saviour role would be more likely to entail the burying of lots of rail jobs in a series of unmarked graves. Any current Kiwirail employees should thus be quaking in their boots at the prospect of a Mainfreight-driven response to the damaged rail link between Seddon and Cheviot. For now, as mentioned, the main work on these issues is taking place behind closed doors at the Transport Ministry. Given the impact of the ultimate decisions on jobs and businesses in communities from Lyttleton to Cheviot to Kaikoura to Seddon to Picton….those communities should be being consulted by government, right now. They should not be presented with a fait accompli worked out in Wellington.
There are a zillion terrific train songs from “Drill Ye Tarriers Drill” through “Riding Down From Bangor’ to Bukka White and beyond…. A few years ago, Werewolf offered a collection of the culture’s finest songs about trains.
Hard to pick but…Victoria Williams and her own “Train Song” evoked both the golden age of rail and the promise that rail still holds out for a socially & ecologically sustainable future …
A job for every man / new tracks across the land
I feel the need to say a bit more/ instead of building up for war
I’ve got a few more healthy chores / for the fellas dressed in green
Build us a train run by the sun / connect the small towns, every one
When granny gets too old to drive, she can read a book and look outside….
Through fields they rambled / over mountains they climbed
Why, they could go to every town, yours and mine
But nowadays / it ain’t no use, there’s no caboose.
Also, there’s the Magnetic Fields song ‘Fear of Trains’…performed here in a very honest and forthright cover version.