Best minds required for economic recovery

New Zealand’s Covid-19 experience has shown how out of touch some members of our Government are with the businesses that drive the economy. This is pretty worrying when we look at the road ahead to some kind of economic recovery once the virus has done its worst globally.

This week alone, the Government referred to the five day extension of the Alert Level 4 lockdown as “two business days”; Labour MP Deborah Russell pontificated on the short-comings of small business owners who can’t keep their closed businesses operating in a global pandemic; and Employment Minister Willie Jackson said nobody would be impacted by the lockdown being extended a week.

Even more tone deaf, the Greens came out with a proposal to spend $9 billion over 10 years putting fast trains throughout New Zealand. Hundreds of people are becoming unemployed by the day, businesses are going under, our borders are closed, and this is their best solution?

Like much of New Zealand, the road freight transport industry has a good share of small and medium sized businesses. They have a lot invested in plant and property – their trucks and yards – and every day off the road costs money. The smaller the business, and the longer the days off the road, the more the damage is done.

All businesses will be to some degree reliant on the Government to stimulate the economy both during the various stages of the Covid-19 global pandemic, and once it is over and a vaccine is found.

Given the amount of debt the country will be in, and the hardship facing its people, you want the very best minds on the job and you want their decisions to be based in evidence, not ideology.

Let’s unpick this fast rail idea. The Greens say: “Building rail creates more jobs than building motorways”. We would like to see the evidence base behind that statement before the country throws away $9 billion on what is essentially a pipe-dream.

Rail will never replace roads. We need roads – the Covid-19 crisis has shown us that. All those essential goods and essential workers have gotten to where they need to go via roads. In any crisis, help comes first via roads. Investment in infrastructure to boost the economy must include investment in roads, as well as rail.

If there is $9 billion left over for a vanity project, it surely still has to measure up in a costs versus benefits equation.

As the executive director of the New Zealand Initiative, Dr Oliver Hartwich, told Parliament’s Epidemic Response Select Committee on Thursday, “What distinguishes a good project from a bad one is that a good project’s benefits are greater than its costs”.

Of course there is no mention of this in the Green Party’s statement about fast electric trains for passengers and freight, including on routes such as Christchurch-Ashburton-Timaru.

On that route alone, much of the freight is food – dairy, meat, fruit and vegetables. Food needs to travel by road and one journey will always beat the three putting it on a train would take – truck to train, train to station, truck to end destination. Trains don’t go to supermarkets, or dairies, or other food stores.

As for passengers on that route – let’s take a look at where fast trains already operate, such as Europe. In the France-Germany-the Netherlands-Belgium grouping, you’ve got a combined population of about 178 million people. New Zealand has just 4.7 million people and the Timaru-Ashburton-Christchurch grouping has about 460,000 people. The fast trains in that European cluster are fantastic, but they are also expensive. It is often cheaper to fly the route. So with the huge population base, fast trains still have to cover their costs with high ticket prices for passengers.

Expensive for passengers and not suitable for freight, how exactly is this plan going to help us during one of our worst economic slumps?

We hope the Government’s Infrastructure Industry Reference Group will recommend investing in critical roads at this time. The RTF has written to that group advocating for three road projects that relate directly to efficient movement of freight in the three major economic regions of New Zealand.

These roads are:

  • The Petone-Grenada Link in Wellington
  • The East-West Link between Onehunga and Mt Wellington in Auckland
  • Selwyn to Timaru highway, four lanes

We believe this would better serve our economic rebuild than a very expensive fast rail – which we don’t believe has been properly costed – in a country that doesn’t have the population base to use it.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum


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