Rail not the great hope for safer roads

It was interesting to see the Government’s response to our recent request to spend some of the “shovel ready” Covid-19 cash on urgent road repairs for unsafe roads was to promote rail for moving freight.

Together with the Automobile Association, Association of Consultants and Engineers, Civil Contractors NZ, Employers and Manufacturers Association, and Infrastructure NZ, the RTF has written to Ministers and spoken with their representatives about the dire state of New Zealand roads. This has generated plenty of media and public debate this week, with the six organisations representing a broad range of interests, including private car users.

Speaking to RNZ, Transport Minister Phil Twyford said: “Our record investments in rail will help take pressure off our roads by moving more freight to rail. It’s going to take more than a few years to undo a decade of neglect.”

In the same RNZ piece he said the government agreed there had been underinvestment for a decade prior to 2017 so had increased highway maintenance spending on average by 36 percent. If re-elected, I would up that another 17 percent.

Yet early in the first-term of this Labour-led coalition government he said: “there has been an over-investment in roads and motorways for decades in this country”.

We hope the increased spending promise means he’s had a change of heart from his earlier views. The six organisations that have asked for urgent road repairs have all been hearing from our members what damages and costs they are incurring because of sub-standard and unsafe road surfaces.

The pro-rail brigade actually believes that in a long, skinny country with 93,000 kms of road and 4,000 kms of rail tracks, that rail can make a dent in the effectiveness, convenience and efficiency of road freight. This is despite all evidence to the contrary. Even in European countries with vast and efficient railways, freight movers pick road over rail.

In New Zealand, the National Freight Demand Study, commissioned by the Ministry of Transport and released in October 2019, showed that freight delivered by road was 93% of the freight task, up 16% since 2012, while rail was 5.6% of the freight task, down 17% since 2012.

It is also interesting to note, again from Ministry of Transport data, the tonnage of dairy being transported on the rail network has dropped from about 3.9 million tonnes in 2013 to 2.3 million tonnes at the beginning of this year.

Ultimately, the market will decide which is the best mode for transporting their goods. Road offers door-to-door delivery, even in the remote parts of the country; is more resilient in weather events, natural disasters, and Covid-19; and is reliable for time-sensitive perishable goods.

Only 3-7 percent of the road freight task is contestable by rail. Conversely, most rail freight is contestable by road, except maybe coal transport across the Southern Alps – trains are good for that because of the weight of the coal.

Roads are the lifeblood of the economy. All road users pay for them and we all benefit from them.

Over $2 billion in taxes (petrol tax and road user charges) is collected each year for the National Land Transport Fund to fund roads. But this is now being used to fund modes of transport that make no contribution. This cross-subsidisation is at the expense of roads and hits consumers in the back pocket.

The truth is that we don’t need rail, or public transport, over roads. We need a good balance of all three. RTF supports public transport and rail, particularly rail for public transport.

What we have an issue with is the defunding of roads for pet projects in rail that cannot provide a viable return on investment, or the efficiency, effectiveness, reliability and cost benefits of road freight.

The Government is slowing down the economy by not spending on roads. Slowing down movement of goods, particularly essentials such as food and medicines, impacts on the cost of living for all New Zealanders. Every delay in delivery costs someone.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum


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