Road trumps rail to meet customer demands

The 2017-18 National Freight Demand Study was released, without fanfare, a couple of weeks ago. This is the first such study in five years and it’s a significant reminder of just how important road transport is to the New Zealand economy.

It’s important to get it straight up front, New Zealand’s freight network works best when there is a balance between rail and road. Each have their benefits, but as the stats show us, road freight is increasing its share because of the flexibility and reliability it offers in getting goods to market.

Most significantly from the report, the growth across the board in our freight task is large; up 18 percent in six years, from 236 million to 278.7 million tonnes per year. This demonstrates the growth New Zealand has enjoyed in our population and economy.

We are guessing that the absence of a trumpeted announcement on the release of the report is because changes to the proportional split across transport modes flies in the face of the rhetoric and indeed, the billions of dollars invested in rail by the Government. I’m talking about the increase in the amount of freight that road transport carries, versus that of rail.

In 2012, road transport was responsible for 215.6 million tonnes or 91 percent of freight movements and 70 percent of tonnes transported per kilometre. Despite a concerted anti-road campaign, and a Government elected in 2017 with an anti-road agenda, road freight’s proportion has increased in the recent study to nearly 93 percent of the freight task, and 75 percent when it comes to tonnes-per-kilometre.

Rail, on the other hand, has retreated from seven to six percent of freight movements. On a tonnes-per-kilometre basis, rail is down from 16 percent down to 12 percent of the freight task. The rationale given by the pro-rail authors of the report is that this drop is down to the Kaikoura earthquake, which knocked out rail in the upper South Island for a long time. But it also reflects a reduction in volume of rail-suitable commodities, such as coal.

Losing a rail line happens far more regularly than people might think. A section of rail line parallel to SH7, the main road linking Reefton and Greymouth, has been closed due to a slip. KiwiRail has been stopping the TranzAlpine at Arthur’s Pass and offering buses for people wanting to continue on to the West Coast. Freight deliveries of coal and milk have been transported by road, instead of rail. Media attention has focused on the corresponding road failure, rather than that of the rail. I guess because if rail fails, there are always other transport options.

The most significant reason for the swing towards road freight is improvement of truck payload efficiency – that means bigger trucks that carry more load, reducing the number of truck trips. Over the past six years, efficiency gains through the uptake of HPMV and 50 MAX have been realised in dairy, logs, livestock, aggregates, and petroleum distribution.

The growth in road freight makes the Government’s decisions to rob the National Land Transport Fund, using road user charges (RUCs) and fuel excise to artificially support rail projects, seem all the more short-sighted. This re-engineering of our transport system to satisfy ideology is not only costly, but flies in the face of economic reality. It is even more short-sighted to turn the tap off on new roads critical to the national freight task, such as the East-West Link, in order to put money into rail projects of dubious economic benefit.

Don’t get me wrong; we support asset renewal in rail as it’s badly overdue for this critical infrastructure. What we don’t support, is the Government continually selling that investment as a way to reduce “dangerous” truck movements on our roads. We also reject this investment in rail over new, safer roads. There should be investment in both road and rail infrastructure.

Roads are more flexible and immediate than rail will ever be. There are 93,000 kms of road in New Zealand and only 4,000 kms of rail track. That split isn’t changing and what’s more, the market is making its choice.

Fewer trucks on the road means fewer jobs, less economic activity and less money in the pockets of all New Zealanders. The National Freight Demand Study proves that people and businesses choose the transport mode that best suits their requirements. In the 21st century economy where timeliness and responsiveness is everything, more often than not, that is delivered via road.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum


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