Road users should fund roads, not rail

This week, the Government laid down the track to siphon money out of the state purse for building and fixing roads and into the bottomless money pit that is rail.

With the first reading in Parliament of the Land Transport (Rail) Legislation Bill, the Government is on its way to extending the National Land Transport Fund (NLTF) to subsidise rail. That means, the fuel tax and road user charges that people who use roads pay to help fund those roads, will now be “competitive” dollars, available to rail. It doesn’t matter if you don’t use rail, you’ll still be paying for it when you use the road. And given the fund is already not enough to pay for roads, you can expect to pay more for everything to add the dollars needed to prop up the Government’s pet project, rail.

While the legislation introduces track charges for rail service providers that will place revenue into the NLTF, there is little detail on this and it is unlikely this money will come close to funding the likely draw-downs for rail. And rail projects going through the NLTF will not have to go through the rigour roading projects do – they can just be signed off direct by the Minister of Transport.

Let’s be clear, KiwiRail is a State-Owned Enterprise that is supposed to make its own way by making a profit. We think the NLTF should be ring-fenced for roads and other funding sources should be found for rail.

It is also clear there is a place for rail.

Rail is important in cities, where it is electric and it can provide public transport to ease road congestion and reduce emissions. As a user of commuter rail, I know it’s effective at removing vehicles off roads and therefore, relieving congestion. To continue to do that, public transport must be convenient, affordable and reliable.

Outside the cities, New Zealanders rely on roads because there is no public transport and the distances travelled are too great for most people to walk or cycle. They use roads, and they pay for them. The Government’s carless nirvana is a wee way off yet.

Rail’s place in the regions needs to be considered with economics and facts, and without all the romanticism and emotion that seems to be associated with it when it comes to the freight tasks.

In its rather breathless press release backing the Government’s Bill, the Rail and Maritime Transport Union said:

“As the smoke from Australian bush fires stains New Zealand glaciers the colour of old blood, we are all forced to consider the burning urgency of confronting and defeating climate change.

“The only way to do that is through dramatic reduction in carbon emissions, and the only way to do that is by replacing dirty and inefficient modes of transport with cleaner and greener technology. Rail is the future we’ve been waiting for, and we don’t have any time to delay.”

Let’s not pretend this is a win for the environment. Outside the city boundaries rail is powered by diesel, the same as the trucks that are in fact, the preferred freight movement option. Trucks win every day because they deliver door-to-door, on time. Road carries 93 percent of New Zealand’s freight task. Rail carries six percent.

To have any comparative environmental benefits, a rail journey needs to be long, like about 400km at least. And one of the things that rail is good for is heavy loads, like bringing coal out of the mines to end-users; not a task favoured by the environmentalists.

We are sick of the rhetoric, double-standards, and of the Government demonising trucks. We are keen to look at better ways of funding both road and rail, but if it is to truly be a level playing field, rail needs to pay their way. Large parts of the rail network are very old and will need billions of dollars in new investment and we think that should come from Government borrowing, rather than the NLTF. That’s of course, assuming the case for pouring those billions of tax payer dollars into rail stacks up economically.

Merry Christmas, and if you are still waiting for a package for under the tree, it will come to you via road.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

 


Back to Nick's Blog