Mapping the road out of Level 4 lockdown

How interesting that three of the most vilified groups in New Zealand pre-Covid-19 – farmers, truck drivers and immigrants – are now the ones holding the country’s economy together.

This week, I met with Transport Minister Phil Twyford and his officials from the Ministry of Transport and I spoke before Parliament’s Epidemic Response Committee. The messaging was the same – please recognise the vital work trucking operators and truck drivers are doing; please let the freight chain work as it should without the arbitrary terms of essential and non-essential freight; and how do we get our businesses out of this in one piece – what does life beyond the Level 4 lockdown look like?

I’d like to recognise the truck drivers who are transporting essential goods by road during this Level 4 lockdown. They are doing jobs they love, but they are more isolated than usual, from their whanau and colleagues. Our economy and well-being are tethered to trucking. My view is that these workers and transport operators have not perhaps had the recognition and thanks they deserve.

Our industry has yet again stepped up to meet need –  these are the people who are keeping supermarket shelves stocked, and medicine and equipment going into hospitals and pharmacies. They respond to need in just minutes and they get goods where they need to go.

I have been speaking to many trucking operators since the lockdown began and a lot of them are operating at a loss, because of the arbitrary labelling of freight as essential and non-essential.

Obviously, the longer this goes on, the more businesses will fail and the more people will be unemployed.

It’s imperative that transition options be developed before the lockdown ends so that businesses are able to prepare and can position themselves to be as productive as possible on day one. We have urged the Government to share the scenarios they are working on to move the country out of the Level 4 lockdown. We have offered to work with them to ensure our vital industry can do its bit to rebuild the economy, and retain jobs, as fast as possible. We are two weeks into a four week lockdown and we need serious strategy and planning now, to emerge successfully on 24 April.

We need that information as early as possible to allow for the least painful transition – to keep people employed, and to keep the economy moving on the back of a truck.

Interestingly, we are not alone. Internationally, those representing road freight during this global pandemic are finding the same issues and asking for the same solutions.

IRU (the world’s road transport organisation based in Geneva) and the International Transport Workers’ Federation have issued a joint statement calling for support from governments and international bodies to ensure international supply and mobility chains remain connected during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The statement sets out the road transport industry’s key demands and calls for immediate action to recognise the important contributions to society made by road transport workers and companies, and industry’s vital role in responding to, and overcoming, the current coronavirus crisis. There is definite cross-over with what we are asking for and what they are asking for. You can read the statement here.

I will finish with the words of IRU Secretary General, Umberto de Pretto: “The Covid-19 pandemic has turned the spotlight on road transport – showing once more the indispensable role road transport companies and their workers play in the movement of essential goods. Support for the continuity and resilience of supply and mobility chains, and the designation of road transport as a key service must be prioritised by governments and international bodies to aid the response and recovery from this crisis.”

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Free up freight to keep the economy moving

Week one of the Government’s lockdown has been a grim one for business. Air New Zealand is a shadow of its former koru, Bauer media shut its doors, and the forestry industry is in dire straits.

Most businesses are feeling the pain, with no end in sight. Even while the Government focuses on the health aspects of the global pandemic that is Covid-19, part of its enormous resources needs to be looking at economic recovery.

In a democracy, you can’t lock up a population and keep them terrified with mind-blowing numbers of fatalities for too long, without some serious questions being asked. Words like “unprecedented”, “we’re all in this together” and “the new normal” are carefully crafted to maintain control. But in the lounge rooms around New Zealand people are losing their livelihoods and there won’t be enough money to maintain that for too long.

The solution that has been mooted of a Depression-era road building gang under yet another government department’s control cannot be the only way out of this.

While we desperately need better roads, there have to be viable businesses using them and people who have jobs to go to. And this project is being headed by Transport Minister Phil Twyford who previously said, “there has been an over-investment in roads and motorways for decades in this country”.

Everyone is scrutinising the behaviour of our leaders, so when the Health Minister flouts the lockdown rules and the Transport Minister has a 360 degree change of heart, it feels like the recovery strategy might be a bit shaky.

Talk of an “institute” to train workers for the road building smacks of creating an even more bloated public service – there are already training programmes for this and what about the Reform of Vocational Education? The only people assured of jobs through this are public servants.

Trucking essential goods is an essential industry, but trucking companies are doing this at a loss because they cannot operate their businesses efficiently.

Supply chain links vital to getting essential supplies where they need to go must be allowed to work if trucking companies are to survive long enough to meet the demands of the Covid-19 response.

The Government needs to listen to business people and understand how business works. It is the private sector that will re-build the economy, not the public sector. The public sector spending on infrastructure won’t dig us out of a hole. New Zealand needs to generate wealth as the Government will need someone to tax. They have to keep people in business and that’s not just big business either. Small and medium businesses are the backbone of our country. The government can’t afford to forget that.

The decision to classify freight into two arbitrary groups – essential and non-essential – shows a lack of understanding of what is an integrated global system.

You take one link out, and the whole chain starts grinding to a halt.

As an importing and exporting nation, goods have to be able to come in and go out.

But at the moment, goods deemed “non-essential”, such as logs and processed wood products, are not allowed to go out. That means other countries that don’t have these restrictions are taking our market-share and we may never get it back. The longer this goes on the more people in the New Zealand provinces where forestry is a key employer will be out of work and the more businesses will fold.

The imperative to plant one billion trees is out the window and down the road.

We can’t export without importing. We must be able to move goods. Workers are already working in the “new normal” conditions of social distancing and strict hygiene, so this is doable under Alert Level 4.

We know that it is vital that items deemed essential move quickly through the supply chain, and priority should be given to them. However, for the supply chain to actually function now, and during our nation’s economic recovery, the classification to control its movement should be scrapped.
– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Get ready for the youth wave

Sometimes, it’s the small things that Governments do that have the biggest impact.

Last month, Employment Minister Willie Jackson launched a Youth Ready Employer Programme, aimed at ensuring employers have all the tools they need to employ young people.

For something that I think could have far reaching benefits, it was done in a fairly low key way. Minister Jackson had been to the UK and met two amazing young entrepreneurs – Jack Parsons and Ben Towers – who are all about getting young people into work, as well as getting employers to understand the benefits of employing young people and how to go about that.

Their message is so personal and compelling, these entrepreneurs travelled to New Zealand to talk to businesses for the launch of the programme, which is a collaboration between Ministry of Social Development, the Auckland Business Chamber and its wider chamber network, and Parsons and Towers.

As each generation ages, they tend to criticise the younger generation coming through. But this is not going to provide the necessary solutions to both our changing work environment and our immediate and future worker and skills needs. The nature of work is changing and employers need to embrace the change and employ people who can solve problems and bring fresh ideas – perhaps doing that in a different way to the boss.

It’s time to look at it from the employee’s perspective – there are barriers for some young people to get a look in for their first job. These are things like social and economic disadvantage, mental health, and employer rules and attitudes.

Jack Parsons and Ben Towers are walking counterpoints to many of the barriers older employers might put up.

Young people spend too much time online, they might say. Is that a bad thing? Ben Towers built his first website for a family friend at the age of 11, in his bedroom. He taught himself through You Tube videos. By 13, he had a website business. He couldn’t get a business banking account until he was over 18, and by that stage he had over 20 employees. He’s 21 and sold that business for millions of dollars. He now focuses on public speaking and investing in start-ups.

They don’t dress properly the older generation might say. Jack Parsons has dealt with young people who haven’t been able to go to job interviews because they can’t afford something to wear and have been too intimidated to go into a corporate environment. He has challenged the corporates on that and suggested they meet the candidate somewhere the candidates themselves might feel comfortable, like a coffee shop.

Parsons knows all about disadvantage. Growing up, he lived on a housing estate with an alcoholic mother, he battled dyslexia and attended speech therapy. Looking around him, a life of drugs and crime was a seriously viable option. But he chose to swim rather than sink and at 20, he was chief executive of his own company, the Youth Group. He has been recognised as one of Britain’s 50 kindest leaders and he continues to offer products and services to young people looking to get a start in the business world.

Both Ben and Jack are conscious of the mental health issues that can hold back young people and they want to address these. Ben plans to launch an app to help people with loneliness and Jack talks candidly about his own mental health challenges.

Their message to employers is to understand who you are going to employ and the Youth Ready Employer tool kit, available online, gives a pathway to employers to follow to become “youth ready”. The focus is on finding ways to connect with the age group of 18 to 30-year-olds who have common characteristics, operating styles and work expectations.

This is something I think the Government has done well, that will be really helpful for businesses.

We need to reflect these principles as we build the industry cadetship. If our industry wants to attract a younger workforce, it’s the industry that must change and adapt, not the other way around.

You can find out more about the toolkit here.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Keep calm and carry on

It’s hard to know which is worse, the global spread of Covid-19, or coronavirus, or the panic and constant media barrage about it.

The RTF felt a bit like the canary in the coal mine when we wrote to the Government on 4 February and alerted them to the fact that businesses were already in trouble as a result of the virus in China, and we expected the situation to get worse. (Still haven’t had a reply to that, or a subsequent letter!)

Trucking is an early economic barometer. As soon as there is a squeeze in the global supply chain, trucking companies feel it. If goods aren’t coming into the country, or going out of the country, then there is no work for the trucks that normally move those goods.

Unfortunately, it took a month before anyone outside the trucking and forestry industries realised what we were saying was true. Once the first New Zealand Covid-19 case was confirmed last Friday, the Government kicked into gear.

Businesses may be feeling overwhelmed by the volume of information, mis-information, media, and public discussion about Covid-19. I have heard from the trucking industry that there are business continuity issues as work volumes decline, and some sectors have been hit worse than others. Please keep telling me about the effects on your businesses so we can advocate on your behalf.

New Zealand is being swept up in a global storm and much of what is happening is beyond our control. The good news is, we have really good government officials in the trade space who are working 24-7 to ensure our trade pathways operate at some level, if not at full capacity, so goods can come into and leave New Zealand.

I’ve said it before, but he continues to perform like a star, Ministry of Health director-general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield is the trusted health official whose advice you should follow. Social media appears to have millions of “health experts” globally, but Dr Bloomfield is the voice of science, facts and reason.

The New Zealand Government remains the best and most accurate source of information for the situation here, both health and business wise. The Road Transport Forum is gathering the most up-to-date information we can to keep the industry informed and we have set up a dedicated Covid-19 webpage.

If the situation gets to pandemic and crisis-level, the RTF has plans in place to communicate directly with freight operators.

Trucks are a vital lifeline in a crisis – as we have seen with the Canterbury and Kaikoura earthquakes – and truck operators may be called on to move essential supplies and deal with the aftermath of a pandemic. We will be talking to the government about that.

If your business is struggling to keep staff, or you have to lay off staff, let the RTF know. There are other compatible industries that may be struggling to get staff so there could be some opportunities. The Government is talking about no stand-down period for the jobseeker benefit for those unemployed as a result of Covid-19. We hope they will confirm that next week.

The RTF is best-placed to work with government and to source accurate information, which we can also distribute through our associations to the industry.

While these are certainly worrying times, it is important to keep perspective. The first priority for businesses must be the health and welfare of their staff. There is detailed advice about that on our website.

Plan for the worst, with a crisis management plan, but hope for the best.

Until the director-general of health tells us otherwise, life should be going on as normal. Looking at the panic buying in supermarkets, there should be plenty of work for those trucks. We just don’t want to create the panic that came from the truck carrying toilet paper in Australia rolling and catching fire!

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

 

Communication key in dealing with coronavirus

With 24-7 news cycles, the rapid spread of both information and mis-information on social media, and a tendency for people to panic, communication in a crisis is critical.

Accurate information needs to flow so that people can adequately manage what’s happening in front of them. Sometimes the picture can be changing rapidly. A trusted source of facts and critical advice must be in place before a crisis spirals. And that information needs to be available across all channels – not just to those who are adept at Google searching.

The Road Transport Forum (RTF) is aware the Covid-19, or coronavirus, is already having an impact on trucking businesses across a number of sectors. This is to be expected in a trading country where imports and exports to our far-flung corner of the world rely on a well-oiled global shipping network. To get goods on and off the ships, you need trucks. If the ships aren’t coming and going, then neither are trucks.

If you follow global shipping news, coronavirus is “convulsing every segment of the shipping industry, including container shipping, dry bulker, tanker, port, shipbuilding and banking”. (Lloyd’s List)

That’s not good news for New Zealand. The impacts on moving imports and exports are not going to be short-term here. I know this because I have been talking to ports and to operators across sectors, including forestry, freight forwarding, primary sector, and livestock.

The RTF is in the process of gathering information for our industry and setting up a communications network should there be a pandemic as a result of the spread of Covid-19.

Of course, the health and wellbeing of our nation is the most important thing and the Director General of Health Dr Ashley Bloomfield has been a communications exemplar. He’s held regular face-to-face updates with media and shown a willingness to answer questions – not the often-seen blocking by government department tsars, or dependence on information on a website. It’s reassuring to have Dr Bloomfield at the helm of health if this does develop into a pandemic.

We have been disappointed, so far, by the lack of communication to sectors such as ours about a “whole of government” response to what is already happening across businesses that drive the economy. Speeches from the Prime Minister and Finance Minister do not filter through to the government workers on the ground in the provinces, at least not for those in the trucking industry who have tried to contact them.

On 4 February, RTF wrote to Social Development Minister Carmel Sepuloni, asking for urgent advice from the Government for trucking operators and staff in the log transport industry. We asked for a no stand down period for the unemployment benefit and some kind of tax relief.

That letter bounced around Parliament from Minister to Minister with no response, so on 26 February, RTF wrote to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

We have again asked for immediate removal of stand down periods for benefits for those affected by this economic shock, and that tax relief is given by IRD to road freight operators and contractors who will struggle to meet upcoming tax payments. We have gone right to the top because operators are telling me how serious this is getting. We want to believe the Government has a good plan to get New Zealand through what could become a global pandemic.

RTF is listening to operators and we will continue to push the government to help our sector as the impacts of coronavirus really take hold.

Meanwhile, below are some websites that have information about coronavirus.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Places to get information about Covid-19

Ministry of Health https://www.health.govt.nz/our-work/diseases-and-conditions/covid-19-novel-coronavirus or Healthline – 0800 358 5453

Ministry for Primary Industries https://www.mpi.govt.nz/exporting/coronavirus-and-the-effects-on-trade/

Business New Zealand https://www.businessnz.org.nz/data/assets/pdf_file/0007/187783/200217-coronavirus-website-advisory.pdf

Safetravel – Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade https://safetravel.govt.nz/news/covid-19-coronavirus

Information for businesses https://www.business.govt.nz/news/coronavirus-information-for-businesses

Tax relief https://www.ird.govt.nz/Updates/News-Folder/tax-relief-coronavirus

More questions than answers on binding cannabis referendum

Remember the referendum that was Brexit, where people in the United Kingdom and Gibraltar merrily voted to leave the European Union, until they realised that that actually meant, and that it was binding?

In hindsight, quite a lot of people felt they didn’t really have enough information and didn’t quite realise what would happen after they made that tick on a referendum paper. Some were quite shocked it was binding.

We are worried that New Zealand voters will find themselves in a similar position come the 2020 general election day, 19 September, when they vote on whether or not to legalise recreational cannabis use in New Zealand. That’s recreational, not medicinal.

We believe there is not enough information to make a vote that the current coalition Government would consider binding.

The only information available from the Government is a badly written and half-finished Cannabis Legislation and Control Bill – Draft for Consultation. It looks a bit like a copy and paste job at this stage and I’m not sure anyone with a law degree has been involved to this point. This is a Bill that people will be asked if they support (yes), or not (no).

We were surprised to hear Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern answer a question in Parliament this week on the referendum by saying: ‘‘what we prepared is a draft bill so that there will be that full information to members of the public – that if they support the bill, that is the legislation that at least three parties in this House have said that they will then support to enact” (Hansard).

We think maybe the Prime Minister hasn’t read the bill. There are holes you could drive a truck through. Some of those for us are around road safety and workplace health and safety. The bill is silent on these matters.

In fact, the Minister who introduced the bill (Hon Andrew Little) was quoted as saying that exploring the risks of drugged driving and workplace impairment would be pushed back until after the referendum vote. Vote now and see what happens later!

We don’t believe that’s good enough. In this country, employers and Boards are bound by strict health and safety legislation – that if flouted can result in them going to prison – and we cannot see how this bill in any way correlates to that legislated responsibility.

This bill, if enacted, will have serious consequences for safety sensitive industries, such as trucking.

So, we think the general public should be well informed before they answer a yes/no question. The picture they are drawn should be broader than them sitting in their lounge room with a joint and not worrying about being arrested.

We all share the roads – that’s pedestrians, cyclists, car and truck drivers – and everyone wants their loved ones to come home from work each day. Yet already, the number of people being killed by drug impaired drivers on New Zealand roads is higher than those killed by drivers above the legal alcohol limit.

International research shows that with legalisation of cannabis comes higher use and new users. It shows that a lot of the people who currently purchase cannabis illegally, continue to use those suppliers after legalisation, because of price. It shows that people aren’t that well aware or informed of the impact of using cannabis and driving. It shows an increase in road accidents in areas where recreational cannabis is legal.

There is no harm minimisation. There are new markets and money to be made. And the black market remains as it always has.

Higher risk on the roads automatically means higher insurance premiums across the board – insurance is risk priced and you pay on probability. When households and businesses are already managing tight finances, they shouldn’t be surprised by expenses that should be made clear up front.

There is also a whole bureaucracy that will be put in place to manage cannabis legalisation. The bill references a Cannabis Advisory Committee, Cannabis Appeals Authority, and Cannabis Regulatory Authority for starters. How much will all that cost and will it be funded by the tax payer?

There are so many unanswered questions about unintended consequences.

We believe the referendum cannot be binding until people are properly informed on what they are voting for, or against. We don’t want ideology and social engineering. We want facts and figures. This is reality, not fantasy land.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Minister bags her own Government’s infrastructure announcement

On 2 February, Julie Anne Genter provided judgement to the world on “the good, bad and the ugly” of the recent Government infrastructure announcement, via an article in The Spinoff.

A casual observer would not recognise that the author was in fact, Associate Minister of Transport, with actual responsibility for the package. It is just plain weird for her to be passing judgement on its key elements and stating that the New Zealand Upgrade “falls short” on what is required to “reduce climate pollution, ensuring people have enough to thrive, and protecting nature”.

That however, is the nature of the current coalition Government. Once upon a time, Cabinet responsibility meant that collectively made decisions were appropriately backed by all Ministers, and their Associates. Now, not so much.

In a case of having her cake and eating it too, Julie Anne Genter agrees with a Green pressure group that it was disappointing that incredibly expensive motorway projects made up the lion’s share of the New Zealand Upgrade and that it is “nowhere near what we need.”

She then goes on to attack “transport” saying every sector must pull its weight in cleaning up our act and that we have been one of the worst in recent years. Of course, the usual arguments are then prevailed upon about transporting more freight by sea and rail. She mentions the need to electrify the vehicle fleet (no other options though) and of course doesn’t mention any incentives for business that are well within her power to fight for now.

Our industry needs to be on guard when we reflect on the new roads promised in the New Zealand Upgrade. Firstly, there are two or three elections between now and the start of some projects. It’s concerning that Julie Anne Genter goes on to say that she will be reviewing the scope of projects like Mill Road and the Tauranga Northern Link to make sure they include continuous bus lanes and off-road cycleways. To me, this sounds as though the traditional four lane road that we thought we had been promised could well be compromised – becoming two lanes for cars and trucks (one in each direction) and two lanes for buses and bikes – and be subject to a “green wash”.

The other really serious concern for our industry – and any Kiwi keen on moving around and having a productive economy – is that if this incarnation of Government alters post-election on 19 September to a Labour-Green coalition; how safe are any of the announcements we value from the New Zealand Upgrade package? If the Greens are a stronger voice in the next Government, the demands of their extreme elements will only grow. Businesses should be worried.

In the “green wash” we have to also watch the fantasy this Government has created around rail. This week we submitted on a Bill before Parliament proposing to give yet more money to subsidise rail, and to take it from the fund paid for by road users to maintain and build roads. I’ve labelled this highway robbery. We can only see roads further run down and unsafe as the largesse to KiwiRail continues unchecked.

Rail’s environmental benefits over road are simply illusionary. Any level of success for rail transport is entirely dependent on truck transport. Measuring environmental performance solely on the basis of the relative performance of the truck versus train, instead of the reality of point-to-point sender to receiver, is a very narrow perspective, typically favoured by academics without any interest in economics.

And despite the socialist desire to control markets, customers actually decide how they want to send their goods. The vast majority favour road. Rail freight’s strength is in long-distance transportation (over 500km) of high volumes of relatively low value products, such as coal. It’s interesting to see the Green movement promoting that.

The reality is, this Government spurns business and makes decisions based on ideology alone.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Devil will be in the detail in road spending lolly scramble

This Government is very good at making big announcements, but delivery has proved to be its Achilles heel. 10,000 KiwiBuild homes promised, but not able to be delivered. Auckland’s light rail has a “stretch” timeline; now apparently 2030. Child poverty is going up, not down, with school principals saying child poverty is the worst they’ve seen as the school year started this week.

So, when the Government announced on Wednesday a big spend of $5.3 billion on roads, our excitement was tempered by a look for the detail. The devil is in the detail.

Through this term of Government, we have heard a lot of negativity about roads, including the Transport Minister Phil Twyford saying: “There has been an over-investment in roads and motorways for decades in this country”.

A change of heart came a day after the date for the 2020 general election was announced by the Prime Minister, and a big handful of the lollies in the road spending scramble landed in the pivotal political city of Auckland, and Northland, where New Zealand First is hoping to secure its five percent threshold.

But let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth, it is good to now have an “infrastructure Government” and a whole bunch of roads in the pipeline.

We are only sorry a couple of years have been wasted in getting on with building the vital arterial roads in New Zealand, and this is reflected in some of the timelines. The Melling interchange won’t be completed until 2026. For one of the roads we have lobbied hard for, four lanes for the Ōtaki to north of Levin stretch of State Highway 1, construction won’t start until 2025 and finishes in 2029. That’s another three terms of Government.

The Chair of the Horowhenua business and residents group Build the Road has publicly thanked the RTF for our support in pushing for this vital stretch of highway and advice with their campaign. Still, they must be disappointed about the nine year wait.

And while there are some great hits in the announcement, there are some equally important misses. At the 2018 road transport industry conference, Transport Minister Phil Twyford intimated that the East-West (Penrose-Onehunga) link in Auckland was going to happen. But it wasn’t mentioned in Wednesday’s announcement. More than 7,000 freight vehicles drive through Onehunga each day and congestion in the area needs to be eased if we want to get serious about boosting the economy.

Then there’s the South Island; not many lollies went there. Yet we are seeing speed limits reduced to accommodate the poor state of roads, at the expense of businesses using those roads. State Highway 6 from Blenheim to Nelson is an example, where road freight transporters are telling us reduced speeds over a long stretch of road will cost them considerable time and money, ultimately adding to the cost of everything.

It’s not rocket science to understand that with the base of our economy in tourism and exports we need roads that are fit for purpose throughout New Zealand. That is, at least four lanes, and engineered properly for the conditions, speed limit and in consideration of both the commercial and public use of these roads. This is another area where we have concerns. Some of the four-laning is not necessarily what we envisage – two lanes in each direction allowing free flow of traffic. We will all need to look very carefully at each road as it comes up for construction.

We are also worried about the lack of engineering expertise at the New Zealand Transport Agency, and the availability of workers required to construct massive infrastructure.

In promoting the infrastructure announcement, the Prime Minister keeps talking about getting “freight off the road and onto rail” and this is the mantra of New Zealand First as it tries to resurrect rail routes that were left fallow because they simply didn’t stack up against road freight. As one witty commentator noted, “Winston Peters invoking Julius Vogel for his rail announcement. Vogel was PM in the 1870s.” That about sums up rail.

Freight movement is driven by the market. The National Freight Demand Survey commissioned by the Ministry of Transport last year (October 2019), showed freight delivered in New Zealand is 93 percent by road (up 16 percent since 2012) and 5.6 percent by rail (down 17 percent since 2012).

It is important to note that:

  • With 93,000km of road and only 4,000km of rail, rail will never be able to meet the essential demands of delivering goods to New Zealanders
  • Only three to seven percent of the road freight task is contestable by rail – moving heavy coal being one of the main tasks that better suits rail
  • Rail offers no fuel consumption benefits for freight carried less than 400kms
  • 80 percent of freight is delivered within a region, and that is not contestable by rail
  • Road users pay for roads, but rail is heavily subsidised by the Government
  • Road delivers door-to-door, throughout New Zealand, rail doesn’t
  • Road is more resilient than rail when it comes to natural disasters
  • In Auckland and Wellington, rail has a commuter function (though you might want to speak to some of the commuters about that)
  • Not everyone lives in Auckland and Wellington and outside of those cities, good luck finding public transport
  • Trucks enable every movement of freight by rail

It would be good to finally hear this Government acknowledge that roads remain the lifeblood of the New Zealand economy – pretty much everything you need, every day, comes to you on a truck.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Country’s fastest roads are saving lives

My holiday reading included a Stuff article stating that two of the country’s fastest roads are actually saving lives.

“No one has died on either the Cambridge section of the Waikato Expressway, or the SH2 Tauranga Eastern Link Toll road, since they opened just over two years ago, figures released to Stuff show,” the article said.

These roads are rated at 110kmh. The increased speed limit of 110kmh was implemented on 11 December, 2017, on both sections of road.

In the article Police credited good road engineering for the safety of the roads.

We have also seen on the newish Kapiti Expressway north of Wellington. With a speed limit of 100km/h, there have been no fatal crashes between March 2017 and February 2019, and less serious and minor injury crashes than the previous route over the same period, which has speed limits of 60-80km/h. In 2015-2016 the previous route had a lower speed limit and one fatal crash and more serious and minor injury crashes than the expressway. This demonstrates better design and engineering of roads leads to fewer accidents, injuries and deaths.

This is in line with experiences in other jurisdictions – if the road is well engineered, safety is improved. The most notable example is the Autobahnen (highways) in Germany, where much of the roads have no speed limit. The number of crashes, and injury and death rates from those crashes, is lower on the Autobahnen than on either urban or rural roads in Germany.

The German government adopts the principle that motorists can decide for themselves what is the appropriate speed for the conditions and their skill set; they can calculate their own risk.

Sweden has the lowest road toll in the EU. Sweden has more than 2000km of motorway and a further 6000km of expressway. The speed limits on its motorway network are up to 120km/h.

In fact, moves to lower speed limits in Europe centre more on environmental arguments – less CO2 emissions at lower speeds – than on a road safety focus, and they are often politically motivated.

If we look at the French Government – its 2018 decision to cut the speed limit on country roads by 10km/h, to 80km/h, was a major factor in the rise of the gilet jaunes (yellow vests) protest movement. Many people in rural France saw the move as an example of President Emmanuel Macron’s urban elitism – a failure to understand the needs of people outside cities, who are totally reliant on their cars.

While there is no doubt that excessive speed causes road crashes to have consequences on the serious end of the scale, the New Zealand Government’s laser-like focus on speed alone, is concerning. The New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) believes 87 percent of New Zealand roads have speed limits too high for the conditions. They cannot seriously think it is viable to reduce speed limits on 87 percent of our roads, and keep our economy as an export nation moving and growing.

Most other developed countries have faster speed limits because they have better roads. The equation is not difficult to grasp – well engineered roads are safer. We believe that rather than slowing us down on the road, and subsequently slowing down our economy, the Government needs to be strategic and transparent in its decision-making. We need a long-term plan around what New Zealand requires from its transport network and investment has to be evidence-based.

The other holiday reading has of course, been the tragedy that is unfolding daily in Australia as bushfires grow and merge and more people, animals, homes, towns, and regions are impacted.

I want to do a shout out to the truckers of Australia who have been pulling out all stops to get water and essential supplies to those people, animals and areas who need it most.

This is a clear example of how vital roads and trucks are in times of natural disaster as the most reliable lifelines.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

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