Lack of investment in roads will cost us all

We continue to see evidence of the importance of roads in New Zealand. We have a geographically challenging country and the way we all connect to one another is via roads – 93,000 kilometres of them.

Last week, the 2017-18 National Freight Demand Study was released, showing road transport is the major mode of travel for all our domestic and export food and goods, carrying about 93 percent of the total of 280 million tonnes moved during that period.

On a tonnes per kilometre basis, road transport has grown 16 percent between the 2014 and 2019 reports, while rail has dropped 17 percent. The official word in the report is that the drop in rail freight reflects the impact of the Kaikoura earthquake, and the reduction in coal traffic in 2017-18. I guess you have to grasp at excuses when the evidence doesn’t support the ideological direction of the Government. The contention of the RTF is that the improvement of truck payload efficiency is the real reason for the shift between rail and road. Over the past six years, HPMV and 50Max gains have been realised in dairy, logs, livestock, aggregates, and petroleum distribution, as new vehicles have replaced older, less efficient ones.

This picture, with the backdrop of a tightening economy, suggests the Government should be recognising the correlation between our roads and our way of life.

Sadly, this is not the case. While the Government has quite rightly focused on some aspects of road safety, they don’t seem to connect the importance of the roads themselves, to the safety of the people using them.

We are seeing this in the lowering of speed limits on main highways all around the country. In the South Island, residents are petitioning the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) to scrap proposed lower speed limits on State Highway 6, from Nelson to Blenheim. NZTA cites accident numbers to say the road is unsafe and is proposing reducing the speed from 100 km/h to 80 km/h. If approved, the entire length of SH6 between the two towns, about 110 kilometres, would be not more than 80km/h at any point. NZTA says the “technical assessment of the state of the road” was the reason behind the proposed reduced speed limit.

This is also happening on State Highway 1, around Warkworth and Puhoi north of Auckland, where there is a proposal to reduce the speed limit from 100 km/h to 80 km/h, for 15 kilometres. This is our main state highway north out of our major city, Auckland.

And we are seeing road closures because of a lack of investment. The Manawatu-Taranaki-King Country regions are being significantly impacted by two state highways closed by slips – SH4 between Whanganui and Raetihi and SH43 between Mangaparo and Kururau Road, part of the Forgotten Highway. These road closures are of considerable concern to businesses and residents in these regions, who are facing long and expensive detours. People are losing money, daily. This is busy dairy and logging country and it’s a busy time of year. For years, locals on SH4 have been warning the road needed attention. Now, they are looking at a year, if not years of it being closed. There are school children on one side who cannot get to school on the other side of the slip. This doesn’t just affect this region. It has an impact on all of us when goods we rely on have to travel further to get to us. That means they cost more, at a time when household budgets have very little slack.

What we are seeing is death by a thousand cuts – of our roads and subsequently, of our back pockets. Not fixing roads and lowering speed limits to accommodate not fixing roads will slow us down and cost us more. The Government says it’s nine minutes here, or seven minutes there, but it all adds up to a total journey. As the Nelson locals say, it also causes perverse behaviour. When people are slowed down, they do stupid things.

There’s ideology, not strategy at play. There is no big picture thinking – what is the total impact of dropping the speed limit to 80 km/h on 110 kilometres of road that is used to transport for example, valuable horticulture products to export markets? If two main roads are closed for a long period of time, what is the total impact to all New Zealanders of the additional business costs that generates?

While the Government would have people believe less trucks on the road is a good thing, it’s not. It’s less jobs. It’s less money in rural and provincial New Zealand. It’s decline not growth. It’s the inconvenience of not having what you want when you want it. It’s higher prices for essentials like food. And at the end of the day, it finally impacts those in the cities as well.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Road builders in la-la land

I am once again, disappointed – and dismayed – to find Wellington policy makers driving ahead with significant changes to critical infrastructure without fully understanding user needs.

This week, I found out that at this late stage of the Manawatū Tararua Highway build – the Manawatū Gorge replacement – the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA) is proposing what was going to be a full four-lane piece of highway (two lanes each way) will reduce to two lanes at a pivotal point, for three kilometres.

This is at the steepest point and will slow down trucks using the road, create congestion, and impact safety.

Not only that, despite engagement with, and outright pleas from our industry, a Stock Effluent Dump Site (SED) has not been included within the scope of works – NZTA previously advised it was included – no land has been purchased for this, and it is off the table.

To rub salt in that wound, the NZTA has asked truck drivers to use an existing SED near Woodville, knowing it is not safe.

This defies logic and all the road safety rhetoric. Ridiculous statements from a safety review of the more recent design work which say that going to one lane for a short section “reduces the perception that the new road is a motorway” and is “more in keeping with a rural look and feel for the road, to better fit in with the character of the landscape” reflect that ideology, not fit-for-purpose design, is behind these changes.

Let’s be clear, this is a highway and first and foremost, it should be built properly, for purpose. It is a key east-west connection for the Lower North Island to get New Zealand’s food and primary products to market. First build the road. Then if someone wants to spend millions of dollars making it look pretty, go for it. But don’t make that part of the road building costs. For most of us, a drive through the New Zealand countryside is pretty enough.

A single lane each side at the road’s steepest point is an unnecessary design approach given the carriage way appears to be wide enough, as shown in this flyover. Most light vehicle users will be frustrated to be caught behind a truck when they find their passing opportunity evaporate in front of their eyes. This could well cause safety issues.

On the matter of stock effluent, it has been made clear to the NZTA that the existing Woodville SED is unsafe – as the photo above shows – because:

  • The turning space in and out of the facility has a concrete curb that the units have to drive over causing judder bar effects (these have been asked to be removed previously)
  • The fence separating the temporary exit is not consistent causing a narrowing toward the exit point (this has been advised previously)
  • The culvert on exit needs lengthening 2 -3 metres, as it does not allow 5-axle trailers the correct cut required to exit safely (this has been advised previously).

With no safe stock effluent dumping sites accessible before taking on the hill, effluent spillage all over the new road is likely. This may incur infringement notices, which will be heavily defended by our industry due to the deliberate oversight of this issue by NZTA.

I sometimes wonder if I’m in an alternate reality where the cost of living is of no relevance, food is unnecessary, and we are all walking and cycling in happy unison. But in the real world, I’ll keep asking for us to get this right first time – if the project is not funded correctly, it will slow down our economy and cause frustration to all drivers on that road.

The RTF is concerned that the current course of action will only see a mammoth cost in the years ahead when the under specification will have to be corrected. Our view is that NZTA needs to ask the Government to increase the construction budget to get this road built right – it is after all, the only new road build currently on the books.

Kiwis expect to see first-class infrastructure and high quality roading, given the increases in petrol tax and Road User Charges that they have had to endure.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

 

Let’s get practical about climate change

While politicians and celebrities gnash their teeth and shout to anyone who will listen that we are in the middle of a climate change “crisis” or “emergency”, a lot of others are looking at practical and workable solutions to stop the mercury rising.

None more so than those at the local government level, where they actually mop up after a real crisis or emergency, including those caused by dramatic weather patterns or natural disasters which generally impact at a local, rather than national, level.

So, it was interesting this week to present at and be part of a panel discussion at the Road Controlling Authorities Forum in Wellington, looking at the impacts of climate change in relation to transport.

Without question the freight and logistics sector will face increasing pressure from both government and our customers to reduce emissions. But we possibly aren’t as bad as people think.

The energy sector accounts for about 40 percent of New Zealand’s Greenhouse Gas emissions, with transport fuels about 17 percent of that total. About five to seven percent of emissions come from the heavy transport industry.

Road freight transport intersects with those controlling roads on the climate change front in areas such as delays due to extreme weather and storm events; infrastructure condition deteriorating faster with extreme heat or excessive rain; and bad roads causing delays and increasing safety risks such as, more road works, driver fatigue, and additional time-costs for end consumers.

In a real crisis or emergency, local and central government will be more reliant on roads than other parts of the transport network. With increased coastal inundation, or a natural disaster like an earthquake, many rail lines are quickly out of commission. Roads also suffer, as quite a lot of our main highways are vulnerable to such events, but there are usually alternate routes and events are localised, so other parts of New Zealand can supply an affected area, by road.

New Zealand is leading the way in looking at mitigating climate change and we support the principles of the Zero Carbon Bill, currently being considered by the Environment Select Committee.

But we  think that addressing climate change is more than focusing on net zero emissions by 2050. It is also looking at making our infrastructure network resilient and planning for events along the way.

On the emissions front, road freight is a sector that quickly adopts technology efficiencies. Noxious emissions from trucks have been slashed by 98 percent in the past 20 years, through use of technology. European emission standards are applied to much of the heavy vehicle fleet to reduce levels of harmful exhaust emissions, currently Euro Standard 6, which requires an additive to be used in fuelling heavy diesel trucks.

While there are electric options for car drivers, any real alternative fuel vehicle at the heavy truck level is still some way off. In the rush to remove reliance on fossil fuels, we need alternative energy sources in place. And we need to look at the whole picture, for example, the batteries that power green vehicles have been linked to human rights abuses in the mining of lithium and cobalt.

Our industry is keen to find solutions in New Zealand – we are known for our problem-solving and innovation, so let’s lead the way here if we can.

TIL Logistics has partnered with New Plymouth-based Hiringa Energy to develop hydrogen fuel cell technology for its transport vehicle fleet and they hope to begin their first hydrogen vehicle trials in 2020.

It will be interesting to see the results of the trials both here with Hiringa and overseas, where similar research and development is underway, as to whether hydrogen fuel cells and the complex infrastructure that comes along with that technology can displace the battery-based electric motor as the clean alternative for heavy transport.

I recently visited Tranzurban, in Wellington, and using their own ingenuity they have built the first full electric double-decker buses in the world, made up from components they have sourced and put together in a unique way.

There’s still a long way to go, but our industry is poised to take a bigger role in the movement to combat climate change in a global sense. At the same time, individual companies are looking at their sustainability obligations to meet their customers’ expectations and be good global citizens. And when the real crisis, catastrophe, or disaster happens, we’ll be there delivering the goods.

Please note: Being uncomfortable with changing the meaning of the words crisis and emergency does not make me a climate change denier.

– Nick Leggett – CEO, Road Transport Forum

Where the rubber hits the road

One of the best parts of my job is getting out and about to speak to the people running freight companies and finding out what’s going on where the rubber hits the road. Yesterday, with the National Road Carriers chief executive David Aitken, I was able to spend time talking to five Auckland-based companies about opportunities and issues, and there were many recurring themes that line up with what the Road Transport Forum is advocating for on the industry’s behalf.

We saw a tremendous commitment to health and safety and looking after staff. Technology that detects driver fatigue is definitely life-saving and even those who weren’t so keen on it in the first place, have experienced its benefits first-hand. This technology alerts drivers who may close their eyes due to fatigue by shaking their seat, an alarm noise, and an alert to their company so someone can check they are OK. Even the best of drivers can experience fatigue, so it makes sense to invest in solutions like this.

One of the companies we visited, Mainstream, is bringing some creative thinking to health and safety and instead of the traditional high-visibility vests, they have designed their own high-vis shirts. They are made from recycled plastic, so get the environmental tick, and model a rugby league shirt because Mainstream also sponsors the Kiwis and Kiwi Ferns rugby league teams. The photo is me and Mainstream managing director Greg Haliday with one of the shirts.

Yesterday, we saw good companies, employing plenty of people and looking after their employees, and running businesses that keep New Zealand moving. If you look around you, pretty much everything that makes your everyday life tick over came to you via a truck.

So, it is disappointing to hear about some of the issues that are rooted in the anti-road ideology of the current Government. Resoundingly we heard:

  • Infrastructure – the state of some roads is unsafe due to lack of spending on upkeep, poor design and the wrong surface for the environment, and change of use (what were country roads in Auckland now major thoroughfares due to urban sprawl) – this is coming from people who have been using these roads day-after-day, year-after-year
  • Road user charges (RUC) and fuel taxes are increasing, but less is being spent on roads that need to be upgraded/improved/built and in fact, vital major roading projects have been de-funded
  • Money that should be used on roads is being siphoned off for political gain on cycle ways and rail – while rail is part of the transport network, those that use it say it is slow, expensive, unreliable, and up to 50 percent of the time, late
  • Getting the right staff – who pass pre-employment drug testing – requires better immigration pathways so drivers from countries such as the Philippines can be guaranteed a long-term career and a settled lifestyle
  • The emphasis on road safety needs to be broader than speed – professional drivers see distraction as the biggest threat to them eg. car drivers on mobile phones, and they see little policing of that and the other big threats, alcohol and drug abuse
  • Legalising recreational marijuana use and the impact that will have on safety sensitive businesses such as road transport, given the lack of any regulatory regime for road safety behind that.

The romantic notions this Government has around rail is a real concern. Rail can never match the efficiency and speed of road freight. It can’t deliver door-to-door. It’s not suitable for essential goods that must be transported within tight time frames, such as medicines and fresh food. Yet the Government plans to pour billions and billions of dollars into a rail infrastructure that is well past its use-by date. This is at the expense of roads, that all New Zealanders use to get where they need to go and receive all the goods they need to live. It makes no sense at all.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Road safety solutions need wider focus

There has been much debate this week about lowering speed limits on roads throughout New Zealand. In talking about the economic impact of such a move, there seems to be some belief that this means not caring about the deaths and injuries on New Zealand roads. Quite the opposite is true – at the Road Transport Forum we want to ensure a safe workplace for truck drivers, a workplace that has a positive impact on their well being, and a workplace that allows them to go home to their families at the end of their work shift. For much of that shift, their workplace is the road.

In New Zealand, debate on significant issues has taken an ugly turn. If you don’t agree chapter and verse with the Green anti-road/anti-motor vehicle movement, all manner of insults come your way, often in shouting capital letters. You are a “car fascist” or part of a “pro-death lobby”, to name just the tip of the iceberg of insults, many personal. This is frankly, ridiculous, and not healthy. It does not allow for progress, or good policy making. And if these people looked up, they would see that much of what they rely on to go about their everyday life travels to them by trucks.

Good policy and law making requires thorough and robust research relevant to the New Zealand context; a look at all contributing factors to a problem and matching the best options to those; stakeholder and public engagement; listening; and accepting opinions and advice that might be contrary to your own. Unfortunately, we are seeing less of this and more reactionary moves with unintended consequences.

To wake up on Wednesday morning and read that the Government wants to crack down on the road toll by dropping speed limits across the country is concerning. The statistics presented don’t give the full picture of what’s happening on New Zealand roads. A desktop mapping tool has been used to determine “safety” of roads. This data needs checking in the real world to make sure that what it is proposing makes sense. If decision-making rests on these maps, we are in trouble.

Of course, safety has to be the number one priority on our roads. But speed isn’t the cause of 75 percent of accidents, according to Government statistics. Let’s focus on the most dangerous 10 percent of roads, as well as all the other causes of accidents, to find the best ways to improve road safety.

To be very clear, the contributing factors to our road toll that need to be considered before hasty decisions are made include:

  • Speed
  • Road conditions and infrastructure
  • Vehicles – age and condition
  • Driver behaviour – including breaking the law by not wearing seat belts, using mobile phones, using drugs and alcohol with resulting impairment, driving without a licence, etc
  • Technology – improvements in vehicle safety; better road surfacing and infrastructure
  • Education, training and licensing
  • Enforcement – more laws and rules require more enforcement

It is concerning to see speed being the sole focus at the expense of what we believe is another critical factor in ensuring road safety – road conditions and infrastructure. This does not mean driving to the conditions. This means the conditions of the road are so poor, the road becomes dangerous even for the most sensible and unimpaired drivers. It means that no matter how well engineered a vehicle is, it hasn’t been engineered for the conditions on some New Zealand roads. It means those roads need to be brought up to a safe standard.

This does not mean the trimmings of median and side barriers, rumble strips and shoulder widening – which the Government is spending $1.4 billion on over three years – will magically make these roads safe. To quote truck driver Antony Alexander in the June issue of New Zealand Trucking magazine: “No driver ever said: ‘A rumble strip and bright white line makes me feel so much safer’.”

The New Zealand Transport Agency’s (NZTA) Speed Management Guide, was a 10-year plan to target five percent of the highest risk roads, now all of a sudden that scope has been increased to 10 percent of roads over three years. The focus was not supposed to be on speed alone, major roads were to be upgraded to make them safe at higher speeds, but we have seen very little of that happening. In fact, in the past couple of years we have seen a de-funding of the roading budget.

In a press release yesterday the Selwyn District Council signalled NZTA funding cuts on local roading improvements could put motorists at risk.

“Vital projects which we were planning to improve the safety and efficiency of roading network, particularly our roads feeding into the Christchurch Southern Motorway, have been halted unexpectedly due to a shortfall in national transport funding. This puts our residents and other motorists at risk on main roads that are in desperate need of safety upgrades,” the Council said.

This is the big picture we should be discussing. New Zealand has 53,425km of sealed roads that are essential to our way of life and that we all share, not matter what mode of transport we choose. Can we grow up New Zealand and have a fruitful discussion about how we use these roads safely, an issue which is clearly on many people’s minds?

  • Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum

Strong economy good for wellbeing

It would be a heartless person who didn’t commend the Government for the commitment it showed to New Zealand’s most disadvantaged people in announcing its Wellbeing Budget yesterday.

It would be good to get to the bottom of why this country needs to spend so much on mental health care and why many of our young people don’t seem to have much hope. When you look at the Scandinavian countries that always score so highly on global “happiness” surveys, it seems that at least one factor contributing to a nation’s wellbeing is a strong economy that offers hope of a good, balanced lifestyle. Yesterday’s budget was not one that will transform our economy.

As a trading nation that is moving goods around 24 hours a day, seven days a week, road transport is the lifeblood of our economy. Currently trucks transport around 90 percent of New Zealand’s total freight by weight, with seven percent going by rail and the rest by air and coastal shipping. Your food, clothes, furniture, cars, whiteware and appliances, office products, technology, and pretty much everything else, has travelled via truck at some point to get to you.

So, it is concerning to see so much money being pumped into rail – $1.41 billion allocated to KiwiRail over the next two years in yesterday’s budget – without an equivalent investment in roads. And it was disappointing to hear Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in her Budget speech at Parliament yesterday shout, “If you want to talk about safety on our roads, get freight off it and get it on to rail.” Incidentally, we would like to see the evidence behind this call. Also, how will the big investment in rail take freight off trucks specifically? The truth is that there is a lot of money going into rail that will probably not shift the freight task in any measurable direction away from roading.

This push to revive a rail freight network that has essentially failed in the past and as a consequence, has become run-down, at the expense of the already functioning road freight network, doesn’t feel visionary. If ever, it will be a long time before there is any evidence of more freight being moved by rail and fewer heavy trucks on the road. In the meantime, road conditions will worsen without investment and that will impact road safety and the economy. It all feels fine when we have a strong economy, but we require the Government to be investing now in modes that will carry and build our nation when things slow.

With the budget also pouring more money into forestry, it seems extraordinary that the Government hasn’t considered what happens to all those trees when they are harvested. They go off shore, to boost our export earnings, and they get from the forest via logging trucks – heavy vehicles that need good roads.

Anyone who spent budget night in Wellington’s wild weather trying to get home to the suburbs out of the city, by car and public transport – a two-hour journey for many that would normally be 20-40 minutes – will be aware of how lacking in resilience our infrastructure is. They might have spent some of that time grid-locked on both State Highway 1 and 2 contemplating the value of maybe some budget dollars going to securing our economy and productivity with good, resilient infrastructure.

As politicians were in the Beehive clinking their glasses of pinot noir and congratulating themselves on their citizens’ wellbeing, on the dark, wet, windy streets beyond their windows it felt like the economy was slowing even more and its vitality – our extensive roading network that needs to be resilient in a country plagued by natural disasters – was being ignored. The budget didn’t feel very strategic, or like there was big-picture future planning; more like doling out money to the pet projects of coalition partners.

– Nick Leggett, CEO, Road Transport Forum