Talk about getting the wrong end of the stick, barking up the wrong tree and branching off into red herring territory! The Gisborne/Napier railway line has it all.

For a start, the debate is predicated on the issue of whether or not the line is profitable. Of course it is not profitable. It never was and it never will be. Like every railroad and airline in the world, it will always run at a loss and always require some level of subsidy to remain open.

No country in the world has an open skies policy. Air New Zealand is continuously subsidised by the taxpayer through the control of landing rights, reciprocal and restricting access to competitors. And intermittently supported through billion dollar recapitalisations when it periodically goes belly up.

But you haven’t seen Gerry Brownlee and Bill English presenting a report to Cabinet suggesting we mothball the 747 fleet, have you?

Similarly, urban rail and buses have always been subsidised by central and local government to the tune of endless millions over countless decades. Once again, you haven’t heard Gerry and Bill telling the capital city commuters to dust off their roller skates, and round up their horses because Cabinet has decided to use their trains as anchor ballast and turn the network into a cycle way for the tourism industry. Funny that.

The same goes for Auckland. Prime Minister Key, who lives in the city of sails, unexploded volcanoes and eighty parliamentary seats, is negotiating with Mayor Brown as to how many tens of millions Mr Brown wants for his trains, trams, cross-harbour tunnels and new motorways, none of which will make a difference to the commuters or add one iota to the bottom line of NZ Inc. For a nation borrowing $300 million a week to pay for the groceries this is very unclever.

But if you ferret round the Cabinet Room on a rainy afternoon looking for the report entitled Auckland: Sorry, You Don’t Stack Up, you won’t find it. If it ever existed, it was swiftly replaced by the one titled Napier/ Gisborne: A Chance to Blame KiwiRail, Risk Only Two Seats, and Look Like We’re Saving Money.

Because the closure of the line has precious little to do with economics and everything to do with politics, the cost of repairing the line is $4 million.

An absolute pittance in the great scheme of things. The operating costs are not high compared to all the other subsidies, whether they be road, rail or air. The Napier/Gisborne line will never pay its way, but with a small amount of money and a large amount of common sense it could come close to breakeven.

If Kiwirail had 1000th of the advertising budget of Air New Zealand, a properly managed and run scenic and passenger service could be established that would bring serious revenue to the East Coast. There is a wall of wood waiting up the coast that will need marketing and shifting within the next decade. There are thousands of hectares of pastoral and arable land that can produce enough freight to make the line seriously less marginal over the long term.

Single link risky

What Cabinet has also seriously failed to consider is the long-term implication of having a single link to the coast. And the possibility, some would say the probability, of a huge spike, temporary or permanent, in fuel prices. It seems strange that the planned $100 million Telegraph Gully Highway past Kapiti, which has a cost-benefit ratio of nil, is going ahead largely because it will provide a second link to and from Wellington in the event of State Highway One closing through natural disaster. The same argument, it seems, doesn’t seem to apply to Gisborne.

When the road is closed, they can catch a passing whale, walk or swim.

And it is more than likely that some time soon, some Middle Eastern Despot will start behaving badly enough to close the straits of Hormuz or similar, which would quite easily triple the price of diesel. Without rail and with fuel at five dollars a litre or more, the Coaster would definitely need a bicycle, horse or swimming togs to get around … and Gisborne would slowly die.

It’s up to us

In summary, Wellington doesn’t care about the railway line. Mãori leadership is similarly unconcerned. Despite the fact that the affected population is predominately Mãori, neither Hone Harawira, Pita Sharples nor Winston Peters has hit the headlines calling for the line to be a classified as a Taonga under the Treaty. Ngati Porou doesn’t carry much political clout in Wellington, but that’s a lame excuse for inactivity.

Our local MPs are bound by cabinet responsibility to support the decision, however much they may privately abhor it. Cabinet will not reverse a decision over the fate of two parliamentary seats, gambling that in two years time the line will be forgotten and the election will be fought on other issues.

Which suggests the solution.

Take them on at their own game. If an independent single issue Napier/Gisborne Railway Party selected credible candidates with realistic funding to stand in the four affected seats, Cabinet would quickly reverse the decision.

Closing the line is a foolish mistake. It is based on a theory, which applied nationally, would see the closure of
every railway line, bus service and airline in New Zealand.

It is a cheap shot fired at the most vulnerable and least able to defend themselves, using Jim Quinn and Kiwirail as the fall guys.

Hawke’s Bay and Gisborne need to take a stand. If the East Coast played its cards right, Wellington would be shown to be bluffing. Then with great pleasure we could run The minister of transport out of town on a rail, all the way to Ngatapa and back on the smart new revitalised Poverty Bay Express, with whistles blowing and bunting flying, waving at every passing whale on the way.

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8 Comments

  1. The real reason the rail has been closed, is once the new dam in Central Hawkes Bay is built all of Gisborne’s produce will be able to be grown cheaplier there and transported much more easily to Napier port.
    Gisborne not just the rail is been abandoned. Haven’t you noticed theres still cracked buildings in their main street from their last big earthquake.
    No big Govt rebuild there aye.

  2. An option for keeping the line open is to petition the government to bring back partial regulation for the Trucking industry. Especially for Shipping Containers and other bulk cargoes such as Logging and even NZ built Rail Oil Wagons. Obviously, there is still a need for door to door delivery by the trucking industry but with the development of using Containers for goods and services this has cut the cost of the man-handling of goods over long distances that was occurring before the trucking deregulation some years ago.

  3. Ian is “spot on” concerning keeping the railway line open to Gisborne.
    Aotearoa N.Z is still small enough to support provincial cities, to retain work for its people, for the likes of Gisborne, Wairoa, and Napier, (with stops in between)
    The present government (much worse than the former Labour Government ) i s ripping out the fabric of community networks that in the past have provided its communities with some sense of a proud identity.”What else.”?

  4. I had an interesting conversation with a truckie recently. I mentioned that the trucking companies must be happy with the decision to close the railway, and he said ‘no’. Apparently, the road between Napier and Gisborne is very hard on the trucks and a dreadful one to drive (having driven it in a car many times, I can understand this).
    The decision to close it simply does not make economic sense from the perspective that good infrastructure is the key to regional economic development. And the really disappointing thing is that not one of the 3 cabinet ministers across the region stood up and fought for the line to remain open.

  5. The future of the NZ Rail Network is now on the line, we now have the possibility that Rural lines will be shutdown, its already started. North Auckland Line, also the spur to Dargaville, Napier to Gisborne, and probably the rest of Taranaki. The only way now is to petition for a Non-partisan, Independent Review of the entire NZ goods and Services Transport Systems. Inviting all political parties to participate in setting the terms of reference, without fear or favour. To achieve this goal we need to setup a Royal Commission of Inquiry into the NZ Transport System which includes Rail, Road and Shipping interests. The future of our country is at stake. We cannot allow just one transport mode to take virtually, total control. We absolutely need backup from other transport modes, for the future infra-structure development of our country.

  6. Yes, but Hawkes Bay’s two uneventful Tory MPs serve a different master so don’t expect any support there!
    If Craig Foss can’t sort our Novapay as a minor Cabinet Minister then forget any regional focus form him and the real estate agent from Napier.
    Long term our country won’t have a choice, we have an option now as Tim has pointed out; invest $4million and get on with the job, be honest and acknowledge its importance as part of our infrastructure.
    Forget the economic arguement, it doesn’t stack up, but it is a better way in many other respects!

  7. Look the answer is simple. Kiwirail should never have been Created in the first place. Ontrack was committed to the business of infrastructure and only infrastructure. Ontrack rented out it’s infrastructure to external operators. Ontrack also retained some lines such as the Rotorua line even in the absence of any commercially viable traffic. Ontracks business was of supplying “the network” to operators just like NZ Transport Agency supplies Roads to Operators. The concept of a network provider separate from the operator was the correct approach to managing rail.
    With Ontrack being separate from commercial operations, naturally it meant that if one operator lost interest in running services on a given line it did not automatically mean the end of that line completely. Operator’s weren’t controlling the lines, Ontrack was. The business of Ontrack was in maintaining and providing a network. A steel highway. Under Ontrack, The System was retained and money invested therein. It was not culled back until after Ontrack was swallowed up by the Nationalised Tollrail. Contrary to popular belief, culling the rail system undermines Rails Integrity.

    In the current market model, Kiwirail being the Monopoly, are dictating to everyone be it potential customers, or community’s. A great part of the problem lies in the fact that Kiwirail management are far removed from the customers in the provinces. Kiwirail see the National perspective and that only. They lack the ability to see and feel the local perspective and this provides us an answer perhaps as to why Kiwirail have trouble attracting customers on some Rural Lines. In many respects, Kiwirail is the New Zealand Rail Industry’s own worst enemy. Because its a monopoly it has no need to innovate because it has no need to compete yet innovation is the key to making rail work. If true competition existed on the rail system then dare I say many branch lines would still exist.

    Kiwirail operations are commercially oriented. The Network on the other hand has social and economic factors to take into consideration. The commercial imperative’s of the operations side puts it at odds with the desired social and economic outcomes of the network business which, in order to fulfil such outcomes, needs to be operated along entirely different lines to that of the freight and passenger business. From an ethical point of view, The network business and the freight and passenger business are both diametrically opposed to each other.

    Sadly the network business when merged with the operations of tollrail, lost out to tollrail management who are utterly visionless and only see the commercial value of the railfreight business not the social and economic value of the network business. I say that given this situation, the Commercial operations ought to be separated from the network business once again. This is the only way Rail can be placed on a even footing is if the interference and control from the monopoly operator is removed from the business of the infrastructure provider. Why National haven’t done this already, I suspect its because they want Rail to Fail. The Network should exist for the good of all and be run as a non profit public benefit corporation with the community’s wellbeing at heart. The community want a rail system, however the manner in which Kiwirail’s business is run at present is clearly inconsistent the public interest.

  8. One way to make lines like the Napier- Gisborne line viable would be to ensure all trucking companies be required to have a financial interest in the NZ rail system; they would have to interface their businesses in such a way as to utilize this multi-billion dollar resource to best advantage, for all!

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