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.