Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Railroad to Nowhere

Just had a listen to Michael Cullen trying to explain the railways purchase on bFM. Omfg, if this is Cullen's idea of impulse buying, Dagg help us... Helen Clark has already admitted that the railways are not designed to make money. Cullen pretty much admits he paid too much for the semi-rolling stock. But what followed was much worse.

There was no strategy in the purchase. Cullen admits that there are no plans for any of it right now, thereby negating much of the need for the premium price tag. Apart from 'we're going to buy a truckload of new hardware', there's not the slightest clue of any long-term goal. Yeah, there's more metro commuter services, better freight planned, but nothing beyond what Toll was already trying to provide. There's no big picture.

Here's an alternative reality. It's the '90s and Fay Richwhite et al are asset-stripping the railways as perhaps the only way to get a return on their investment. Although the Nats should have slipped the equivalent of Telecom's Kiwi Share into the deal, I suppose they were urgently trying to hock off whatever they could to help pay for Labour's little BNZ debt secret.

Anyways, what happened was that rail services deteriorated to a point where the market shifted to roads. What should have happened at this point, was that railways should have died. Instead of subsidies and bailouts, which have kept this thing limping along for the last decade, rail should have been put out of everyone's misery years ago. Then, once it was dead, the government could have bought whatever remained for a pittance. Such a government would have seen the impending death of rail some time ago and drawn up a saner plan to make a Main Trunk Line and subsidiaries than what Vogel left on our doorstep.

It would, for example, have shunned the existing narrow gauge track, ripping it up and smelting it into government limos or something. Narrow gauge was only used to get through the alpine climes of the central plateau and other marginal constituencies.

If one were building a North Island Main Trunk from scratch, it would run from Wellington through to Wairarapa, up north-east to Napier (so Cullen can use his SuperGold card on it). From Napier, it could cut through to Rotorua, Hamilton and up to Auckland. The line would comprise of standard gauge, so NZ could buy stock cheaply off the US and Britain and, well, just about anywhere outside of sub-Saharan Africa.

Then, a wildly-popular government could unveil a high-speed transit service, getting punters from Wellington to Auckland in, say, 3 hours. Now that would get a shit load of travellers off the roads. The bigger freight containers that could fit on trains would bring increased efficiencies to the transport sector too.

It happened somewhere, but not here.