The poor old taxpayer who poured more than $1bn into state-owned KiwiRail during the term of the National government is being hit up for another $35m to reverse the decision taken two years ago to ditch the North Island electric locos and replace them with diesel-powered engines.
The Ardern-Peters-led coalition has decided to refurbish the 15 units in the electric fleet — even though the argument to replace them was “compelling” .
While the government now says it is keeping electric locomotives on the North Island Main Trunk Line running to help meet its long-term emissions goals and boost the economy, KiwiRail earlier said it was essentially running “a railway within a railway” by having the electric section. (The North Island Main Trunk runs from Auckland to Wellington but is electrified only between Hamilton and Palmerston North). The doubling up of service facilities, inventory, training and maintenance required with two separate systems on the line, KiwiRail said, adds to inefficiencies and unreliability.
The $35m now earmarked for refurbishment of the trains and electric control system is additional to the $4bn for public transport and rail under the National Land Transport Programme.
Deputy Prime Minister and shareholding Minister Winston Peters said refurbishing these trains in NZ
“ … is looking to the future of our environment and economy.We’re making the right decision for the long term. Replacing electric locomotives with diesel would be a step backwards.By refurbishing these locomotives here, we’re creating jobs in KiwiRail’s Hutt Workshop and supporting our local rail industry. It just makes sense.”
Funnily enough, when KiwiRail decided to switch from electric to diesel it contended it would benefit the environment. Its then CEO, Peter Reidy, said the decision was as much about the environment as anything else.
“This is an important move for NZ as without a reliable and efficient service, our customers will not move freight on rail and every tonne of freight moved by rail delivers a 66% reduction in carbon emissions from road. That’s critical for our customers, and for the country.Ultimately the high costs of a new or refurbished electric fleet couldn’t be justified, while the gains to be made from standardising our fleet were very compelling.”
The cost of electrifying the whole North Island Main Trunk Line is estimated to be more than $1bn for the infrastructure alone; feeder lines would still require diesel trains.
Reidy said Kiwirail would need to purchase eight new diesel trains, but the rest of the work could covered by existing diesel trains, already owned by the cash-strapped State-Owned Enterprise.
As for the latest decision, Transport Minister Phil Twyford says it supports the government’s wider $4bn package in public transport, rapid transit and rail.
“Rail connects regions with the cities and helps create a more modern, sustainable transport network. Keeping the electric trains shows that we are continuing to invest in the future”.
Acting Associate Transport Minister James Shaw argues NZ can’t move to a zero carbon future by moving away from clean energy.
“Choosing to invest in clean, electric transport is essential to meeting the challenge of climate change. Keeping the electric trains on-track is the right thing to do for the future of rail, particularly as we investigate options for further electrification of the network and the role of hydrogen-fuelled trains”.
On queue, the Council of Trade Unions welcomed the government decision for Kiwirail retaining 15 electric engines. Secretary Sam Huggard said that it was a perfect example of ‘Just Transition’ thinking, to protect good jobs and public services in a low-carbon economy.
“Climate campaigners and unionists have all been pushing for this forward – thinking move. We can upgrade the good electric engines we already have using local skills, rather than import diesel engines from overseas. We don’t have time, or room for short-term decisions or backwards steps that aren’t future-proofed – the world is moving to a net-zero emissions standard, and NZ has to move with the times too.The Government’s decision is not only a demonstration of their commitment to campaign promises, but an example of how we can benefit regional economies and working people in NZ”.
If taxpayers think the $35m now being provided to save the electric locos is the last time they will be digging into their pockets for KiwiRail, they have another think coming: the government says it is continuing to work with KiwiRail, including through the Future of Rail project, to consider how the government’s environmental objectives can be supported through investment in rail.
The project will assess the effectiveness of NZ’s current rail operations and identify the role it can play in supporting urban development and the growth of our freight and tourism sectors.