More public money shovelled into the KiwiRail firebox to help the environment

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.

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