When it comes to a national rail network, we all want better than what we have now. What can be achieved, however, has to be tempered between pragmatism and dreaming. There are a small number of groups around the country mostly tied to minority political parties not in Parliament, that produce press releases and other statements with a very small readership or following. Some of the current claims being made by these groups of what is needed include the following:
- Auckland should have a new rail line to the airport and fast trains from the city centre and Hamilton
- Christchurch should have a commuter rail network to Waipara
- Kiwirail is scrapping locomotives and wagons even though there is traffic they could be used for.
- Kiwirail must be opened up to competition through open access so that other operators can run freight trains.
- Kiwirail should not be buying Chinese freight locomotives as they use outdated technology.
- The Gisborne line should be reopened.
The problem is in fact many of these wish list items are not justified as they only relate to small volumes of traffic and significant losses in operation. New Zealand does not have a high population density. Our major cities are well spread out and this means freight tracks are not carrying a large volume or else the trains are running very long distances between two cities.
Looking at most of the above, we did a little research to see what the industry insiders would be saying about these issues. Surprisingly enough, apart from the well known angst over DL locomotives in terms of reliability, there is very little being said that supports most of the above contentions. Hence they cannot be taken to be particularly credible in most cases. Everyone who works in the rail sector would certainly like to see the development of more services and more trains running. However with few exceptions, the above list is largely lacking in credibility.
We forget that Kiwirail does not have the resources to operate every service they possibly could or every rail corridor they could ever want to run on. The Gisborne line is a key example of this. The problem is the National Party is now calling for the corridor review that they commissioned when they were last in office to be revisited. This would undoubtedly result in a lot of services being cut back or stopped around the country if it were implemented as it pointed to the Golden Triangle in the Upper North Island being the only section of the network that had long term viability. Down here, the Picton line has only two or three freight trains a day since the Kaikoura earthquakes.
We see the extension of further passenger services in Auckland and Wellington, and the instigation of services in Christchurch, as remaining important. The Hamilton commuter service appears to be a resource wasting wishlist that may not last much longer. Kiwirail has unfortunately bought itself a big bunfight with Auckland Transport over the poor standard of maintenance of the Auckland tracks in the last couple of years with huge disruption lately. Kiwirail is working on new freight locomotives for the South Island and shunters, and some announcements should be coming soon about these.