Train whistle blowing, makes a sleepy noise: Kiwirail and our climate future

I caught the Northern Explorer from Palmerston North to Hamilton. As I waited on the platform, I looked at the tracks below me. At one point where two tracks joined, someone had folornly spraypainted a health and safety hazard: a bolt that was halfway out of its hole, opposite another bolt that had completely fallen out, its bolt sitting beside it. I can imagine the aforementioned Health and Safety Representative sighed as he sprayed them white, knowing in his heart this is unlikely to be fixed. I have no expectation it will ever be fixed.

I am not an avid train fan, but even I am aware that Kiwirail is a losing enterprise. In six months to the end of December 2013, their operating profit dropped by 21 percent, their expenses rose by 3.9 percent and their revenue by a measly 0.7 percent. Their annual profit projection dropped by $10 million. This goes along with their woes: dropping the Napier-Gisborne line, the asbestos scandal in their carriages, their CEO leaving. Add to that the dark rumours of the business being put up for sale, and I have to say, Kiwirail has my sympathy.

Yet as I sit on this train, and I consider all of this difficult reality, I cannot help but hope that this all changes. Rail will grow in importance under climate change. Now climate change will cause more serious weather events that will impact on the use of rail, with slips, flooding and changing landscape all likely to affect the infrastructure. Last week, during the storm we had across the country, the Northern Explorer was delayed 14 hours at Te Kuiti because of minor slips. But the positive factors will outweigh the negative: emissions trading schemes, congestion charges and similar climate policy must see a turn back to rail.

Our love of the car and the truck is not sustainable. The infrastructure costs on local and regional councils are becoming unbearable because our rating models don’t include a user pays aspect. Consequently, whilst trucks pay a Road User Charge, it doesn’t take account of the impact on paving as a result of the incredible weights they carry. And don’t forget, our government has recently increased the weights and sizes that are allowable. If you travel in regional New Zealand, a harsh truth will toss you around inside your car as you drive: our roads can’t handle it, and our councils can’t afford to fix it.

So rail will become more and more important. My feeling on this trip is that we need to at least ensure the infrstructure is maintained in anticipation of that day coming. We cannot leave things to rot away. We’ve all read the news: rotting sleepers, broken tracks, lost bolts. Then the outsourcing of train repair, maintenance and the building of new trains. We need that infrastructure here in New Zealand, not overseas with the cheapest company. Trains will have their day again; what a tragedy if, through mismanagement and lack of interest, we have an insurmountable financial mountain to climb to get them working again.

So here’s to Kiwirail, and if you are wondering how to support them, on your next trip, take the train.