Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni: RIP rail, whatever the spin


Making KiwiRail pay its way sounds like an excuse for running it into the ground.

Illustration / Anna Crichton
Illustration / Anna Crichton

What an interesting world it is that Associate Transport Minister Simon Bridges lives in.

I wish I lived there too. A world where, even though I am in reality short and overweight, I would be bold enough to try convincing everyone I was a supermodel - and perhaps even convince myself. A world where white is black, bad is good, and little pink fairies entertain your preschoolers at the bottom of the garden.

Bridges - with the backing of his political overlords, no doubt - has told Parliament that he feels a deal that saw KiwiRail receive 20 dud Chinese-made locomotives, put a further order of 20 on hold until various issues are "sorted out", and replace the brakes on 500 freight wagons some time back, was considered "successful".

Yes, indeed, a fantastic deal, a deal that perfectly suits a government that seems intent on trying to administer the fatal body blow to public rail. It had the double bonus of helping bolster the books of a Chinese train manufacturer which previously sold engines to Malaysia, only to have its consignment mothballed after three years due to ongoing technical issues.

The manufacturer is now, according to apologists for this wonderful deal, working to fix the problems with its faulty engines. "There is minimal disruption to the operations of KiwiRail, and all cost is borne by the manufacturer, none by KiwiRail," says Bridges, who can probably sleep quite well at night knowing he will never have to set foot on a cheap imported locomotive.

No doubt Bridges would also have some glossy patina to apply to the news that the company has to replace 7000 rotting railway sleepers it bought from Peru. Or that it is putting up to 200 people out of work over three years. Or that KiwiRail struggles to attract freight business away from trucks, or passengers away from planes or cars, when everyone can see the business is being run into the ground under the guise of making it "pay its own way".

Most depressingly, one sees how meaningless the talk of reinvigorating the country's urban centres really is when one considers the abysmal rail service each centre receives, as well as the casual way in which skilled people in those centres are dumped out of their jobs at the behest of tone-deaf government beancounters.

This was never more perfectly demonstrated than the decision - which is not only foolish in retrospect, but gallingly shortsighted even at the time - to effectively destroy the business of Dunedin's Hillside engineering plant and put 40 skilled people from that business, as well as 30 others, out of work. The multimillion-dollar contracts awarded to the Chinese manufacturer now struggling to fulfil that order is the predictable result.

There are few politicians willing to stand up and fight for rail in this country - Clare Curran, Dunedin South MP, is one exception. Unfortunately the party she belongs to - predictably - can't make any traction out of the latest KiwiRail cock-ups and the Government stonewalling on the issue.

Meanwhile, Simon Bridges can front up in Parliament and proclaim that what looks like a level crossing collision is in fact service as usual. The trouble is, in this case he's right.

* Illustration by Anna Crichton:

- NZ Herald

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Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

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