Brian Rudman 's Opinion

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman: Mallard playing dangerous game on electric trains

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Labour MP Trevor Mallard. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Labour MP Trevor Mallard. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Labour rottweiler Trevor Mallard's demand that the tender process for Auckland's new electric train fleet be put on hold until the Auditor-General's probe into Sammy Wong's lobbying activities is completed is great parliamentary sport.

But it's a dangerous game he plays.

If the Government were to call his bluff and agree to yet another delay in the long and convoluted saga to modernise Auckland's commuter rail system, Mr Mallard and the Labour Party would have a lot of angry Super City voters to answer to.

To take such a gamble seven months before an election and well behind in the polls has the sniff of Russian roulette about it.

Even the response from state-owned KiwiRail, which is conducting the tender process, is worrying. A spokeswoman on Wednesday said the decision on the Auckland train contract was not due until "towards the end of the year". Yesterday KiwiRail tried to be a little more optimistic, saying it was "looking right at the end of the third quarter".

This shows D-day is slipping back, even without help from Mr Mallard. All he risks is being seen to be adding to the delays.

In May last year, the Herald reported KiwiRail was hoping to sign the supply and maintenance contract for a fleet of up to 114 electric rail cars by "early" 2011. Then in September, Transport Minister Steven Joyce declared Auckland's train project was "well and truly on track".

Speaking on the day KiwiRail released the "request for proposal documentation" for companies vying for the job, Mr Joyce said KiwiRail had assured him it was "on track to award the tender by the middle of next year and have the first trains on the ground and operational from 2013".

The document required delivery of trains to begin in the first quarter of 2013, coming into service from mid-2013 onwards. Delivery was to be completed by no later than 2014.

The question now must be, can these deadlines be kept when the signing of the tender keeps slipping backwards, from early this year, to the middle and now the beginning of October or possibly later?

Any further drift and nothing will be signed before the general election, which throws up the real possibility that all bets will then be off. At the time of the last election in late 2008, Auckland had persuaded Parliament to grant it the authority to introduce a regional fuel tax so that Aucklanders could raise the money to buy their own electrified commuter rail system. The regional transport authority had already called for expressions of interest and shortlisted four suppliers.

In March 2009, the upheavals began. National's Transport Minister, Steven Joyce, ditched the tax, saying it made "more sense" for KiwiRail to buy and own the trains and to conduct the tender process. Auckland would have to contribute, but exactly how much and for what, is still the stuff of vigorous debate.

More than a year later, in May 2010, KiwiRail called for expressions of interest, and in July announced the names of four preferred bidders, Hitachi, Hyundai Rotem, Bombardier Transportation and a joint bid by Mitsubishi and a Spanish company.

Then in September, KiwiRail, in a surprise move, added four more contenders: Aussie rail engineering company UGL Rail Services, two major Chinese train manufacturers and a consortium of Japanese and Chinese interests working with locals, Downer EDI Rail.

The latter included a subsidiary of China CNR Corporation with which Sammy Wong, husband of disgraced Cabinet minister Pansy Wong, was alleged to have commercial links.

In December, Bombardier spat the dummy over the tender process and very publicly pulled out. So did three other hopefuls, but anonymously. That leaves four surviving bids, though which four we don't yet know.

After Mr Mallard's demand, KiwiRail issued a short statement, "KiwiRail has had no involvement with Mr Wong during the course of the Auckland EMU tender process and, to the best of our knowledge, neither have any of the vendors."

Even if Mr Wong did, it would hardly be the first time a lobbyist was found buzzing around rich pickings trying to make a buck.

More worrying to me is the risk of the contract process dragging on past election day. In the unlikely event of Labour winning, all bets will be off. But even if National returns victorious, they could be full of public-private partnership, pro-road triumphalism that is equally deadening to the rail dream.

- NZ Herald

Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Brian Rudman's first news story was for Auckland University student paper Outspoke, exposing an SIS spy on campus during the heady days of the Vietnam War. It resulted in a Commission of Inquiry and an award for student journalist of the year. A stint editing the Labour Party's start-up Auckland newspaper NZ Statesman followed. Rudman decided journalism was the career for him, but the NZ Herald and Auckland Star thought otherwise when he came job-hunting. After a year on the "hippy trail" overland to London, he spent four years on Fleet St with various British provincial papers. He then joined the Auckland Star, winning the Dulux Journalist of the Year award for coverage of the 1976 Dawn Raids against Polynesian overstayers. He has also worked on the NZ Listener, Auckland Sun, and since 1996, for the NZ Herald as feature writer and columnist. He has a BA in History and Politics.

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