We're heading to Christchurch for Christmas by rail. All the way. Train-ferry-train.
I love trains. I just don't kid myself they're economic. But given plenty of time for a long journey, I'd much prefer a train to a plane.
We've done the Trans-Siberian, an eight-day odyssey. The Ghan up through the hot red heart of Australia. That took three days, each day surprisingly different. Last year we took the train across Canada, four days with long delays, sitting happily in glass-topped viewing carriages or in the dining car with lovely people.
Long-distance rail passengers have one endearing quality in common. They share an unspoken knowledge that what they are doing is not quite sane. They are spending more than they would on an airfare that would get them where they're going in a fraction of the time.
They enjoy a journey as much, if not more than, the arrival. Most people are not like that. If they were, passenger trains could pay for themselves.
Freight trains are more profitable. Canada's trans-continental tracks are owned by private operators and several times a day we were brought to a halt for up to an hour until a freight train rattled past.
They were a mile long. We were pretty long ourselves but obviously not as valuable. We'd been told at the outset our itinerary should not be taken seriously.
It was not supposed to be dark by the time we rolled through the Rockies but you couldn't complain. Next morning we were descending through British Columbia, which is so chocolate-box beautiful nobody cared.
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I wish rail was economic, but unless you make some big environmental assumptions it is hard to justify its public expense. Why should taxpayers help pay for my trip to Christchurch, or for rail freight or Auckland's commuter trains?
Those are not resentful questions, they are elementary economics. It's essential to the health of any economy that it uses its most efficient transport arteries. And the only reliable test of the value of any mode of transport is whether users are willing to pay its true cost.
Rail is such a pleasant way to travel, whether long-distance or within a city, that the only reason it cannot cover its costs in fares and freight charges must be the cost of its maintenance. Railway maintenance must be horrendous.
My heart sank this week when the Government set about legislating to bring rail into the National Land Transport Fund, which is money raised entirely from road users through petrol taxes, trucking taxes and licensing fees.
The fund is allocated by the NZ Transport Agency, which has made contributions to rail terminals but has always resisted taking on the track network. That would take a large bite out of the fund that rightfully and economically should be used for roads.
Road vehicles pay all the costs of building and maintaining their infrastructure, trains plainly cannot do that. We know this for sure because two private owners have failed to make our railway pay for its upkeep.
The first was accused of neglecting maintenance, which means the operation's earnings would not meet the cost. Its second buyer, Australia's Toll Holdings, eventually sold the tracks back to the Clark Government for one dollar and kept the trains.
Obviously Toll wanted to be relieved of track maintenance but the Treasury tried to cover the cost with a user charge. Toll resisted and finally, the Government repurchased the trains too. It paid $650 million for them, three times the value Toll had put on the entire business, tracks plus trains, five years earlier.
Toll set up a trucking operation and taxpayers were left with "KiwiRail".
The National Government valued KiwiRail at the price a buyer would pay for it, next to nothing. This year the present Government did a revaluation based on "green economics", I guess. It gave the railways a book value of more than $2 billion.
KiwiRail received $1 billion in this year's Budget, much of it for overdue maintenance. None of that money came from road users. In future it might.
I say "might" because the fine print of Transport Minister Phil Twyford's new Draft Rail Plan states, "Work is under way to establish track user charges to ensure KiwiRail and other track users contribute to the cost of the rail network in a fair and transparent way."
It adds, "KiwiRail's freight and tourism services and ferries will continue to be funded as they are now, from commercial revenue and financing and Crown investment."
So like much of this Government's work, the change is probably more rhetorical than real. But this one will need to be watched. To rob the road fund for rail would be an economic crime.