The Labour Government is planning to spend billions of taxpayer dollars over the next 10 years modernising the country's railways system, but in 2031 it's likely that trains will be as relevant to freight moving as sailing ships are now.
A pair of ground-breaking developments in road transport could – perhaps, should – see trucks become the trains of the near future.
The main argument for increasing use of rail is that trains create fewer emissions than diesel-fuelled trucks for each tonne of freight moved. But battery-fuelled electric short-haul trucks are already at work in urban areas and the first 20 hydrogen-fuelled heavy trucks are due on the highways by the end of this year.
The second development is the beginning of driverless trucks. Many new cars now have features such as autonomous braking, smart cruise control and lane-keeping systems. These are the foundations of vehicles that won't require a human driver.
There's a romance about rail – the Orient Express, trains fighting off robbers across the American prairies, even the Milky Bar Kid. But take away the thundering locomotives and opulent first-class carriages and a railway looks pretty much like a road with strips of steel along it.
Ignoring commuter rail passenger services in Auckland and Wellington, rail is largely about moving freight. It moves about 7 per cent of the total weight of New Zealand's freight. Add in the distances it carts the goods and it shifts somewhere between 12 per cent and 16 per cent in tonne/kilometre (just about everyone has a
different figure but that's the range).
Coastal ships move around 2 per cent by weight and the remaining 91 per cent goes by
Why the imbalance which, incidentally, is mirrored around most of the developed world?
Firstly trains are restricted to 3700km of track. So they go hardly anywhere they're needed. Trucks take advantage of 11,000km of state highways and 83,000km of local roads. They pay for this through Road User Charges, in many cases as much as $40,000 a year for a truck and trailer.
Because trains can't go to where the loads are almost all rail freight is carted to and from the trains by trucks. This interface is costly and a potential source of freight damage.
Trains are also cumbersome. Greg Miller, chief executive of KiwiRail, wrote (NZ Herald, April 20): "Extra trains cannot easily be supplied by shifting them from other routes. KiwiRail is a national network and to make the best use of our rolling stock, it is committed to schedules, often under contract, across many services."
So what might a freight movement look like in the future?
A truck, depending on the circumstances with or without a driver, could pick up goods at locations around Auckland then head to a terminal in, say, Palmerston North, running driverless on a dedicated heavy freight road, nee the railway.
The truck might then drop off some parts of its load and pick up local freight before
continuing driverless to Wellington.
Want to get heavy trucks off the road? Then convert the rail right-of-way into a road. This would be an expensive exercise, but rail already absorbs billions of taxpayer dollars every year. In just the 2019 and 2020 Budgets the total has amounted to $2.3 billion. And, over time, truck operators would pay the bill through Road User Charges.
It may not be as costly as expected either. Much of the cost of any new road is in purchasing the right-of-way and easing the grades by lopping the tops of hills and crossing deep valleys. That part has been done in establishing the rail lines.
Tunnels would have to be widened and bridges rebuilt. But the main costs would be
building the road surface and eliminating dangerous at-grade intersections.
As well as reducing road congestion and reducing emissions there would also be efficiency gains. While trains are restricted to 80km/h on New Zealand's narrow tracks, trucks could travel at 100km/h or more. Trucks already cart around three times the freight for each kilometre of highway than trains do for each kilometre of track. But driverless trucks could be safely convoyed together, further improving their operating efficiency.
So we'd have convoys of high-speed driverless trucks, fuelled by hydrogen, running on a dedicated freight road.
Sounds like trains for the 21st century.
• Jon Addison is a retired journalist who specialised in transport and freight movement.