How important is efficiency and how do you put a value on it?
Susan Krumdieck puts it this way: "Imagine how the airport luggage-handling system would work if only 7 per cent of the suitcases could use the conveyor and the rest have to be brought to you at the gate. You would have to negotiate with an individual baggage handler to go out to the plane and get your suitcase and bring it in to you."
That, she says, is what the setup for handling freight is like in this country.
Krumdieck is an engineer, a professor, a co-leader of the Global Association for Transition Engineering and director of the Advanced Energy and Materials Systems Lab at the University of Canterbury. She specialises in transport logistics and she was a member of the Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy (UNISCS) group that has recommended the closure of the Auckland port.
The other members were leaders in relevant industries: infrastructure, transport and exporting. She was the independent expert.
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In Krumdieck's analogy, the carriers mostly have empty carts because everyone wants their suitcase right now, which is known in supply chains as "just in time" delivery. The carriers get locked in a congested mess on the tarmac and when they drive their carts around to bring you your suitcase they cause mayhem, as people and carts try to share the same space. They don't make money so they undercut each other to get more business, and they make even less money.
The solution, says Krumdieck, is for the terminals to build a conveyor system, and for the carriers to redefine their work as loading and unloading it. It would be expensive but it would work. That, she says, is what the freight system needs now in the upper North Island.
"I am agnostic about current Auckland politics and personalities," she says. "My interest is to understand how government investments can best serve the long-term wellbeing of the whole country. The right decisions made today about major infrastructure will facilitate the low-carbon transition and support the economy and wellbeing of five generations of Kiwis.
"This isn't politics as usual. But like I said, I'm agnostic about that. Your great grandkids will not care one iota what the political banter of 2019 was. They will only care if their freight supply chain works."
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Putting a cost on that isn't easy, but it's doable. Getting agreement on that cost is much harder, because you need agreement on the assumptions. And that's one of the problems with the dispute about the port.
Even assuming the airport-luggage metaphor holds, there is barely a statistic or an analysis where everyone agrees. And they don't merely disagree. On both sides, many of the protagonists openly sneer at each other's arguments.
Susan Krumdieck did a lot of the computer modelling that underpins the working group's proposals. She discovered, for example, that the rail link between Whangārei and Auckland will not need to be double-tracked immediately, and that the proposed 1700m extension to the wharf at Northport will be sufficient, with good management, for the shipping.
But computer modelling and its close cousin, cost-benefit analysis, is only as good as the data you start with.
Ports of Auckland and its consultancy NZIER say costs to consumers will rise if the port moves. But they didn't count everything.
Take, for example, the cost of road repairs. Everyone agrees the railway will cost hundreds of millions to redevelop, but nobody has yet factored in the saving on the roads. Greg Miller of KiwiRail says maintenance now costs $4 billion a year, up more than four times what it was a decade ago, because of the damage caused by trucks. There are many more downstream factors like that.
Then there's Kaikohe. A once-thriving town in the mid-North now blighted by chronic unemployment, crime and an epidemic of substance abuse. This proposal will bring rail and a new freight hub to very near Kaikohe. Lots of jobs. If it's accompanied by support for new industries, if the education, health and other social services are well supported so locals can take those jobs and hold them, if there's local commitment to turn the town around, the railway and that hub will be the key to it.
What's the cost of Kaikohe's current crisis? What's the economic value in fixing it? How important is the social value? Where are they in the clamour for a "business case"?
The search for a magic number is understandable. Many politicians insist we must discover some statistical "truth" about the value of moving or keeping the port, and that will allow us to make a good decision.
Actually, that's a way of not making a decision. Insisting that unless the computer says yes, you can't do anything. Life is not like that, and political leadership is not meant to be either.
Working group chair Wayne Brown says: "The term business case is something people who aren't in business clutch at to avoid making decisions. We weren't hired to make a business case. We were hired to say what is the best thing the Government should do. The best thing they should do is make a decision to shift it. I challenge anyone to write a business case for what the ports company is doing now.
This is a decision where the greater good matters. Efficiency, as Susan Krumdieck's luggage metaphor shows, is important. The numbers are important. So is Kaikohe. So are all the Kaikohes.
Dear Prime Minister ...
The lobby group Waterfront 2029 sent an open letter to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern this week, calling on the Government to commit to moving the port. More than 130 prominent Aucklanders have signed the letter.
They include business leaders like Gary Paykel, Sir Ralph Norris, Michael Stiassny and Sir Stephen Tindall, prominent members of the arts community like Hamish Keith, Dame Jenny Gibbs, Jennifer Ward-Lealand and Lisa Reihana, and sportspeople like Sir Graham Henry, Brad Butterworth and Dion Nash. Others include Dame Rosie Horton, Tim Groser, Sir Bob Harvey and Pippa, Lady Blake.