By Wayne Butson
KiwiRail's decision in December 2016 to cease running electric locomotives on the North Island main trunk line was one of its most regressive moves to date. Instead of extending the electrification north to Auckland and south to Wellington, they wanted to mothball the lot.
In place of upgrading and retrofitting the worthy fleet of electric locomotives, they opted instead to increase the use of Chinese-built dirty diesels, many of which have subsequently spent days and weeks out of commission, and which have inbuilt problems as well as unexpected and new complications needing to be fixed.
It doesn't make sense, economically or environmentally. Running electric locomotives on the main trunk between Palmerston North and Hamilton saved KiwiRail up to eight million litres of diesel and eliminated up to 12,000 tonnes of carbon emissions a year. They were on a winner environmentally.
Unfortunately, KiwiRail was in a bind. They didn't have the funding to upgrade and modernise the line and the National-led Government wouldn't back them. Rail lines such as Stillwater to Ngakawau, Napier to Gisborne, and Northland couldn't even be maintained at a level to avoid deterioration over time.
The main trunk between Wellington and Auckland and the South Island main trunk line from Picton to Invercargill were only receiving sufficient investment to maintain them in their current state. There was no leeway for improvement.
Encouraged by a backward-looking Government, KiwiRail took the cheap option and, unlike dozens of other countries investing in electric rail and light rail, they turned the switch off.
Protests came from all quarters, including the Greens, who called it "short-term thinking", the Labour Party, which promised to reverse the order, environmentalists, who bewailed the increased pollution, and even the head of the British committee on climate change, Lord Deben, who called it "atrocious" and "an incredibly bad look for New Zealand".
Unlike dozens of other countries investing in electric rail and light rail, KiwiRail turned the switch off.
Meanwhile, trucks were given a green light to expand as fast as they could. Big trucking companies got approval to continue creating increasing quantities of air pollution and traffic congestion — without bearing anywhere near their fair share of the costs — and with the blessing of the Government of the day, which talked constantly about roads, roads, and more roads, for more and bigger trucks, and strengthened bridges to take their ever-growing loads.
KiwiRail says the old (30-plus years) electric locos are unreliable and that the changeover at Hamilton and Palmerston North is inefficient. But its new Chinese-built DL diesel locos have proven to be anything but reliable and that "inefficient" changeover time is a mere 22 minutes added to an Auckland-to-Wellington journey. Negligible.
It didn't have to be this way. Last August, Michael Wood, then Labour's transport spokesman, gave KiwiRail written notice that a future Labour Government would save the electric locomotives on the North Island main trunk.
Unfortunately, it has been radio silence since then.
We know this new Government has a hell of a job on its hands fixing the mess the other lot left behind, but we reckon this one is an easy win. Especially with New Zealand First and the Green Party in their corner.
Rail has to be one of the cornerstone industries of our clean, green future. We could have electric rail running electric locomotives built in New Zealand using New Zealand steel, moving freight from our ports to regional manufacturers, carrying tourists from Auckland and Wellington to Taranaki, the Central Plateau and East Coast while getting commuters quickly and efficiently to work and back again. This is the future we could have with a bit of foresight and decisive action. We're talking about good jobs, good investment and good environmental outcomes, the kind of opportunity which doesn't come around very often.
We're asking the Government to step up, keep their word and do the right thing for New Zealand.
Save the electric locomotives on the North Island main trunk. Rule out replacing any electric locomotives with diesel. Give KiwiRail the tools and funding it needs to build a modern, green, successful rail system. One we all deserve.
• Wayne Butson is the general secretary of the Rail and Maritime Transport Union, which represents more than 4600 workers in rail, roading and ports.