Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Auckland rail money gone - like that!

How do you wipe out the value of hundreds of millions of dollars in an instant? Easy - spend it on a railway in New Zealand.
The government is going to spend $540-$600 million of your money on upgrading Auckland’s commuter rail network (which it bought from Tranz Rail for $81 million in 2001), which means finishing the double tracking of the Western line, a branch line to Manukau city and some resignalling and other improvements. Divided by Auckland households, that is around $1800 a household - would you rather have that money in your pocket, spent on healthcare, your kid's local school or on some railway tracks (before the trains have even run on them)?
So an asset that had a book value of $81 million (I’m being generous in not considering market value) is going to have at least $540 million poured into it, and after that? It will still have a book value of $81 million. Fabulous investment isn’t it? Could the private sector take money by force and eliminate its value so quickly and get away with it?
Ah, there are profits to be made from that investment that aren't realised in capital. Um no. No profits, in fact you can't even cover your day to day operating costs.

Ah, the rail advocates say, you forget the social and environmental benefits of being able to run more passenger trains because of reduced car traffic and traffic congestion. No I haven’t. They are just too infinitesimal to measure. The passenger train operational costs are 80% subsidised and the majority of users were former bus patrons. Many of those buses were not subsidised – so there is no net gain at all there in terms of congestion, just increased cost (a few buses off the road will make virtually no difference). The shift from car to rail is also very low – and makes virtually no impact on congestion - work done by the ARC a few years ago indicated that road traffic speeds would be improved by less than 0.5km/h. This taxpayer funding is around 50% more than the cost of building the Mt Roskill and Manukau extensions of SH20 (both of which will make a noticeable difference to congestion) - and those are funded from petrol tax, so are paid for by road users.
Remember the $540 million for rail does NOT include money for running the trains, or upgrading stations or new trains.

So should Auckland ratepayers be thrilled? Well being saved from funding the rail track infrastructure upgrade is one thing – but the quid pro quo is that capital expenditure on stations and trains will be entirely funded by ARTA, which means ARC rates and Auckland Regional Holdings dividends and cash assets. Operating costs continue to be subsidised 60% by Land Transport NZ (your petrol tax) and 40% from ARC rates. That will cost ratepayers a packet, and you wont see congestion reduce. The marginal difference to congestion made by these projects is tiny – because rail is very expensive, and most trains don’t go near where most Aucklanders work. Buses do better, they carry around 30% of commuters into downtown Auckland, but they are not sexy – and some of them are not subsidised. It costs little to put in bus lanes, or other measures to speed up bus journeys.
Ah but the trains provide Aucklanders with an option to bypass congestion. Well, if you can walk or bike or bus quickly to a station and there is another station on your line that is close to where you want to go -yes, if the train stopping at every station is faster than driving continuously. However only 13% of Auckland employment is downtown where most of the trains terminate. Look at a map of Auckland and where most people live, it isn't near the railway stations.
Of course the Greens want to spend even more money, electrifying the network (when that has not been proven to be worth the additional cost) and building lines all over the place, with little care for where the money comes from to pay for it - you see it is ok to make unnecessary journeys, wasting electricity and other people's money, as long as you are on an electric train.

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