Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Greens' answer to Overlander - petition and subsidy

NZ Herald reports The Greens are running a petition to encourage the government to spend your money subsidising the Overlander – a train you’ve probably never caught and hardly likely to catch – for two years. Their press release says they got hundreds of signatures at Wellington railway station from people who probably will never catch the Overlander – when it would be far more useful to hand out leaflets promoting the train, or engage in a promotional campaign more generally. However it is typical for a party that has little understanding of economics to make other people pay for a train they don’t use, instead of marketing it to people to choose to use. I’m sure Tranz Scenic could supply the Greens with publicity material to send to their members to encourage them to ride it for starters. It is also typical that they don't use it when it is not threatened, but jump up and down and take publicity stunt rides when it is - like Sue Kedgley being driven to Palmerston North to ride the train to Wellington, a few weeks before the Bay Express was cancelled.
You see the Overlander is unprofitable because most people travelling between Wellington and Auckland, or points in between, would rather save time flying, save money catching the bus or enjoy the convenience of driving. Only some tourists and others who prefer the train catch it – and it isn’t enough to make money. Like I said before, it is doomed because it simply isn't economic and the environmental arguments don't stack up.
However, the Greens have a fetish for trains. Odd when you consider that a train pollutes (it doesn’t become more fuel efficient or environmentally friendly than a bus until it is carrying more than 3 full bus loads, whereas the Overlander is carrying at best just over 1). Jeanette Fitzsimons says “It is easy to forget how essential the Overlander is to the communities along the route.” Well that’s because it is not. I doubt Jeanette ever took the Overlander when she was going from Wellington to Palmerston North, Auckland to Hamilton or Auckland to Wellington, with good reason – it is a one off scenic trip, kind of convenient if you ever go to Otorohanga from Wellington, but hardly enough to sustain a train service.
You see lots of communities survive and thrive without passenger train service. Here are some of the largest ones:
Rodney District
North Shore City
Thames- Coromandel
New Plymouth
How have THEY survived? The answer is that most people have a car or access to a car. In a small community, you can get around on foot or bike. If you want to leave and you’re on a major highway (in other words every stop of the Overlander) there is a bus service.
Jeanette’s suggestion that it will be more successful when the track is “fixed up” is hardly on the ball. At best, the service can run no faster than 10.5 hours Wellington-Auckland, hardly a difference compared with flying or driving. You can give up ideas of French or Japanese style high speed trains unless you have a good $10 billion to throw away (cheaper to buy everyone a car or free plane tickets for life). The idea that marketing it would help assumes this hasn’t happened before. The service as a scenic trip has been promoted, in one form or another for decades. It is NOT the most scenic trip in the country, the profitable TranzAlpine from Christchurch to Greymouth through Arthurs Pass is. It bypasses the tourist spots of Rotorua and Taupo, and for at least half the trip passes through rather unimaginative countryside between Auckland and Te Kuiti, and Hunterville and Paraparaumu. That’s all dead boring.
The Greens' proposal is full of mistakes. The Overlander is not a "kiwi icon". It has not been running for 97 years, passenger trains between Wellington and Auckland have, but daylight ones only started running in the 1940s during summertime, because the trip was so long it needed to be overnight. Typically trains left early evening to arrive mid morning the next day. The Northerner was the last version of this, but it disappeared with nary a mention from the Greens. The "Overlander" itself has been running since 1991. Besides, why should anyone be forced to pay for an icon - the Greens don't like mentioning that almost everything they advocate is about forcing people to pay for what they like - not exactly the action of a peaceloving group. It needs a subsidy of over $1 million a year and apparently the Greens want a viability study - paid for by you - much like the Southerner viability study of 2002, which proved it was not viable. Apparently, the private sector doesn't understand viability as much as a bunch of socialist MPs who never use the train. The nonsense that rail isn't subsidised but roads are doesn't bear close examination. Most of the extra money Dr Cullen is putting into roading came from road users through petrol tax, in fact now for the first time in decades, all of road user taxes are being spent on roads (with a couple of hundred million extra for the next few years). Rail is getting $200 million in subsidies over five years from the taxpayer - not rail users, and that doesn't include the millions spent subsidising Auckland and Wellington passenger rail which comes from road user taxes and ratepayers. Rail doesn't get a raw deal because New Zealand doesn't subsidise like other countries - we may as well justify going back to massive agricultural subsidies because "every one else does it". This is the childlike train fetish mentality of the Greens. "Steel wheel on steel rail good, rubber tyre on asphalt baaaaad, aluminium and jet engine on air worse" could be the mantra.
There should be no subsidisation of the Overlander – as I said before, if you want to support this service – use it NOW! Ride on it several times before it ends, and make demand for it so significant that Tranz Scenic will want to keep running it. If it matters so much to you, forget the car, bus or plane next time you travel on the route – catch the Overlander, and if it isn’t convenient or cheap enough, then you’ll know why others don’t do it.


Lewis Holden said...

Hear, hear!

I'm a railfan or sorts, but I cannot for the life of me understand why the railfan community seems to think that subsidising the Overlander is good for rail transport. The timeslots taken up by the passenger train are better used for freight (even moreso now Maersk are cutting the number of ports called on in NZ) which makes Toll more money. Passengers on the otehr hand costs lots, and let's be honest here, the train service simply isn't fast enough to attract enough passengers. Period.

Anonymous said...

Of all the things to climb onto your soapbox over, I don't understand why you're making such a big deal about a NZ$1 million a year subsidy - that's small change surely?

IMHO, it's definitely something that could be made to pay for itself if the marketing was tied in with other tourism marketing. It's no Orient or Trans-Siberian Express, I'll give you that, but it's the North Island's closest equivalent, and the North Island is where most tourists arrive.

From a cursory reading of your recent posts, it's appears to me that your stance is basically:
"private transport good; public transport bad"

So it's a bit rich to criticise the Greens for actually agitating in favour of issues that are totally in line with their policies.

Anonymous said...

"Favorite Books
* The Fountainhead"

Ah, ok enough said.

Libertyscott said...

Yes a cursory read, you might note I recently mentioned how good it was that Intercity coachlines invested in new buses for the Wellington-Auckland route. Public transport is fine, most NZ public transport is profitable and commercially run - airlines, taxis, long distance buses and long distance trains.

There have been umpteen attempts to make it pay for itself - there are thousands of businesses in NZ that struggle to pay for themselves, why should one get a big subsidy paid for by everyone else? If it is small change, then why don't you pay it?

I don't think this IS in line with Green objectives - the Green mantra is rail good, road bad. Not enough people want to travel by rail (at the price it costs to run it) between Wellington and Auckland to make it profitable - that's the fact, you can evade it as much as you like - you can force others to pay for those who do - but that's the point. I'll criticise the Greens as much as I like when I disagree with their policies - because they are so often economic and environmental nonsense.

bartje said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
bartje said...

Sorry, Here's another rail enthousiast.
Why is the Overlander unprofitable? Because it's slow, and because no one wants to ride in a train for 12 ongoing hours in a rundown train.
There is always a market for rail travel, if the product is a good one. The Overlander isn't at the moment. Should the government take over? I don't know. I would be in favour, but I'm not a Newzealander. But a good public transport is vital for a country, if it doesn't want a never ending sprawl, dense city centres... You can rely on buses alone, but for longer distances trains are normally more viable. It just seems odd, that this isn't the case in NZ...

Libertyscott said...

There is not always a market for it - it is hardly viable in NZ when you consider 4 million people live in a land area the size of Britain, with very rugged topography, and aviation means it takes an hour.

NZ hardly has never ending sprawl - most of the North Island is rather empty!

bartje said...

Agreed that NZ hasn't exactly the population density of e.g. the UK or Belgium. But on certain routes (perhaps different than the ones exploitated right now), I'm convinced that even in NZ there are enough potential riders to go along.
In Belgium, many rail lines were closed. They were to expensive to maintain, and were closed subsequently. But because still many passengers rode on these lines, trains were cut, strange timetables were made up, and only the oldest stock was used.
People fled away from the railway, and the lines could be shutdown.
Now, many of these lines would be a great help in order to prevent traffic jams, in order to get people quick and safely to work and to school, but rebuilding them is far more expensive than shutting them down.
If little passengers take the train, isn't also partly because of the slow timetable, the old rolling stock, the few trains?