So first - what the government said:
Steven Joyce said "Rail is an important and growing way for Aucklanders to get to work each day". Important? Hardly. Growing? Yes, but at the expense of what? Less bus users (when you ignore the Northern Busway), less carshare riders.
He further said "The government has decided in principle that now that KiwiRail has been re-purchased by the government, it should be the owner of the new crown-funded passenger rail stock in Auckland and Wellington.
Mr Joyce says this will save costs over time and ensure the most efficient use of transport funds." I don't have a problem with the Crown owning something new, except of course that the moment the Crown holds onto it, the value of the rolling stock will drop significantly. The global market for secondhand electric multiple units on narrow gauge is not high. More importantly, the trains wont ever make a profit.
The Q&A on the press release asks
Why are you committing to Auckland rail?
"The government has decided in principle that now that KiwiRail has been re-purchased by the government, it should be the owner of the new crown-funded passenger rail stock in Auckland and Wellington. This will save costs over time and ensure the most efficient use of transport funds."
That ISN'T an answer why. It DOESN'T say why rail is good for Auckland. The answer is not "because ARC said so", because this is public policy and economic snakeoil.
1. It will make an imperceptible difference to traffic congestion, less than 1km/h faster trips on the motorways parallel to the track;
2. It conceivably can only provide an option for a maximum of 6% of all commuters in Auckland (less than half those commuting to the CBD), of whom perhaps a third will use it. Most Aucklanders don't live or work within a cooee of a railway station - so said Helen Clark once;
3. Outside peak times it will be grossly underutilised, around two thirds of the trains will be used for only 6 hours a day, the rest of the time lying idle. Same with track capacity;
4. It will render even more commercial (unsubsidised) bus services unprofitable. Already the proportion of bus services in Auckland that are unsubsidised has dropped significantly since money was poured into rail;
5. Most of the users are people who would otherwise have caught the bus or rideshare with a car commuter - in other words, the majority are not former car users. Maybe at best 1 in 4 would have driven a car. Why are you subsidising the other three? It is a sheer lie to claim the people who would use rail would otherwise have travelled by car.
6. It will make an imperceptible difference to pollution levels in Auckland or CO2 emissions, as the trains running around all day are going to be carrying the equivalent of busloads of people.
7. It will never make a return on capital and never make a operating profit. In other words it commits central and local government to subsidise trips for people travelling to downtown Auckland on a mode of their choice - the part of Auckland with some of the highest value employment. The low income workers in Manukau City wont be getting the train to work, but their rates and fuel taxes will subsidise suits travelling from Tamaki to Britomart.
8. It doesn't matter how many people ride it, unless the majority would have driven and it makes a measurable difference to congestion. However, neither of these claims are true. High growth is just subsidising people's choices of home and employment.
10. The claimed capacity of heavy rail over a motorway is true, but Auckland rail will NEVER be carrying 25,000 people per hour. It is like buying a Boeing 747 to fly Wellington to Auckland.
11. The plan is predicated on no changes in commuting patterns over time, like peak spreading and telecommuting, both of which are encouraged by congestion and properly pricing peak road capacity. It subsidises old patterns of behaviour.
12. Auckland’s rail corridors are an irreplaceable asset. Yet it is a grossly underutilised one and will continue to be so. Trains every 5 minutes at peak times is quite a period without another vehicle using the corridor. Find any arterial road in Auckland and count the vehicles passing every 5 minutes.
13. 28% of Auckland's population will NOT live within 800m of a rail station by 2016. This is a highly "optimistic" forecast based on more people wanting to live in medium and high density housing adjacent to a station. Do you want to do that? Do you want to walk 800m four times a day (remember the other end) to get to a mode of transport?
My solution is not libertarian, but more economic rationalist. Let the current contract run its course, and then -while the government underprices peak demand for road space - use some existing road tax revenue to subsidise peak rail fares only to follow second best pricing principles. In other words, pay for the benefits road users get for those switching from car to rail. That wont be enough to justify electrification or new trains. As existing trains need replacement, cut services and remap the Auckland rail network for what it should be:
1. A freight line from the main trunk to Southdown and via Tamaki to the Port (the Overlander can use this if it is viable);
2. Dedicated tolled commercial vehicle corridors along the abandoned North Auckland line (the rail network north of Auckland is not worth saving). The stations can be adapted for buses (including Britomart for low emissions buses). Yes, you'll have to manage the Public Works Act and Treaty of Waitangi implications of changing rail land to another use - but that is about having a will to change legislation.
Then rail in Auckland can get on and do what it does best - long haul freight.
You see - I want to know why the government thinks Aucklanders want this. Because they are too lazy to vote for an ARC that wont pursue pet projects like this? I want someone to robustly critique the claim in the "rail business plan" that "The “Exit Rail” option was eliminated early in the process when it became clear that it would involve considerable additional expense estimated at greater than $1 billion and would increase traffic congestion. Also, the “Exit Rail” option is inconsistent with the Regional Land Transport Strategy and Government strategies and so was not pursued." Why considerable additional expense, when the rail electrification plan will cost a fortune anyway? What increase in traffic congestion? Who gives a damn if the strategies are wrong?
Electrification of rail in Auckland is fundamentally wrong, the business case is grossly optimistic on a cost and benefit basis, it neglects to properly evaluate a cheaper alternative because the ARC is ideologically wedded to this project (and the last government was as well). You can see this in the statement that "It has become clear that applying Land Transport NZ’s standard project evaluation methodology to a major Passenger Transport investment such as this is too restrictive in its nature and does not allow for the full benefits to be realised."
Code for - the project is a bad investment when compared to all the other ways that road taxes could be spent, so we had to come up with a methodology to give the answer we wanted.
Want to know more? Well let's have a look...