Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Fifth bailout in twenty years

The announcement by the New Labour National government that it is spending NZ$750 million of your money, to strengthen a company that the Old Labour government bought for NZ$690 million ought to provoke outrage on behalf of those supporting the current government, and should condemn Labour and its cheerleaders the Greens to history for being the most egregious destroyers of taxpayer wealth since Sir Robert Muldoon.

It should be so obvious to a child that buying something that is worth NZ$690 million and having to spend $750 million to save it is lunacy. Labour receives the blame for the former, and now New Labour National does for the latter.

What to know why you're not getting a real tax cut? Ask both of those gangs of reckless spendthrifts. Why their parents didn't spend a couple of hundred bucks to buy them train sets when they were kids so they could indulge in this pastime is beyond me? (mine did by the way).

Will Kiwirail make a profit that will even approach to recovering this (and the other money poured into it in the past year or so)? No. Indeed, the goal is to be "self-sustaining", which presumably means make an operating profit, not recover the long run cost of capital in this very capital intensive business.

The problem is we've been there before. Government is regularly using your money to rescue railways in New Zealand. The first time was understandable, the second time could even be partly excused as due to the legacy of Think Big, but ever since then it has worn a little thin.

The simple truth railway enthusiasts (and I count myself as one of those) have to accept is that the economically viable future for railways in New Zealand is to operate a severely curtailed network carrying moderately high volumes of containers and bulk commodities.

Two years ago I wrote this post, still valid today, where I outlined what looked to be viable and what did not. Railways north of Auckland have little future, as does the line north of Masterton and between Stratford and the main trunk. The Napier-Gisborne line has had a fortune poured into it, so may be best to keep mothballed in the event of traffic.

David Heatley from the NZ Institute for the Study of Competition and Regulation has an excellent presentation called "The Future of Rail in New Zealand". I wrote about it as well.

You see the railways were bailed out in 1982 when transformed from a government department to a commercially oriented corporation (the first "SOE" before the term SOE was coined).

The railways were bailed out again in 1990, in part to pay the full cost of the main trunk electrification approved before corporatisation (and which was found to be a loss making capital investment even if the electricity was supplied for free), and in part to pay for the restructuring following the removal of the monopoly on long haul freight.

Then it was privatised in 1993.

It was bailed out once more when Dr Cullen bought the track from Toll Rail (having earlier paid over the nose for the Auckland rail network), and then refused to enforce the cost recovery track access charges needed to pay to maintain the network.

The fourth time was the renationalisation, by paying well over the market price for the "business" it kept it open, except that it is unprofitable.

Now you're paying more, this time to make it "viable".

Darren Hughes has said the $750 million isn't enough, because $11 billion is being spent on roads. Yes well done Darren, noticed a railway to every business and home? Noticed how many people use roads compared to railways (most lines you can wait hours for a train of any kind to appear)? Might you be better asking why YOU voted for taxpayers to pay over the odds for this dog of an asset? What is he trying to achieve besides looking like he's addicted to spending bad money after bad? Does he want to spend $11 billion on railways??? He says "I think we need to be looking at how we move freight from, say Gisborne on the east coast, to Napier port". Who is this "we"? Because almost all of it goes by road, as it is substantially cheaper. This was looked at when you were in government Mr. Hughes the simple answer is that there is damn all freight from Gisborne to Napier, because Gisborne has a port. The distance is far too short for a viable rail freight operation.

This example shows all too obviously how inane the Greens are on railways (believe in them, believe in them), how blatantly wasteful the Labour was in renationalising it and how the Nats are too damned scared to do what actually needs to be done - get Kiwirail to borrow the money for its renewal itself.

If there are people willing to buy trains and run them on the network paying to use it, then let them. If there aren't then mothball parts of the network and offer to sell it to whoever wants it.

The arguments that the railways save money are clearly ludicrous.

If there is a desire to ensure rail and road are on an equal footing then set up the highways as a profit oriented corporation that borrows and invests in its network paid for by user fees.

Then both networks can be self sustaining, and be privatised. Hopefully then the ongoing political fetish of saving a network that, by and large, has had its day and is now only viable for a few core freight tasks, will be over.


Jeremy Harris said...

What are thoughts on dieselisation of the NIMT..?

Libertyscott said...

It would be a shame, but I guess a decent study needs to be made of the options. These being:
- Running it into the ground;
- Long run renewal (with a sub-option of expansion north and south with dual voltage locos!);
- Immediate closure.

My suspicion is that it is probably optimal to run it into the ground, preserves options of renewal if fuel gets ridiculously high, but doesn't throw away money on something that may not happen (or for which alternatives - hybrids/other fuels may prove better).

The main benefits of the electrification project were in the deviations, realignments and tunnel-daylighting that enabled faster, heavier and larger loads!

Jeremy Harris said...


I've read some posts by a guy called Geoff Blackmore (a rabid rail fan) talk about how dieselisation, with mothballing of the eletrification equipment, would be good for the short term profitability of Kiwirail (they could close one of the workshops) and the option would still be there to use electric traction if oil prices skyrocket...

He talks a lot about track easements, passing loops and daylighting of tunnels too... They certainly seem to be the best way to spend rail freight capital funding...