31 October 2017

Requiem for the Wellington trolley bus

Trolley buses are almost iconic for Wellington.   

Wellington was the city that first had them in New Zealand (1924-1932 on one route, followed by the current system since 1950) and will be the last today.  I grew up with them, with my Mum sometimes taking me into town and back on them, and as a child I was fascinated by these vehicles that got energy from wires, were quiet and emitted no fumes.  I lived on a street on which they operated and regularly became "detached" from the wires as drivers went too quickly around the corner, with the old British made rigid overhead wires unable to cope with more than a snail like cornering.  

Trolley buses are nostalgic, the presence of the wires (visual pollution to some) indicates the permanency of the route (a bus will come eventually), and the mere fact they use pure electric technology means they are user friendly.  I've many fond memories of riding on trolley buses, sitting on Mum's lap while watching a Big Ben's Pies disc ad rolling back and forth above the corridor entrance of the bus.  The ride through the Hataitai trolley bus tunnel, pitch black, one lane, the only real chance the trolley buses got to ride at a decent speed, and then the memory of the obnoxious driver who shouted at me for not taking a seat at the back of the bus (he stopped and walked to the back of the bus to do this).  The prick.

However, that nostalgia is tempered by cost (10% more to operate under current oil prices, without including the cost of capital replacement), and the tendency of trolley buses to be slower than other vehicles on curves (Wellington motorists widely see them as the snails of the roads).  

Trolley buses were in all major New Zealand at one point, and New Plymouth. 

Four other cities in New Zealand had them. Christchurch from 1931 to 1956 was the first to go permanently, as the system needed renewal and there was little interest in expanding the network on this low density city. 

Christchurch trolley bus

New Plymouth was the smallest city with a system, running from 1950 till 1967 as one tram route was replaced with trolley buses, but again the costs of running one route in a small city weren't economy.  

ex. New Plymouth trolley bus restored on special trip on the Wellington system
Auckland started with Farmers setting up its own service, for free for customers, operating a loop from 1938 till 1967, joined from 1949 by the City Council replacing tram lines with trolley bus routes.  However, Auckland's system was plagued by a lack of capital renewal, as it relied almost entirely on the electrical system introduced in the 1900s with the electrical tram network.  So from the 1970s, trolley bus routes were closed until 1980 when the last route was closed.  Yet in parallel a decision had been made to replace the inner city network, including services to Parnell, Newmarket, Ponsonby and Herne Bay, with a brand new trolley bus system.  

Farmers Free trolley bus Auckland, owned by Farmers 1930s

Auckland Regional Authority (which had taken over the system some years before) ordered brand new overhead wires and buses, but in 1982 cancelled the lot and was stuck with a mini-system.   Wellington City Council bought the 20 buses at a discount price to replace some of its older trolley buses, and the new overhead wires were used to replace well worn wires in central Wellington.   Another success for the Auckland Regional Authority in politicised decision making on transport.

Never used in the city they were built for.  Auckland ordered Ansaldo Volvo B11M trolleybus
bought at a bargain price from ARA by Wellington City Transport late 1980s
Dunedin held out for two more years, it introduced trolley buses in 1950 also to replace trams, primarily because its hilly topography was better suited to the superior acceleration of trolley buses, than the diesel bus technology of the time.  However, Dunedin paralleled Auckland, with routes shifting to diesel operation as parts of the network needed repairs and the whole system was to be closed in 1980, deferred by the sudden oil crisis, which persuaded the Council to keep the trolley buses until 1982, before finally closing the system.

Dunedin trolley bus in 1978
Wellington was a bit different.  The 1924-1932 "trackless tram" line was a trial from Thornton to Kaiwharawhara on what is now known as the Hutt Road, it would have been extended further towards Ngaio, but the Railways Department objected to the competition so it wasn't permitted.  The modern system started in 1949 and was designed to replace the tram network.  As in Dunedin, trolley buses were much more suited to the hilly topography of Wellington compared to the underpowered, noisy and slow diesel buses of the time.   However, as with other cities, Wellington faced challenges as to the economics of trolley buses when there was a need for replacement buses (as the first generation of 1950s buses were at the end of their economic lives).  However, the oil crisis saw a decision made to buy new buses and 68 new Volvo B-58 trolley buses were ordered (with NZ made bodies), and not long afterwards the 20 Ansaldo Auckland buses became available, enabling the 1960s era BUT buses to be replaced as well.  With new overhead wires in the central city network, and new buses, the trolleybus system got a new lease of life.    Albeit that there were extensive teething problems, as drivers objected to the design of the bus windscreens, and there were constant breakdowns and complaints about noise and interference with AM car radios.

1950s era British United Traction (BUT) Wellington trolleybuses

The Volvo B-58 Wellington trolleybus, with NZ made bodywork

On top of that, the trolley bus network was expanded.  The Mornington route was extended to Kingston, the Newtown Park/Zoo route was electrified, but when the Northland route was extended it was done with diesels (and the electrified segment removed) and a few years later the original Wadestown to Roseneath trolley bus route was also removed, as Wadestown services routinely continued to Wilton.  Weekend and evening services which had been revived were discontinued, mainly to provide time for wire maintenance, although the central city overhead wire system doubled as infrastructure to carry an overhead suspended fibre optic telecommunications network.

By 2001 the issue of replacement came up again, but it was decided in 2004 to replace the Volvo B-58s, but the bodies were replaced as the electrics were still in good order.   Wellington Regional Council agreed to a ten year contract with Stagecoach to retain the trolley buses with a subsidy, because they cost more to operate with the cost of maintaining the overhead wires.  

Wellington's last type of trolley bus- Designline/Volvo at Lyall Bay terminus 2009

Now they are being scrapped, following advice from consultants (none of which have actually worked on operating trolley bus systems in other countries curiously).  Even though the buses themselves have many years of operating life left and almost 40% of the overhead wires had been replaced by 2014.  The electrical supply system is dated though and needs replacement and would cost over $50m to replace.

Yes, I would like them to have been retained, replaced and upgraded (and no doubt it would cost a fraction of the ludicrous plans for light rail in Auckland).  I would like there to be just one line kept for nostalgic purposes, but my claim for nostalgia doesn't mean taxpayers should have to pay for it.   Could something else have been done to save them?  Could experts with working knowledge of modern systems in other countries known of ways to operate and renew a system more economically than those who advised Wellington Regional Council?  Maybe, but the fundamentals around the electrical supply system wouldn't change.  It just isn't worth it to spend that much money on replacing those systems, for nostalgia, noise or to reduce pollution in a city which has good air quality primarily due to the weather! 

What IS disappointing, is that the system is being dismantled before the replacement vehicles are ready.  

So farewell Wellington trolley buses.  Maybe the enthusiasm to preserve them will reignite the nascent museum in Foxton (which lost momentum with the death of its founder and enthusiast Ian Little).   However, while economics may drive transport policy for Wellington, it's clear it has been completely abandoned by the government for its newfound fetish for trams - in Auckland.

So think this.  Why does it make sense to lay down track, install new overhead wire, for a system which is effectively a guided electric bus system, in Auckland?

27 October 2017

Don't like the government? Blame the National Party

For the second time in over 20 years of MMP, the left has got, pretty much, what it wanted in a government.  This time, a Labour Party led by a complete neophyte (Jacinda has never sat in Cabinet, never been a junior Minister), with a caucus inhabited by unionists and ex.public servants, with the Greens (led by an ex. Marxist student activist - yes I remember him at university) and Winston the country's leading political whore-monger (look how he , will lead a leftwing government.

This government is already opposed to capitalism (although mind-numbingly can't work out what system means New Zealanders produces goods and services that get exported or sells services to tourists to pay their way in the world).  It is keen on identity politics and not only believes that climate change is damaging New Zealand, but that New Zealand reducing its emissions will make a difference to it.  This is pure scientific nonsense, but there's more.  This government believes that child poverty can be solved by giving people more of other peoples money for having children they can't afford to raise, and that it is not up to people to be responsible parents.  This government doesn't even realise that the biggest problems it campaigned on in the election, such as housing, healthcare, education, river pollution and welfare, are almost nothing to do with capitalism, but rather government intervention.

The problem with housing is primarily due to local government, applying the Resource Management Act, to constrain the supply of housing, in part to meet the new urbanist ideological objectives of densification that is the dominant philosophy of urban planning departments in major cities (not just in New Zealand, but also Australia and the US cities with the most expensive housing).  

The problem with healthcare is that there is little relationship between what consumers want and what they are able or willing to pay for, as politicians, not the market, drive the supply of healthcare.

The problem with education is that it is centrally driven and only recently has been opened up to additional competition, so that it can be innovative and meet the diverse needs of students and parents.  The new government is completely beholden to the producer interests of the suppliers of health and education, who in education in particular, are completely uninterested in being rewarded on performance.

The river pollution problem is a failure to apply private property rights, which could be applied to adjoining land owners including Iwi, to provide a framework to control water quality based on the self interest of multiple private owners of the rivers.  However, this government wants to kneecap one of the country's leading industries, even wanting a debate about "how many cows" there should be.  Why would anyone think they would know how many cows there should be, when they don't know how many of anything there should be, when it should be a matter of supply and demand?

The child poverty problem is a failure of the welfare state, which has never been so generous to people who want to have children, but can't afford to pay for them.  It is also the failure of policies that inflate the cost of living, primarily for housing (see above), but also the regular increases in GST, fuel tax and tinkering with the energy market (albeit not on the disastrous scale seen in Australia and the UK).  

Yet what real difference will be made?  Nine years of National saw little done in any of these areas, housing belatedly had some movement recently, charter schools were a start that was far too little too late, and National just fed the middle class welfare addiction that Helen Clark started.

This government wont do much different from National (yes you'll see uneconomic railway and tram line built instead of motorways), the difference is this lot actually believe in what they are doing.

You see the National Party has been a very poor promoter of the free market, private enterprise and individual freedom.

After leading a courageous government that started tackling welfarism and waste in government, Jim Bolger lost all sense of courage to do what is right and for no sound political reason whatsoever held a referendum on electoral reform that would obviously make it more difficult for one party government (and certainly was being backed by the left because they thought MMP would give them more power, and they were right).  He then led a chaotic government for two years with Winston Peters, before resigning and the final year limping on with Jenny Shipley.  Jim Bolger, remember, cut his teeth in being a Minister under Rob Muldoon, the most economically socialist government to date.

John Key got elected on a platform opposing the high tax, big government philosophy of Helen Clark and spent more, and how much really changed?  Was the welfare state reduced?  No.  Did the state's role in education get scaled back? Hardly.  Was the planning system liberalised?  Only for the government building roads.  Did corporate welfare get scaled back?  No, the opposite.  Yes there was some partial privatisation, but the fundamental causes of the housing crisis were barely touched.   John Key with Rodney Hide's help implemented Labour's local government policy on Auckland, creating a behemoth of a bureaucracy, with more employees than the councils it replaced, spending more.  Of course National also funded the multi-billion dollar underground rail fetish in downtown Auckland, which will never make a single dollar of operating surplus to pay for it.

What New Zealand now has is a government that believes in something, most of it is at best misguided, at worst destructive and ignorant, but it IS driven by philosophy.  A philosophy of "we know best" of "problems are best fixed by throwing money at them" of "climate change can be changed by whatever we do, and if you question it you're evil" of "a person should be judged by their identity group/s and intersectionality of them, not what they actually do, experience or think" of "you are a means to an end".

National only offered a diluted version of this, a half hearted "it's all going well" belief that "we're entitled to rule".  It didn't offer anything different, anything new and never challenged all of the assertions on poverty and the environment spouted by the left.

So while Bill English might say he is leading a "strong opposition", what is he actually opposed to?

The new government is just National with the courage of the philosophical convictions in implementing essentially the same policies, on steroids.

Do you really think National would reverse anything Labour is about to do?

14 October 2017

Don't fear Winston

I am wholly relaxed about a government of which Winston Peters is a part, not just for the reasons outlined by Peter Cresswell, but because his bite is actually rather small when compared to many of those who despise him.

For a long time, Winston Peters was the second coming of Robert Muldoon, except of course when it came down to it, Winston wasn't that interested in turning back the clock of the reforms of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson (except that he wasn't keen on privatisation).  Despite his rhetoric, after all, central government privatised its shareholding in Auckland Airport in 1998 while Winston was in government.  

He isn't an acolyte of environmentalism, in that he doesn't believe in sacrificing prosperity and wealth to engage in what is virtually nothing besides virtue signalling about climate change.  In that sense, he is much less toxic than the Greens, who combine welfarism with environmentalism and the glorification of identity politics.  Winston has NONE of this (although his willingness to buy votes with the elderly could be described as a form of welfarism).

So the so-called rightwing commentators who think a National-Green coalition is a good idea are demonstrating how utterly beguiled they are with the image of the Greens and ignoring the substance.  Either a National-Green coalition would kneecap the Greens on principles and policies, causing them to splinter and disintegrate below the 5% threshold, or (more likely) a National-Green coalition would be led by the Greens pushing climate change, getting the baubles of railways and tramways that will cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year for many years to come in losses and continuing the slide towards identity politics that National has done nothing to reverse.  Furthermore, it will encourage more welfarism.

After all, it is the National Party that is willing to sell out its principles for power (Muldoon 1975-1984 being the most egregious case study).  The Greens are a party of principles and policy (the wrong ones in my view, but still).

That's why I'll be more comfortable with Winston calling the shots over National or Labour.  National doesn't lead the fight against leftwing ideas or concepts touted by Labour and the Greens and their supporters, it just plays personalities and fear.  

Winston may contain the growth of identity politics, he wont sign up to mindless environmentalism (even though he has policies that might feed into it) and he wont embrace welfarism on a grand scale.   OR he may just get a Cabinet post and go away.

In either case it is better than the Greens driving public policy.

03 October 2017

NZ election result: winners, losers

First the biggest loser:  

You, that's assuming you're not seeking to extract other people's money from the state.  

You, if you believe that freedom of speech matters, and that there shouldn't be a Harmful Digital Communications Act.

You, if you believe that you own your body and shouldn't be criminalised for what you put in it.

You, if you believe that government should stick to justice, law and order and defence, and should not be involved in the delivery of health and education, that it should not seek to be parent to everyone and should not respond to all of the calls to impose "social justice" (a euphemism for "take money from people we don't like and give it to people we do").

The news from overseas sources makes New Zealand seem like it still basks in the age of the reforms of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson.  However, that's only because if you look at subsidies, protectionism and regulatory rent-seeking, NZ looks better than Australia and the US.  If you look at taxation, NZ is much simpler than most economies.  Yet, that relative position doesn't make NZ a free-market haven, and certainly not on personal freedoms.  

So what about the parties?

National, optimistic but too soon to tell will think it won, and to be fair Bill English did shake off his reputation as the biggest loser as a party leader in generations.  He did it by being evasive, by focusing attention on his rival's spending plans, even though his own plans are not fundamentally different.  It is on form, as a party that doesn't really reform anything.  Riding on the back of an economy that gains from the reforms of the 80s and 90s, on high commodity food prices and the spending power of new migrants, its approach to most issues is not to change much.   At best it does seek to cut taxes, but at worst it rolls back virtually nothing Labour does.  The middle class welfare package instituted by the previous Labour Government was kept.  Yet, in an MMP environment the Nats did successfully frighten people into turning out and voting for it.  It deterred ACT supporters from voting ACT (and indeed some NZF supporters too).  Being in a position to get a fourth term is an achievement historically, but you have to ask for what?  Does National exist primarily to stop Labour et al from doing stuff?  The number of National supporters keen on governing with the Greens tells you exactly that.  Principles don't matter, the role of the state doesn't matter, nor is there interest in pushing back against a culture of dependency and statism.  National exists to stop Labour, this time we'll see if it worked.

Labour disappointed but too soon to tell  thinks it has won, because it could conceivably lead government with the Greens and Winston Peters.  Yet it did so mainly by consolidating the vote on the left.  It decimated the Maori Party strategically, it presented a leftwing manifesto and took the Greens back to its core.  Yet the widespread "Jacinda-mania" star status proved to be for little effect.  Few National voters were convinced that a young woman who has never had a job in the private sector, and has never even been a Cabinet Minister could be Prime Minister.  Labour did win the media narrative (along with the Greens) about relative child poverty and river pollution, all without much scrutiny about the statistics (or the causes or better yet, the solutions).  It has a chance at power, but has a long way to go to attract votes from groups other than public servants, beneficiaries, students,  Maori and Pacific Island voters and unionised workers.  It hasn't broken through in most regional towns and cities, nor significant parts of Auckland.  Yes Jacinda has almost done it, but if she does become PM, she'll be getting wagged by the tail of James Shaw and Winston Peters, and that is NOT a winning position to be in.  

Winston Peters won (I mean really, he runs it, it is his) lost seats, but is the master of political positioning.   Seriously, he has won, whilst Bill and Jacinda slut around him for the next few weeks.
 He puts himself in the centre, whilst being a populist who embraces the left (more money for pensioners and opposition to privatisation) and the right (sceptical about immigration, sceptical about higher taxes and opposition to identity politics by race if not nationality).   He leads the only truly fungible MMP party, in that he could support either main party and no longer would he really upset his base of supporters (like he did in 1996, but only because he broke up from the Nats to oppose them, and misjudged that his supporters cared about policy - when they are largely driven by gut emotion).  He'll get a good job and do little with it, he'll give a bunch of ne'er do wells (most of whom couldn't hope to get a job as "highly paid" as an MP) employment, and he'll one or two totemic legacies.  One might be the economically ridiculous idea of relocating the Ports of Auckland to Marsden Point, better would be a referendum on the Maori seats.   Winston won and why are you surprised?  He knows MMP better than anyone else, and no other politician is willing or able to replicate him.

Greens never really lose and were hit fairly hard, not least because it showed itself to be the party of welfare cheats.  Jacinda-mania attracted the airheads back to Labour, but it showed itself to still be a ginger-group of hard-left finger-waggers whose main instincts are to tell people off, tax what they don't like, subsidise what they like and virtue signal.  The good news for the Greens is that they still get an easy ride on most of their policy positions, particularly the constant false claims that "action on climate change" will save lives, the war on fossil fuels and their obsession with identity politics.  The media still loves them, even given the Metiria scandal (which actually exposed their fundamental belief that everyone owes everyone else a living).  Yes the Green Party has never actually been in a coalition, but it is very very influential and relies on new cohorts of optimistic state worshippers being recruited year on year.  

ACT lost badly in part due to the Nats successfully scaring voters on the right to voting National, but also because David Seymour moved too far away from having a coherent position on issues.  He was seen as backing National, but whether it was too hard for him to get traction on multiple issues or he lacked ground support to campaign, the only policy that got a lot of publicity was in increasing teacher pay.  ACT once had a coherent less government, lower tax position that promoted more competition in public services, was tough on law and order and rejected identity politics.  Yet Seymour couldn't break through with such a message.  The brand is mixed, he made statements about abortion which would alienate some, but he tried hard.  ACT needs to work out who it is targeting and what message it is giving.   There is a gap on the right, one that will open up large when a certain Maori ex. National MP finally retires.  ACT can't fill much of that gap, but it sure can grab some of it.

Maori Party is nearly finished as Labour branded it as National's patsies, which was unfair.  Maori are smarter than identity politics warriors fighting "colonialism" as Marama Fox implied. It will probably remain for some time, but looks like it is slipping back to be another Mana Motuhake.  It would have a chance if Labour gets power,  with the Greens, as it could position itself as the Opposition for Maori again.  However,  its real future is threatened by a referendum on the Maori seats, which if it includes Maori who choose to be on the general roll, could completely render the Maori Party obsolete.  

TOP did well for being led by a vulgarian.  For all of the rhetoric, TOP had policies based on a philosophical position, not simply "evidence led".  The philosophy was to penalise asset ownership as a solution to a market failure, rather than address the supply side element.  Everything else it stood for was a redistributionist/environmentalist agenda that competed with the Greens and Labour.  Gareth Morgan got the party attention, but also turned off many.  He topped it off by blaming voters for being selfish and stupid.  What more is there to say?

United Future has no future

The youth didn't turn out in the magical numbers to vote for the left, and if they did turn out they were not a single bloc (who is?).  After all the left is the mainstream.  Besides housing (which has become a problem because of the enviro-left approach to planning, through the RMA and the application of new urbanism to city boundaries in Auckland and Wellington), the narrative about child poverty was from the left (Beth Houlbrooke from ACT was hounded down when she suggested people on low incomes should not have children they expect taxpayers to pay for), the narrative around the environment was partially a banal question around "should there be fewer dairy cows" (the sort of nonsense seen in adolescent level policy debate).

What now?

Winston will make his choice, either Bill English will get to have three years of do little, conservative (literally) government.  Otherwise Jacinda Ardern will suddenly find she has gone from MP to PM without even having sat in on a Cabinet meeting, with Winston wagging her dog and the Greens on the sidelines providing confidence and supply.  I am uncomfortable with the latter, primarily because culturally the bent of Jacinda will be to support more identity politics based on race and sex, less freedom of speech and fewer private property rights.  Not that the Nats are practically better, but Labour and the Greens actually believe in state power and collectivising people over individual rights and individual responsibility.

ACT needs to refocus

For those who think government does too much, who think individuals alone or with others should have more power and responsibility to find solutions to the problems of today, there is little to offer.   The best hope might be for ACT to be in Opposition, regardless.  To campaign more clearly on principles, which should be around private property rights, everyone being equal under the law (including the abolition of Maori-only political representation), opening up education to choice and diversity, tackling the culture of welfare dependency, opposing state subsidies for business, more taxation and more state ownership.  ACT should firmly come down on limiting the scope and powers   of local government, on ridding central government of wasteful politically-correct bureaucracies and taking on identity politics.   Yes it should support other parties when it comes to victimless crimes, but there should not be a unified view on abortion.  It should be tough on real crime, tough on parental responsibility, but also take on measures that governments have done that increase the cost of living.  This includes the constraining of housing supply, and immigration policies that mean new migrants utilise the capital of taxpayer funded infrastructure, without actually paying for it.

What Winston does as his possible swan song is of minor interest, what matters is there being a party that stands up for something different.  For now, only ACT can do that.