09 May 2023

What's wrong with Kiwirail?

Kiwirail has been in the news a lot recently, many due to disappointed about it failing.  It includes the breakdown of the single track evaluation car in Wellington (and scheduling of track inspections as well), the programmed closure of Auckland's rail network to enable significant reconstruction, and the simple answer given to this is that it is a failure either of rail privatisation (which was reversed partly in 2001, 2003 and ultimately 2008.

In 2001, the Clark Government bought the Auckland rail network for $81 million, in 2003 it bought the rest of the rail network for $1, but with a $44 million investment in TranzRail (and the buy back of the network then included a monopoly being retained by TranzRail). Finally in 2008 the entire business was bought for $690 million, which was well above the market price at the time.

So there have been 15 years of state owned enterprise Kiwirail, which is exactly how long the privatised NZ Rail/TranzRail existed for, but some pundits still claim that all of the problems stem from privatisation. Surely government ownership is meant to fix everything, after all the country had government owned railways for well over a century beforehand, weren't they wonderful?

To some extent there is some bad luck with a few incidents regarding Kiwirail, but it is pretty clear the incentives around the company are very mixed indeed.  

For example, Auckland the commuter trains are owned by Auckland Transport, although they are operated by Auckland One Rail, a train operating company contracted by Auckland Transport to operate the trains for eight years (starting 2022).  The rail infrastructure is owned by the Crown through Kiwirail, but the stations are owned either by Auckland Transport (Waitemata, Newmarket and New Lynn), or a mix of Auckland Transport (for the buildings) and Kiwirail (for the platforms). Of course the train services themselves are subsidised by Auckland Transport as the contractor, which gets 40% of its funding from Auckland ratepayers with the remainder from Waka Kotahi (i.e. taxes paid by road users).  Fare revenue only recovers around 30% of the costs of operation in normal times (whereas at present taxpayers are halving that to 15%).

In Wellington, it is similar, with the commuter trains owned by Greater Wellington Regional Council, operated by TransDev, with infrastructure owned by a mix of the Crown through Kiwirail and the regional council (Kiwirail owns the track and the main railway station, the regional council owns the other stations). 

The railfreight system is all owned by the Crown through Kiwirail, as is the long distance passenger rail system.

However, what isn't widely known is that whether it is Kiwirail's freight trains, or the commuter trains operated in Auckland and Wellington, that the Track User Charges paid for trains to operate on the tracks don't go to Kiwirail, they go to Waka Kotahi.  This bizarre situation is the brainchild of the current Labour Government.

Instead of Kiwirail getting its day-to-day operating revenue, for maintaining the track and related infrastructure from the trains operating on the network (whether its own trains, or in Auckland and Wellington the commuter trains contracted by the relevant authorities), the Track User Charges, set by politicians, go to a central government bureaucracy - Waka Kotahi - which then gives Kiwirail money to maintain the tracks, based on the Rail Network Investment Programme.

So Kiwirail's infrastructure business is not paid based on trains operating, but paid on whether it can convince a bureaucracy, guided by Ministers, to give it the money it requests for its network. Michael Wood and Grant Robertson have broken the link between use of the track and being paid for the track.

Of course this replicates the road network, but road funding has always had that separation and the separation is an artifact of how motor vehicles are charged to use the road network. Because all petrol-powered light vehicles pay petrol tax, it is impossible to reliably link your car to what roads you drive on, so the revenue from petrol tax is all collected by Customs, and handed over to Waka Kotahi to fund road maintenance and improvements.  Road controlling authorities (Waka Kotahi for the State Highways and territorial authorities for local roads) have to bid for funding from Waka Kotahi (yes you noticed that?) for road maintenance.

However Kiwirail's network isn't like that.  It is effectively a controlled private network as Kiwirail knows exactly what railway vehicles are on its tracks at any time, and charges them Track User Charges, which could be based on whatever it needs to charge to maintain and develop its network. Indeed if the track infrastructure was run as a separate business, setting its own Track User Charges, then it would expect to not get paid if it didn't enable trains to operate.

That's not what the Government has done, it has disconnected payment to use the tracks from the provider of the tracks, which is a retrograde step.  Every other piece of effective infrastructure operates with user pays. Airlines pay airports fees for landing, taking off and parking aircraft at terminals and on their tarmac. Shipping companies pay port companies fees for docking and other services. Indeed if structured appropriately, as in some other countries like Austria, Czechia, Japan and Slovenia, there is no reason why trucking companies and motorists couldn't be paying to use the roads directly to road companies.

However, the Ardern and Hipkins Government has chosen to weaken the link between providing rail infrastructure and getting paid for doing so by customers, by Kiwirail getting paid by Waka Kotahi instead.  $1.2 billion is being spent by Waka Kotahi to Kiwirail to maintain and develop the rail  freight infrastructure, of which $834.4 million comes from general taxpayers (the remainder from the National Land Transport Fund, which Track User Charges are paid into).  Not only that, unlike the National Land Transport Programme (which outlines the road and public transport projects funded from the National Land Transport Fund), the Minister has to approve the Rail Network Investment Programme.  It's a highly politicised funding system. Kiwirail has to respond to what the Minister wants, not what its customers want, in relation to the infrastructure.

It's worse than that of course. Because Kiwirail runs two businesses, an "above rail" business (hauling freight, carrying long-distance passengers and running rail ferries), and a "rail infrastructure" business (providing the tracks, signals, etc so trains can operate on them), it will prefer the "above rail" business which it directly gets revenue from. Consigners of containers on freight trains pay Kiwirail directly, which it then includes its accounts (even if it has to pay Track User Charges to Waka Kotahi).  Whereas the train operating companies running Auckland and Wellington commuter trains don't pay Kiwirail directly at all for the tracks, but pay Waka Kotahi.

Bear in mind also that Kiwirail, as track provider, has a literal iron grip on access to its network for competitors. Now there may be a low chance of a rail freight competitor emerging, because of the high cost of acquiring rolling stock, but likewise if another business wanted to operate say a passenger train from Christchurch to Dunedin, then Kiwirail could effectively decide whether it would let it do it.  Kiwirail's "rail infrastructure" business is not incentivised to try to find a way to let a new customer use its network because it wont get paid for it, but it's incentivised to do what works for its staff and contractors, and for its own trains.

One can argue about whether enough taxpayers' money was put into the rail network since it was renationalised, or whether it is good value for money at all. After all, why should the rail freight network not pay its own way, given trucking companies pay road user charges, which fully fund the state highway network?  However, if the government is going to keep owning the railways then maybe it should follow a model seen in some European countries.

Split it up.

Have a Kiwirail holding company for oversight of the assets (including the land held by NZ Railways Corporation), but have three separate companies underneath it:
  1. A railway infrastructure company. Have it receive Track User Charge revenue directly and let it charge what it needs to do to maintain its network.  If the government wants to upgrade tracks, then it can put taxpayers' money into it transparently and have arguments in the public sphere about whether new cancer treatments are better to pay for than a faster railway line somewhere.  Ensure that company has open access, and seeks to encourage new entrants into the rail industry.  It may also include stations and freight terminals not held by local government, but also be willing to enable competing operators with access to those facilities.
  2. A freight company.  Have it own the locomotives and rolling stock Kiwirail currently has to run and operate freight trains.  Arguably it should also have the Interislander as it is core to that operation, and it makes more sense than it being in the railway infrastructure company or the next company.
  3. A passenger company.  It may only be four passenger trains at present, but let it be willing to expand on a commercial basis. It might even run the commuter trains in Wellington and/or Auckland if it  wins contracts to do so.  It should own the locomotives and rolling stock for passenger rail, or it might seek to lease locomotives from the freight company. 
There is an argument that there isn't really enough business for rail to have competition in New Zealand, and it may be right, but given the government owns the network, it ought to at least enable the possibility of competition. 

A hard-nosed look at railways in New Zealand would confirm that the rail freight business is the core, followed by commuter rail services (which require subsidy as long as pricing of roads at peak times in Auckland and Wellington does not target congestion).  Rail freight is about containers, logs, milk and coal, and a handful of other commodities.  

It should have nothing to do with Waka Kotahi (except its role as safety regulator), nor should Michael Wood or any other Transport Minister be deciding how much money the railways get to maintain their tracks (after all, what would they know?). If more money is going to be poured down the black hole of railways in New Zealand, it should at least be incentivised to operate trains reliably.  At present it has poor incentives, is costing taxpayers a fortune in money that will never be recovered, and has been set up into a bizarre funding structure that has no parallels elsewhere in the world.

Oh and for all of the calls to "restore" intercity passenger rail services, there isn't a business case for it, but at least if the rail business is structurally separated, those who think there is a business case for a lot more long-distance passenger rail can put their money where their mouths are (not their glued hands though). Intercity bus services and airline services are not subsidised in New Zealand, so it is appropriate that intercity passenger rail isn't either.

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