Destruction of railways a national disgrace

Riding Shotgun

RACHEL STEWART
Last updated 08:11 15/10/2012
tdn rail stand
CAMERON BURNELL
The Midhirst railway bridge in the snow

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Riding Shotgun

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OPINION: Looking back, from the distance of about 28 years, the infamous Save Rail campaign was a truly momentous act of treachery with far-reaching consequences that are still revealing themselves.

Before the 1984 general election, Labour's Richard Prebble travelled the length of the country, vowing to keep rail as a strategic state asset. Sir Robert Muldoon's National government was quite openly readying it for sale.

Prebble conducted his faux campaign by making whistlestop tours through towns where railway workshops were and giving rousing speeches from the back of a streamer-laden guard's van, reminiscent of Harry Truman's presidential campaigning in 1948.

At the time, I was a rookie fireman or, using the new lingo of the time, locomotive assistant, based in Wanganui.

I have a vague memory of hearing the speech he gave at the East Town railway workshop. It was a heartily union-backed affair and every railway worker worth their salt downed tools to listen to our supposed saviour.

Once elected, Prebble became the new Minister of Railways and he simply bent down, picked up the ball and kept running with the neo-liberal reform agenda.

The East Town workshop was defunct by 1986, with the loss of more than 450 jobs - just one of many areas of the country hit by the restructuring.

Has anything really changed and is rail still being deliberately set up to fail today?

History certainly shows that it's been a popular political punching bag, even when it was regarded, like health and education, as a public service.

All nostalgia aside, I have continued to believe, from that day to this, that rail was the one state asset that should never have been messed with.

Almost daily, we continue to see a rail network decimated and bleeding from endless ownership and name changes, lack of infrastructure maintenance, and a new fixation with roads in the face of indisputable peak oil, climate change and population growth.

Just to recap, because it's an even longer-running soap opera than Coronation Street), the state owns what we now call KiwiRail.

Labour bought the rail and ferry assets from private company Toll New Zealand in 2008, having earlier repurchased the network infrastructure back off it for $1.

Fast forward to September this year and KiwiRail announces the loss of 20 per cent of its infrastructure and engineering workforce by the end of this month. This is on top of a growing list of maintenance problems, including tracks in a proven state of disrepair.

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Add to the mix the new batch of cheaper, arguably inferior, Chinese locomotives and rolling stock, and the thousands of fungi- ridden sleepers imported from Peru, and it all starts to illustrate a pattern of successive governmental bungling.

Dire and repeated warnings by NZ First of a looming rail disaster are not over the top. As a former locomotive driver, I can safely say that all the warning indicators are there. Let's just hope it's not a fully laden passenger train.

The permanent closure of the Napier-Gisborne line after storm damage has added another layer of taxpayer discontent.

KiwiRail says it's uneconomic to reinstate the line, but that's a short-sighted and short-term view.

It is a whole region which has been cut off at the knees, and which now needs to rely solely on road transport to get goods in and out, and therein lies the rub.

With the current Government's fixation on building new roads comes an ideological blindness to the cost of ever-increasing truck movements and the long-term unsustainability of the roading network.

It's as if rail has become viewed as an old-fashioned and backward- looking transport option. Yet, paradoxically, the new reality is that rail is the future - far more than cars, buses, trucks and aircraft.

Fuel efficiency alone is reason enough, but so is the bonus of lessening the congestion and environmental impact on already clogged roads and airports.

To top it all off, last week it was disclosed that KiwiRail's value has mucked with the Government's projected surplus for 2014-15.

After announcing the restructuring in June, $8.6 billion was written off its value, and $1.4b of the writedown was placed on to the deficit, putting it $800 million over what had been expected.

Years of disrespect and neglect have seen a world-class railway system turned into a national embarrassment. Services continue to close, with the long-established Capital Connection between Palmerston North and Wellington the latest hanging by a thread.

Taranaki's historic Stratford- Okahukuru line, in its later life used as an important alternative route if problems occurred on the main trunk, was mothballed in 2010 after a partial derailment the year before damaged 16 kilometres of the track.

Entrepreneurial thinking is about to see it reopen for a fleet of modified golf carts that will take tourists on an adventure ride through the remote countryside.

The irony is that retirement often means a round of golf. Sadly, this now appears to be true for washed-up old railway lines too.

- Taranaki Daily News

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