Road safety left behind in Budget rail spend

Opinion by Nick Leggett, chief executive, Road Transport Forum

In Budget 2021, the government delivered $1.3 billion to rail, to build trains and boost freight capacity.

I always like to take a bit of time to digest the annual Budget and have a good look at where the money is going. It takes time to get past the headlines – in 2020 the $12 billion for infrastructure projects was announced, with $5.3 billion for roads. But 2020 was also the first year of COVID-19 – with a few more to follow it seems – where nothing much at all got done. Truck drivers and operators tell us the roads are still in a dire state.

It is the Road Transport Forum’s view that any rail spend should go into the area where there is some impact, passenger rail in our major cities. This could ease congestion at peak times by taking cars off the roads.

There is a case for some spend to move freight between the Auckland and Tauranga ports by rail, particularly given the supply chain issues we’ve seen in the past year, which look set to continue for some years yet.

But we also believe money should not be wasted on trying to revive rail freight in areas where it didn’t work before and won’t work again. As the world tries to recover from the impacts of COVID-19 for years to come, we should be looking forward, not to some “good old days” in Dunedin’s history where they built trains at the Hillside Workshops. Or, on the Wairoa to Napier line where there have been derailments that leave the line unusable for days and trucks have to be brought in to move the freight.

It is particularly disappointing to see in the Budget “new” money, more going to the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s department ($40.215 million) than the New Zealand Police ($33.463 million).

Outside of Wellington, most New Zealanders have probably never heard of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. It used to be a small group of experts advising, as the title suggests, the Prime Minister and their Cabinet.

Now, with every issue requiring a massive amount of outside consultation from highly paid private sector experts, including the COVID-19 vaccine rollout and border management, many dollars are being spent. The government has a whole public service to seek advice from. But in addition to the tens of thousands of public servants, they are now paying for more advice.

This is at the expense of things we think are pretty important, like road safety, which has had a $63 million cut in funds, RNZ reported.

From where we are sitting, the roads are getting less safe because less money is being spent on the actual engineering and surface of them. They are less safe, and there will be less policing. This feels a bit like Napier MP Stuart Nash saying unless you’re a gang member you have no reason to feel unsafe in Hawke’s Bay because the public are not the gang’s targets, while National MP Simeon Brown is allegedly receiving death threats from those same gang members.

The reality is, no amount of spending on rail will reverse international trends away from rail freight to road or budge the 93% of freight moved by road in New Zealand. Trucks will still be needed to deliver goods to and from trains, and to unload them when they derail, or get stuck in tunnels.

Customers through the supply chain want their goods delivered door-to-door, as fast as possible and those demands are only increasing.

We want to see some of that spending on roads happen. We pay for the roads that use, and they need to be safe and suitable for the tasks they are used for.

The government’s solution of propping up rail at the expense of roads and slowing down road speeds in the name of safety because the roads themselves are actually unsafe, will not see any economic or environmental, gains for New Zealand.