Budget: KiwiRail funding 'a cause for celebration'

9:51 am on 31 May 2019

Rail workers have been given a boost - some say even a new lease of life - with a billion-dollar funding boost in the Budget.

KAIKOURA, NEW ZEALAND - DECEMBER 10: KiwiRail DXC 5520 Diesel Locomotive passenger train waiting at station in Kaikoura, New Zealand

Photo: 123RF

This year's Budget includes major funding for KiwiRail to restore tracks and rail infrastructure, as well as replacing and upgrading wagons and maintenance facilities.

Rail's had a chequered history in recent times.

After Helen Clark's Labour government bought it back from the private sector in the early 2000s the Rail and Maritime Union said things changed track.

"During the nine years of the last National government the rail system moved into what's called 'managed decline'," general secretary Wayne Butson said.

"The rail infrastructure is actually in a worse condition today than it was when it was re-nationalised after those years of privatisation."

The Budget has given KiwiRail $331 million for legacy jobs like maintaining tracks and signals, and an additional $375 million for replacing ageing wagons and locomotives.

"The North Auckland line has degraded to a point where it's no longer able to be used by passenger train, and in fact cannot handle a lot of the container traffic that is now the norm for ports and so on," Mr Butson said.

"So, to get some of these lines just to be brought up to standard so they're able to handle the vehicles and passenger and freight needs of the business is absolutely a cause of celebration."

While the funding also committed another $405m for Auckland's City Rail Link, Mr Butson said the move to also include freight rail was important.

"If you look over the last few years what funding has gone into rail has predominantly gone into the metropolitan passenger networks in Wellington and Auckland so very, very little has found its way into rail freight network.

"This is the first substantial sum of money that will go into actually investing in the freight transport need. So, the members are going to see this as a vote of certainty around their jobs and also certainty around rail transport into the future."

The government has also set aside $300m for regional rail projects via the Provincial Growth Fund, and $35m to go towards progressing two new rail-capable ferries to replace the ageing Interislander boats.

Further funding for KiwiRail in next years Budget has also been hinted at by Transport Minister Phil Twyford with a 10-year national rail plan expected to be announced later this year.

"Rail is a long-term asset and also an asset where you can't just walk into a shop and buy whatever it is you want to get," Mr Butson said.

"The lead times for ordering a locomotive, for example, are around three years. So to end up in a Budget cycle where we were getting allocations of cash on a yearly basis just made long-term planning absolutely impossible."

Part of the government's justification for its rail funding was decreasing traffic congestion and accidents on the roads.

"Our goal is to have a stronger rail network that sees more freight moved by rail and fewer heavy trucks on our roads, as well as better public transport options to give commuters choice," Mr Twyford said.

Head of Infrastructure New Zealand Stephen Selwood welcomed the funding, however, said it was important that roading investment wasn't abandoned.

"Vehicle kilometres travelled and the number of cars on our roads is just increasing on an inexorable rate whilst funding the current plan is it'll halve over the next decade which is of serious concern. If that were to be the reality we will have serious issues of congestion in our growing cities, and the fact that we're worried about road safety right now on our roads; that's just going to get much worse.

"If the government chooses not to spend its money on roads and improving the road network then it's the right time to bring private finance in to get some new roads built across the country privately financed over time with road users paying tolls to pay that debt."

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