19 Oct 2022

Wellington rail protests risk doing more harm than good - critics

11:14 pm on 19 October 2022

Protesters halting highways across Wellington in the name of climate change have faced criticism of their tactics by other climate activists and political leaders.

Restore Passenger Rail members took their sights north from Wellington city - blocking commuter-riddled Transmission Gully on Wednesday.

It was the fifth similar demonstration across the capital since last week. Yesterday two protesters abseiled down the Mt Victoria Tunnel temporarily closing the road and earlier protests involved protesters causing State Highway 1 to be shut down.

Restore Passenger Rail have implied they would be taking more similar action.

Protesters block traffic on Transmission Gully, Wellington, on 19 October 2022.

Protesters blocking traffic on Transmission Gully this morning. Photo: Supplied

About 8am today, two vans travelling southbound on Transmission Gully came to a halt and 12 protesters formed a chain across the lane, blocking the road.

Some of the protesters, aged between 20 and 80 years old, glued their hands to the road.

Restore Passenger Rail spokesperson Rosemary Penwarden said rail needed to be restored urgently to combat the climate crisis and the cost of living crisis.

"Because what's coming is like the Covid pandemic 100 times, it's the biggest change we as humanity have ever faced," she said, talking about climate change.

The 12 people who blocked Transmission Gully appeared in Porirua District Court this afternoon charged with trespass and criminal nuisance.

There have been 25 arrests since the protests began, some of which included the same person returning to block the roads again.

Kāpiti resident Scott Taylor was driving to work when he was caught by the blockade.

"This is probably my fourth day that I've been late in the last fortnight ... everyone has their own opinion but at the end of the day it's a nuisance," he said.

Taylor lived at Ōtaki Beach, which only had one train connection into Wellington, and he said it was not ideal.

Long term Māori climate activist Sina Brown-Davis believed the group's approach was doing more harm than good and went against advice from other activists.

"They were told by a group of pretty well seasoned and experienced activists that these tactics would backfire on them," Brown-Davis said.

"What I'm worried for now is the public backlash against these tactics will encourage the government to clamp down on climate protests."

Brown-Davis said the problem came at a time when climate issues in places like the Pacific and indigenous climate action groups were largely being overshadowed.

Wellington mayor Tory Whanau said the protest group should be directing their frustration at the government instead of disrupting the capital city.

"Stunts are a legitimate form of protest and that's great but we must think about who we're actually impacting here," Whanau said, though she did support the key messages of the protesters.

"We've got to bring people on board, and I think these types of actions are probably having the opposite effect."

Restore Passenger Rail wanted a face to face meeting with the Minister of Transport Michael Wood, but a spokesperson for Wood said he had no plans to meet with the group.

"There's a lot of good will towards rebuilding our rail network, and that's what our government is doing. This group is doing nothing towards advancing that cause, all they're doing is creating a dangerous situation for themselves and enraging Wellingtonians," Wood said.

Minister for Climate Change James Shaw thought it was unlikely the disruption by the protesters would lead to a government crackdown.

In the UK and Australia, government's have been proposing crackdowns on protesting freedoms, including introducing fines for non-violent protesters.

However, Shaw said there was a risk the group's actions were "unproductive".

"I absolutely understand the frustration - why people want to make these protests - the thing for me is, what is the most effective way of ensuring you're building the kind of mass movement that allows change to happen?" Shaw said.

Green Party transport spokesperson Julie Anne Genter said the most effective protests were the ones that got the most people on board.

"There is a risk that if you inconvenience people too much they will turn off your message. On the other hand, the message of 'New Zealand needs more investment into passenger rail' is absolutely true," she said.

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