So someone on the Rodney District Facebook page today put up a petition about ‘North Shore Rail’ (1). I’d never actually seen this before (every previous reference I thought was a joke). Apparently, what we need to do is take the money proposed for the second crossing between North Shore and Auckland CBD and use it to build a railway system on the North Shore (ripping up the busway in the process) and connected to the CBD (a rail bridge…yay). Now, having questioned what the actual capex and opex were, and pointing out that we remain a car driving nation, I was told that that’s 1960s thinking and that we need to move on (at great public expense, but we won’t quantify that). Now, I am not a proponent of ‘public transport’, as I believe that if something is a good idea, it should be self-sufficient (thus, we don’t call Air New Zealand public transport, as it’s private – so if someone wants to set up a bus or train company, that’s fantastic, but I don’t see why this should involve the council or state). Then there is the fact that railways are a 19th Century solution…but I digress. So let’s look at some of this logically (rather than the emotions often shown around ‘public transport’):
Simple Disruption of Replacing the Busway
The first, and simplest problem, is that the existing busway is in actual use and there will be disruptions if you decommission it. Buses go down that route already and while you’re ripping it up, they won’t. That isn’t a light disruption if the supposed 40% people volumes are pushed onto the existing motorway. Equally, the current system is more flexible (buses can come on from a variety of starting points, rather than just Albany, as is currently proposed). Equally, if railway was put in between Auckland CBD and Albany, you’d end up with people who currently have a single journey from Orewa, Silverdale, and Whangaparaoa now needing to take a bus down to Albany, then switch, and take a train to the CBD. The ‘future extension’ may go to Orewa, but that still shafts a lot of people in Whangaparaoa. Every time you add a switch, it adds cost and complexity to the system (and means people lose their seats, potentially get wet and cold, etc.). So this sort of thing really needs to be factored into any planning.
Cost of the Existing Busway Wasted
We’ve already stumped up $290m to build the busway. Granted, you don’t have to rebuy the land, but the point is: a huge amount of capital cost was already put into the existing route and that will now be wasted (in fact, you’ll have to pay to rip it up, first). I have a real problem with completing a major project in 2009 and then saying, in 2016, we should tear it down and build something new (is that how little regard people have for the public expense?).
Using AT Rates, the Cost-Benefit Doesn’t Add Up
Even Council’s own financial statements for 2015 (2) say that they require, on average, 27c per kilometre (fares only representing 47% of the cost, the rest is subsidies). So a 30km journey between Orewa and the CBD is going to have a, minimum, $8.10 subsidy (each way). I would imagine that the marginal subsidy cost for trains is a wee bit higher than buses (which don’t require capital maintenance on the roads to be factored in). So let’s say we get another 10,000 people to take this journey to work, every day of the week. That’s another $38.8m of subsidy required, and probably significantly more (on top of the $6bn that’s been spent just to get the network built to Albany). The existing users will also cost us more, as they’re going from a lower cost transport option to a more expensive one. I am failing to see why we want this to be brought about.
These aren’t ‘small’ problems. The proposal is to waste vast amounts of existing investment, replace it with a more expensive option, disrupt the bus network that is already in place, and then add significant operating costs. I know that I am not supposed to take this serious, but a friend of mine at work made a similar argument last week (and he’s usually a reasonably right-wing person). My problem is that people have started talking about public transport as if it’s some kind of panacea, without ever looking at the details (or the cost!). Hence, we should consider building railways to Orewa, when (even forgetting the billions required) it will land us with significant operating costs and it will cause further disruptions to existing transport options (again, you knock out the busway, any bus service is going down the motorway with the rest of us). I have a real problem with this kind of muddled thinking and wish we’d ban councils from doing this sort of thing (endless public subsidies, all justified by emotional ‘it’s the right thing to do’ rubbish). Personally, I think this is just a means to keep people from thinking about how silly the busway is in the first place, as now we’re forced to justify it.