This week saw yet another cutback to passenger rail services with the announcement that the Northerner, the night service between Auckland and Wellington, would cease operation on the 12th of November.
Tranz Scenic claim the service is no longer economic, citing declining passenger numbers as a reason for the closure.
Toll NZ undertook a takeover of Tranz Rail this year, and bought back Trans Scenic from another operator in May. In July the Government reached an agreement with Toll to take ownership of the rail tracks and promised $200m of non-recoverable investment in the rail network, a rail network in a disastrous state of repair after over 10 years of private sector management.
The fact that Toll reviewed the business following its takeover of Tranz Scenic suggests Toll is behind the closure. According to Tranz Scenic passenger manger Ross Hayward, the operator now sees its “long-term future lying in high-value tourist operations such as the world-class TranzAlpine service between Christchurch and Greymouth.”(1)
More cutbacks and closures are likely, as the July deal between Toll and the Government stated there would be no new scheduled passenger operations for three years. So even if another operator decided they wished to run a service cancelled by Toll, they would be unable to do so. After three years, Toll is only required to run three return passenger services on a line to maintain its monopoly.
With oil prices expected to continue in a skyward direction, it is vital that passenger rail is not reduced to “high-value tourist operations”. Wider economic development objectives, as well as social and environmental factors also should be considered before ‘the end of the line’. But consideration of such wider policy objectives will be difficult while the operation of the railways remains in a public-private partnership and private overseas ownership.
While taking back the track into public ownership was a step in the right direction, it is clear that the Government did not go far enough. If rail is truly to be saved, it must be returned to full public ownership, trains, trucks, tracks and all.
Joe Hendren 2 November 2004
(30/10/04), "End of the Line for Northener"