By Paul Callister
At the Future is Rail conference, in contrast to those enthusiastic about reviving passenger rail National party infrastructure spokesperson Chris Bishop questioned whether New Zealand should invest in rail. For people who cannot drive or fly, he suggested using the existing, seemingly unsubsidised, InterCity bus network. National Party Transport spokesperson Simeon Brown then chirped in to support this view, asking why bring back a passenger train service from Wellington to Napier when InterCity already offers a service.
Public transport supporters generally recognise the role of coaches in providing low emission, low energy, regional and long-distance travel options. Some of us have been campaigning for a long time to get high quality, inter-regional bus services in New Zealand. Not a service that struggles to carry differently abled people, including the elderly who often find it difficult to get up the steep steps. We need: buses with onboard toilets for long trips, like those all around the industrialised world, including even the much-maligned Greyhound; buses that carry bikes like Flixbus in Europe; buses that depart from and arrive at good quality bus depots, not ones like the poor-quality Auckland bus depot or the Taupō interchange where people have to walk a long distance in both rain and shine to unheated toilets.
So, the National Party is now a potential ally. Their help in turning our second-rate system into a top-class service, valued by New Zealand residents and tourists alike, is welcomed.
But first, some myth busting about subsidies.
Let us set aside the complex issue of whether road travel is correctly priced in order to examine costs. Because InterCity coachlines do not have onboard toilets, they generally stop at public toilets. These are not funded by the bus company but are paid for, that is subsidised, by local ratepayers. Bus shelters, or larger bus interchanges, are also generally funded by local authorities.
Many other modes of transport are subsidised by the taxpayer and ratepayer. For example, the upgraded airport at Taupō was funded by both taxpayers and ratepayers. That upgrade had a budget of $9.23 million, funded with $3.36 million allocated by Taupō council, but with a $5 million grant from the Crown’s Provincial Development Unit, and $870,000 from the Ministry of Transport. Kāpiti Coast District Council has given more than $1m of ratepayers’ money to Air Chathams to keep its services running. And, as an indirect form of local transport subsidy, passengers do not pay GST on the domestic legs of international travel.
Grants by government and local authorities have helped build a network of chargers for electric cars. Electric cars currently do not pay road user charges. And there are government grants to develop hydrogen for transport and to investigate synthetic fuels for aviation.
Projects such as the Otaki to Levin Expressway Extension are given the go ahead, despite cost benefit analysis demonstrating this is a poor use of taxpayer funds.
Many of these current subsidies support well off members of society and businesses rather than those who are ‘transport disadvantaged’.
We need a detailed study of subsidies across the whole transport sector to ensure transparency and wise spending to maximise economic, social and environmental -especially emission reduction- outcomes.
I would also support an investigation into the implications of InterCity effectively functioning as a monopoly, with the competition of Mana and Naked Bus no longer operating. Free market economists worry that monopolies lead to excess profits and suppress innovation.
Overall, how do buses stack up against trains?
Some of the good points of coaches are:
But, over long distances, most people would rather travel by train because:
Long distance coaches are an important part of New Zealand’s transport network. Now that the National Party appears to have fallen in love with them, let us hope they will work diligently to ensure that coaches provide the quality of service that they themselves expect at the airports that they pass through to catch their flights.