4th May 2006
New Zealand faces some extremely difficult transport decisions. Should we improve our highways to accommodate the long-haul road freight sector in areas like the Kaikoura coast? Should we reserve road space for the exclusive use of freight vehicles in major urban areas? Should we repair and upgrade rail track and add new links to the network to encourage bulk freight items such as milk and logs to travel by rail? Or should we provide the port infrastructure to meet the neglected needs of coastal shipping? Indeed, can we afford to fix and fuel operations on all three modes (four if one counts pipelines) of long distance surface transport in New Zealand? Or is it that all services are vital to our economic, social and environmental wellbeing? Before we can identify our priorities, we need to understand the interests of each transport sector.
Advocates of road freight note that virtually all freight need the services of road transport at some stage. To transfer that freight to other modes just adds costs. They say it would be better to assign the task completely to trucks, and improve the roads.
Advocates of moving freight by rail promote trains to shift heavy bulk cargoes. If left to trucks this would require large fleets. Those fleets would operate at frequencies that are considered environmentally intolerable by the communities along the way. They would also consume more fuel.
Furthermore, they say that if we modernized the track and locomotives, rail freight could compete with long-haul road in terms of distances served in 24 hours or overnight. Better, they argue, to improve the rail track infrastructure in preparation for future higher fuel costs. The rail corridor is an exclusive-use domain, unlike roads which must accommodate the private motorcar as well as commercial vehicle fleets.
Advocates of coastal shipping, currently the poor cousin in domestic transport, point out that short sea shipping is even more environmentally friendly and fuel efficient than either trucks or trains. Since New Zealand is split by Cook Strait and inter-island freight has to include a sea crossing, why not invest in better coastal shipping services and port infrastructure?
When landslides and swollen rivers cut land transport links, a deal of freight returns to coastal shipping, but the switch is seldom permanent. Other modes are being subsidised from the public purse making sea freight rates uncompetitive. As well, the level of service falls short of that demanded by businesses who want delivery of their goods in the shortest time possible.
We have yet to see fast freight ferries operate year round or venture further than the quick dash across Cook Strait, only to be slowed by regulations when navigating within the Marlborough Sounds. None are currently operating. Clifford Bay Port may never be built, especially if coastal ferries are reinstated on the historical link between Wellington and Lyttelton.
So fragile is the state of coastal shipping in New Zealand, we could lose it unless it is nurtured – and the demise could occur just as international shipping companies with bigger vessels decide to call at a limited number of ports. They will expect domestic surface transport to connect one, or at the most three, international hub ports. Those shipping lines will also expect the chosen ports to invest in the necessary capacity. Land access to those ports will be a cost to the surrounding communities.
The recent sharemarket activity for the port at Lyttelton is indicative of the reshaping of ownership and control that could accompany the manoeuvres by port companies and their owners to retain ‘top tier’ status.
Transport is fiercely competitive in New Zealand both within each mode and between the alternative modes. The users benefit until cost cutting and risk taking compromises safety. Transport logistics and supply chain management strive to meet the procurement and distribution needs of businesses in a manner that meets quality and cost requirements. It is natural for managers and owners in each mode to seek profit and to capture clients. We need, however, better coordination and links between the modes to lift our performance.
The introduction of standardized containers for cargo, and the application of modern communication and information systems to coordinate their availability, is an important step that has allowed all three surface modes of transport to shift cargo and swap it between carriers locally, nationally and internationally.
We must look now for even better technology that will enable faster switching between road and rail without imposing crippling handling costs. Then each mode can be used in a way that best suits the products being moved to minimise economic, social and environmental costs. Examples of innovative technologies from elsewhere could be adapted and adopted here.
Hopefully we can move beyond the ‘silo’ mentality still found in individual transport operations that stick rigidly to just their own form of transport. This country will benefit from more integrated freight transport. Interestingly, there are signs that this is starting to happen.
Lyttelton Port recently acquired road transport and storage capacity through buying NZ Express Co. Ltd. This move helps with the complexities of marshalling cargo that passes through the port. Toll New Zealand has interests in rail, Cook Strait ferries, and road transport (Toll Owens). Pacifica Shipping also operates trucks. Some freight-forwarders like Mainfreight habitually consign goods by both road and rail choosing the mode that best suits their customers. The introduction of ‘inland ports’ as operated by the Port of Tauranga and Ports of Auckland, using rail connections, is another example of integrated transport.
These multi-modal operations can be emulated by others. When that happens, comprehensive integration will no longer be a pipe dream and we will have an efficient and effective domestic freight transport system in New Zealand.
Christopher Kissling is Professor of Transport Studies at Lincoln University.