Guest Blog – Owen McShane

It is Time to open the "Main Truck Line"

New Zealanders are getting anxious about the ongoing closure of freight lines in the regions.

We shouldn't be.

Instead we should be welcoming this opportunity to upgrade our transport system to make road travel easier and safer for us all.

We should get the trains off these rail beds, tear up the tracks and lay down a road bed dedicated to trucks – and express buses if need be.

This is such a logical and cost-effective move you would think it would have been done long ago. But the idea is always challenged by those who believe our transport solutions lie with nineteenth century technology rather than the advanced technology waiting in the wings.

Certainly, the rail operators in the UK were outraged by the report by Paul Withrington, "Reigniting the Railway Conversion Debate" published by the UK Institute of Economic Affairs, in June 2004. The abstract reads:

[quote]The economic functions of railways could be carried out by express coaches and lorries at one-quarter the cost of the train, using 20 – 25% less fuel, requiring one-quarter to one-third of the land, and imposing a casualty cost on passengers half that suffered by rail passengers. The railway conversion debate was initiated in the 1950s by the late Brigadier Lloyd and carried forward by the Railway Conversion League, subsequently renamed the Railway Conversion Campaign, until the death of its chairman, Angus Dalgleish, in 1994. The purpose of this
paper is to reignite that debate. The government should remove all impediments to the conversion of railways to roads.[/quote]

The UK railroaders should know better than to reject such findings out of hand – because good managers should be asking these kinds of questions, and examining these kinds of strategies, all the time. Sue Kedgley deplores closing these rail lines because, she asks, "Hasn't the government heard of climate change?" Well, the UK study finds that
the trucks use 25% per cent fuel than the trains, and this efficiency improves by the day. Trains are only kept on the rails by their weight – everything is heavy and weight needs fuel. So "steel on rail" is doomed to become less efficient than "rubber on road" with every passing day.

Some tunnels may need widening and some bridges may need modifying. Some tunnels can be controlled by traffic lights. Hardly any of the actual rail corridors will need widening and the adjoining land is normally farmland and hence quite cheap. Any costs can be financed out of tolls, and the savings on reduced upgrading of our regional highways will be massive. The Government as owner of the corridors could actually make some money instead of everyone operating at a loss.

My analysis of the emerging transport technology suggests
"rubber-on-road" will almost certainly totally displace "steel-on-rail" from all rail beds, just as gas turbines displaced pistons in aircraft.

While the efficiency gains would be immediate the next generation of trucks will "drive by wire" on these converted "rail corridors".

The driver's hands and legs will instruct the computer which will instruct the drive train and the hydraulic power systems. A guide-wire down the centre of the newly constructed road-bed, laid over our present railway lines, will allow the computerised steering system to keep the truck "on-line". Truck drivers will drive their trucks to the shunting yard where they will leave them and drive away on an incoming truck to deliver its local load. These trucks will be mechanically and electronically connected into "truck-trains" driven by only one "driver" in the front cab, monitoring the performance of every truck in
the train. At the next "station", trucks will peel off to be driven away, again by local drivers, to their local destination. The savings in labour costs will be immense.

The coupled trucks will reduce drag. Accident rates will decline.

Drivers will never drive far from home. Lots of short trips will replace lots of long ones.

Hardly any trucks would drive on the regular roads which would then require much less maintenance and be much safer for everyone. Tourists in particular will be much happier.

The AA Advocate (Winter 2006) foresees massive on-road conflicts between huge numbers of logging trucks, milk trucks and foreign tourists. By 2030 the AA suggests every other drive on the road could be a foreign visitor.

Sadly, it appears the current operators of the steel-on-rail trains won't make the switch because, like the vacuum tube manufacturers of the fifties who failed to switch to transistors, they are committed to running their hardware rather than providing a service.

So when the first "truck train" calls into your local station it will be operated by a company with a name like Freightways or DSL. And a bundle of companies with names like X-track and Y-rail will disappear from corporate memory.


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  • ZenTiger

    What an interesting concept.

  • libertyscott

    The New Zealand context is slightly different. For starters, while UK rail corridors are mostly double track (some wider), NZ rail corridors are mostly single track and often on quite circuitous corridors (some with tunnels that are remarkably long and would need retrofitting with ventilation to handle regular one way traffic – one train an hour is different from a truck every few minutes). NZ’s rail network has many many tunnels, viaducts and bridges which are one track wide – they’ll all have to be traffic light controlled. Beyond that the rail corridor will need widening in most cases for a lane in each direction – and the capital cost of this work will be far higher than any backlog in state highway capital expenditure. Remember trucks pay road user charges which do recover those costs, remove the trucks and you remove the revenue to pay for some of the road maintenance costs. The rail network also in some cases is LONGER than the parallel road – Auckland-Whangarei by rail is a long trip because of the alignment of the track. Hamilton-Tauranga is the opposite because of the Kaimai tunnel.

    I support allowing rail lines to be converted to roads, but in most of New Zealand these corridors are unnecessary, as the parallel road is far from congested. There are far bigger gains to be made from 4-laning highways that are worth 4-laning than to build duplicate corridors along rail routes – frankly the rail routes are in many cases better used for cycle/tourist trails. The only places where this may make sense may be the major cities or busy corridors like Auckland-Hamilton – although the latter is far better served with a 4 lane expressway (which in places already has doubtful economics at the moment) than an additional parallel road.

    The actual economics of rail vs road has already been extensively studied by the Ministry of Transport in the Surface Transport Costs and Charges study, which indicates that for long haul freight – rail and road typically run about neck and neck. Including externalities sometimes rail is ahead, sometimes road is ahead. Rail always stands out for high volumes of freight because it only needs one person to drive a train with one powerful locomotive to haul large numbers of containers or bulk commodities – which is why trucks could never compete for coal shipments from the West Coast to Lyttelton even on the rail corridor.

    So what prospects are there to do this? Well the Johnsonville line in Wellington is sometimes mentioned, but a one way busway isn’t too attractive. The North Auckland railway? Perhaps, it certainly is a useful corridor, as is the line from Newmarket to Southdown (it stops the Southern motorway being widened to 8 lanes), the Main North line out of Christchurch could also be useful, not to mention the Main trunk out of Wellington which from Pukerua Bay to Paekakariki could carry 2 lanes of traffic, avoiding the ridiculously overpriced Transmission Gully.

    So there is merit, but clearly abandoning those lines means the end of railways in New Zealand – as the only places worth converting are the busiest rail lines. The quietest ones are in the places with little traffic (although the Onehunga line in Auckland could provide a road from the Southern motorway to Mangere bridge).

    The main barriers to doing it in NZ are:

    – Public Works Act (much of the rail corridor was acquired under it and if the land is no longer to be used for “railway” purposes it must be offered back to the original landowner or his successor);

    – Crown ownership of the track and corridor (no interest in innovation there);

    – Crown ownership of the state highway network, little opportunities for private sector involvement in roading and the maintenance of an average pricing regime for road use (meaning the true costs of road use are not probably brought home to road users – there are major unders and overs).

    It certainly is worth consideration, and the best way to realise it would be to run the railways commercially. Lines would close and the right of way can remain for use as an alternative corridor if economic (at the same time road pricing should be phased in to send the right signals on investment). Eventually the rail network would be down to the main trunk line and the coal route to the West Coast from Christchurch – and there might be one or two truckways!

  • Well, this is the third time I've tried to post a follow-up to this post; however most of what Liberty Scott states is correct. I would add that the size of the rail corridor, tunnels, viaducts, etc. would make such conversion uneconomic. Like LS states, the UK context is different from NZ – their rail corridor is far wider, and they have far fewer large viaducts (well Mersey and Fourth River excluded).

    I'd also add that since at least 1981 (if not then 1991 or 1993) rail transport has been run as a private concern, and was profitable, although not enough for its shareholders – (who were, of course, merchant bankers) and lacked sufficient capital to invest in the business. The status quo of national ownership of rail infastructure is comparable to that of road transport, albeit based on different rentals for the respective right of ways.