Archive | June, 2012

Value of Rail?

29 Jun

In yesterday’s The Press I was interested in a story Government writes down KiwiRail value.  The Opposition had a field day claiming our rail asset was being prepared for sale, revisiting a disaster of the past. Finance Minister, Bill English, and Prime Minister, John Key, denied the allegation. Key went on to say, “it (KiwiRail) is not likely to be something there would likely be a lot of appetite for.”

A sad commentary on what should be New Zealand’s premier means of land transportation? Seems the government has no appreciation of the true economic comparison between rail transport and say, roads, which they seem hell-bent on sinking endless funds into, arguably to the national detriment . One could go on and mention New Zealand’s woeful environmental commitment. Rail is proven five times more fuel efficient than trucking –hence a lighter carbon footprint.

In my travels I particularly enjoy visiting a country knowing the population obviously supports transportation on rail. Two in which I have spent considerable time and attract my repeat visits are Switzerland and Japan. The former, population about 7 million, is described as a glorious full-sized train set, mostly electric powered and a mix of state and private ownership. Several cities boast modern tramway (light rail) systems. Swiss pride in their railways is demonstrated in their acclaimed metre-Gauge scenic Glacier Express. A huge Swiss flag design (the Swiss Cross) is seen between every carriage. Yet, magnificent as it is, the flamboyant Glacier Express is really no better than recently-equipped KiwiRail scenic rail experiences. I would be confident saying KiwiRail Tranz Scenic staff typically offer a superior travel experience. It’s that wonderful Kiwi friendliness to the fore, I suspect.

Japan, population 120 million +, has similarities. Even locals tell me they are confused by the complexity of their huge railway system. Most Japanese guys growing up aspire to working for JR (Japan Rail). I once enjoyed welcoming Japanese visitors to our Christchurch Tramway. I would say Watashi no Shinkansen ni yokosoo.  Translation is “Welcome to my Shinkansen (Bullet Train).”  It always earned an enthusiastic round of clapping. Not unexpectantly, I met my match when a Japanese guy said in almost apologetic English , “But Roy-san, I think my Shinkansen goes much faster that your Shinkansen.”  Humbled, I enquired which of Japan’s railways did he work for?

Another guy told me, proudly, Japan had the world’s best railways. I readily agreed. Then he said. “But there is one other.”  Expecting him to mention a railway in Switzerland, he dumbfounded me answering ,with a mischievous grin, “Christchurch Shinkansen.”

Sky-High views

26 Jun

The new boss, James, suggests I go up the Sky Tower and photograph his Wynyard Quarter Tramway.  This I do clutching the $20 he gave me from petty cash.  I am not a great one for great heights and set off with trepidation.  It’s not hard to find, being Auckland’s single 320 metre landmark.  I get my Gold Card discount and take off in one of the high-speed lifts.  I am thinking if I was doing this in shaky Christchurch, I wouldn’t be doing this.  Comforted in the belief Auckland is free of major seismic events, and two lift rides later, I am taking my first tentative steps at the highest level.  Five minutes later and I am gaining my sky legs in the belief the floor is not going to fail under my feet, and admiring the vistas- 80 km in any direction the brochure I am clutching informs me.  I snap images while making a 360 degree self-guided tour of Sky Deck.  A cruise liner looks like one of those dinky toys I coveted in boyhood.  I love the shimmering light on Westhaven Marina and there it is- the tram.  So small and slow.  Like an animated arthritic turtle.  In another direction is the quaint heritage town hall.  I feel happy to be here and, confident I have captured the images I need, sit down to relax with the views.  I am soon in conversation with an Indian guy identified by the red dot at the centre of his forehead.  With excellent English he tells me he is living in Canada.  He has almost completed his New Zealand tour with his Indian wife still darting around with her digi camera aiming in all directions.  Should I ask his impressions?  I have no need to.  He waxes lyrical about the scenery and friendly New Zealanders.  He then tells me of all the countries he can visit, New Zealand is the only one really worth the effort of long travel.  I descent reluctantly but with the feeling the experience had provided a satisfying buzz.  I give into temptation and put James’s $2 change into a large jar and crank a handle.  It is returned in an elongated shape embossed with a clown called “Scotty.”  I will not report James’s response except to say I thought he displayed remarkable restraint.  I suspect if it hasn’t happened already, it will be souvenired from the Tramway petty cash box.

Acknowledging preservation innovation

13 Jun

Every Queens birthday weekend FRONZ (Federation of Railway Organizations of New Zealand) members meet for a catch-up. A key aspect on the event is announcing the annual awards for rail preservation and innovation.
This year Canterbury scored well with Ferrymead taking the Tramway Restoration Award for the Heritage Tramways Trust/Tramway Historical Society restoration of Roslyn No. 1 and the Building Structure Award for recently-opened Tram Barn 3 housing three city trams pending the city tramway re-opening. Congratulations to all involved. Ferrymead arguably turns out some of the world’s finest tramcar restoration projects. Roslyn No. 1, since sent to its owner Otago Settlers Museum, is a fine example. To add “art’’ to Ferrymead’s work is no exaggeration.
Interestingly, this year Weta Workshop presented an award for creativity and innovation to Rotorua-based Rail Cruisers Ltd for a cute high-tech rail vehicle based on a golf course vehicle. The mostly automated petrol-electric cart travels, I suspect, on parts of the railway system no longer in use.

Skypath Reality

1 Jun

I was delighted to hear the Auckland City Council has included the Skypath (cycling and walking facility) across the harbour bridge in the council’s long-term plan.  Skypath has enthusiastic support from Mayor Len Brown and Councilor Mike Lee.  Good on them.  The ultimate idea is to link the North Shore with the CBD.  This will have a positive impact on the waterfront and, particularly, Wynyard Quarter.  Cyclists have pushed for the Skypath for a long time despite continual knock backs from authorities.  One stage cyclists, en-mass, took the law into their own hands and cycled over the bridge.  I have cycled in several countries and across several bridges of similar or larger size having excellent cycling facilities.  Japan has one of the world’s most spectacular cycle/walking facilities crossing the Seto Sea.  The 60 km path includes several magnificent bridges.  After my recent Wynyard Quarter visit I continued on to Perth, a city of similar size and population to Auckland.  Perth has 700 km of cycleways and shared paths, receiving around A$4 million funding annually from the State Government and Local Bodies.  Authorities clearly believe it is an excellent investment.  Usage is typically 300,000  cyclists/walkers every month.  Hopefully we can look forward to a brighter future for active Aucklanders.  The pity of it is a proposed $2 fee for every walker/cyclist crossing when motor vehicles cross free.  But let’s give the thumbs up for a promising start.