Ben Ross for The Spinoff delves into the business case for greater freight efficiency in South Auckland and says rail destroys roading

Ben Ross for The Spinoff delves into the business case for greater freight efficiency in South Auckland and says rail destroys roading

By Ben Ross*

The business case for greater freight efficiency in South Auckland has finally been released, and it turns out that a new “Third Main” rail line is the best of 10 options. Guess what’s worst? Putting greater reliance on road freight. So why does the government still insist on favouring trucks instead of funding the rail option?

Back in June, KiwiRail refused to release the full business case for building the “Third Main” - a rail track from Otahuhu to Wiri beside the existing two tracks. Instead, it released a heavily redacted version. Now the unredacted version has been released - and its contents are a shocking indictment of government policy.

The purpose of the proposed Third Main is to allow freight trains to have a dedicated track separating them from passenger services on the most congested part of the Auckland rail corridor. For a cost of $65 million, KiwiRail would be able to run six extra freight trains a day and Auckland Transport would be able to move towards getting frequencies for passenger services up to every 10-15 minutes all day. The Third Main would, in theory, also enable better express passenger services between Pukekohe and Britomart once the City Rail Link becomes operable.


The heavily redacted business case was analysed by The SpinoffThe NationGreater Auckland and my own site Talking Southern Auckland. We speculated on what the redacted parts were and why they were redacted in the first place. One theory was that ‘Option Five’ (which was fully redacted) might have been the Metroport facility in Southdown moving, throwing freight movements up into the air. Metroport is owned by Port of Tauranga.

The unredacted business case was released on Tuesday in response to pressure from Harriet Gale of Greater Auckland. It reveals that Option Five was actually building a Third and Fourth Main (two new sets of tracks) at the same time. Here is the previously redacted Option Five:

The NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) uses a “Multi Criteria Analysis” (MCA) to assess funding projects. This was also previously redacted but is now visible. The report reveals that the Third Main had the second-best score in terms of benefits over costs. So what came out as the lead scorer? Here is the MCA:

Building a Third and Fourth Main together (P8 in the table), with a price tag of $200 million, came out first along all criteria lines. Building the Third Main on its own (P9), at a cost of $65 million, was second. Both were well ahead of any other options.

Shifting more freight by road (P3 in the table), which would require upgrading the Southern Motorway, came out worst.

NZTA’s modelling is not as effective in measuring wider benefits and costs as we would like it to be. Just look at the line “Cultural, Social and Environmental Effects”, where all the options are scored 0. That’s a neutral score and shows that cultural, social and environmental effects are not even assessed.

But we know that widening the Southern Motorway should have a negative score because it would result in houses being demolished, congestion getting worse and pollution also getting worse. We also know the two rail options, the Third and Fourth Mains, should have carried a positive score. Both would lead to more efficient freight train operations (economic), mitigated congestion on the motorways (economic and environmental) and more frequent passenger trains. That last one would have economic benefits, cultural benefits (via connectivity and accessibility) and environmental benefits (decongesting the motorway).

Without factoring in a proper analysis of cultural, social and environmental effects, the Fourth Main has a business case ratio (BCR) of +0.8 to +1.1. That’s the best of the 10 options, but it’s not great. But with those effects factored in, the BCR is likely to be +3.0 or more. That’s good.

Conversely, the BCR for relying more on roads (Option Three) is currently given as -1.5 to -2.2. With cultural, social and environmental effects included, those figures would be even worse.

In fact, if you look back at the Multi Criteria Analysis, the gulf between the Third and Fourth Mains and all other options is enormous. The new mains have double digit positive scores. All other options have negative scores.


So, two questions.

1. Why was the business case redacted – especially for the Fourth Main?

The answer is surely politics. It seems to come down to an attempt to protect the position taken by the government.

The redacted material wasn’t commercially sensitive and nor would its publication have harmed the free and frank debate between officials and the minister. Instead, it contains a clear-cut case to build the Third and Fourth Mains as quickly as possible, and definitely before the CRL opens (2023 on current estimates).

The redacted MCA also completely demolishes the roads-first argument, with clear implications for the future of the proposed East-West Link (currently before a Board of Inquiry, with no business case and a BCR of 0.96).

2. Why does the government persist with the option of more roads for more road freight?

This question has been asked repeatedly by all the media organisations and many analysts following the issue, including politicians at central and local level representing nearly all non-government parties. The report discussed here was jointly prepared for the government by the NZ Transport Agency, KiwiRail and Auckland Transport. It recommends – that is, they all recommend – that the extra rail line or lines be built as quickly as possible.

The government’s continued support of the road freight industry in preference to expanding the role of rail, in the face of the data in this report, makes a complete mockery of its claim to prudent economic management. It makes, instead, a pretty good case for incompetence, or cronyism, or both.

Remember, it’s recently been announced we’re getting more passenger trains and more infrastructure to enable more housing in Southern Auckland. On top of the growing demand for freight trains, the case for building the Third and now Fourth Mains will soon be desperate.

By the way, the government’s infatuation with motorways and highways that look like motorways has produced a new set of drawings for that proposed East-West Link. NZTA wants it to look like this:


Instead of the best kind of rail, we’re currently on track to get this: the worst kind of road. And it’s going to cost around 10 times as much as the Third and Fourth Mains.


*Ben Ross is a guest writer for The Spinoff. This article first ran on The Spinoff here and is used with permission.

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Got to get those big trucks off the road. Pop the container off the ship, straight onto the wagon, down Auckands third rail, and it can be in Otago in less than two days.

Why not just direct the ship to go straight to Dunedin?

It has to get back on a boat anyway to cross the straight.

And what makes you think shippers are consigning freight to Otago to Auckland ???

The corporate fascists know which side their bread is buttered. Don't bite the hand that feeds you.
So much for the FAUX shock of M.T's 'breaking the law to feed her child'. This Govt steals JUST to get a bit FAR the greater crime !!!
Remember Apatheid etc was legal. Immoral is immoral whether it is illegal or NOT.
All it takes for EVIL to succeed is for good people to do nothing !!

For most cargo, trucks will always be more efficient. This stems from the fact that even if you use a train, you still need a truck to move the cargo to/from the train. Why load/unload a truck, then load/unload a train, then load/unload a truck again? When you can just load/unload the truck once.

This begs other questions. How much do trucks endanger car users versus trains thus do they impact upon our health services? Does vibrational damage to roadside homes from heavy trucks help to outweigh their presumed benefits? Will it become necessary to bring back rail powered by electricity? Fusion is starting to look like a possibility within a few decades.

You aren't really comparing apples to apples. Also as per my original post, you aren't removing the trucks from around town, only from between towns.

It doesn't matter if it is Truck v Car or Train v Car, the car is going to lose. Most statistics also show in both cases it is nearly always the cars fault.

Electric trains? what about electric trucks?

Vibrational damage? I grew up 10m from the main trunk line. Let me tell you for a fact, a fully laden Freight train would vibrate the house like a small earthquake. A semi-trailer down the street would barely register. Granted the main road was substantially noisier than the train in general terms. i.e. 24/7 traffic v 5-10 freight trains a day. But the vibration was minimal from the road.

electric trucks are already being made, within ten years they will make up a large amount of the smaller delivery trucks and vans, especially since businesses have the ability to produce and store their own power

How far are you moving the consignment?
If you do not differentiate between a 30km and a 300km movement then it is either Ill thought out or just plain muddle brained. Also there are wide differences between small packages to multiple places and large or bulk units.
They have obviously analysed the make up of the cargo to get to the result.

I look at Europe and the UK. Probably the most extensive rail network on earth. Yet most of their cargo still travels by truck.Why? As with all forms of transport, the longer the distance the better relative economy/efficiency/environmental impact.

A truck going 30km, followed by a train going 240km, followed by a second truck going 30km. Is never going to be more efficient than a single truck travelling 300km. Add in the additional handling at each step and the solitary truck is even more effective.

Make those trucks electric, and it is better again.

Yes, for certain cargo rail makes sense, but it is relatively limited and heavily reliant on existing rail infrastructure.

They had a similar problem with trade ships a few decades back.
I'm sure someone could think of a standard container that can be easily transferred at the nodes; IF they wanted to.
And p.s. That excludes ALL THE MANY problems caused by trucks on our POOR 3rd world quality roads (outside of the major cities).

Few trucks are door to door. Most are truck to depot , depot to linehaul, linehaul to next dept , depot to door. Auckland to paeroa (120 k.m)is normally 2 trucks , sometimes 3.
Mainfreight use rail to replace the linehaul truck in some cases.

that's not only linehaul, a lot of local courier cartage and high volume trucking is truck to depot then to another truck / van but rail can not do that work
local deliveries for containers are normally point to point as that is the most efficient movement. there is one large company that rails containers from the ports of Auckland to thei depot (penrose) then truck to delivery in south Auckland. it is far more efficient so there is a place for rail/truck for high volumes

I gather about 80% of the freight landing in Auckland is destined to end up less than 100 km from the port.

Trains are simply not an option.

20% of the freight landing in Auckland is a big deal - rather have it on a train where practical than sit behind it in my car for a minimum 100Km

Don't get me wrong - I'm a big choo-choo fan too-too.

But it's horses for courses (to mash up ze Metaphors), so it really depends on 'freight' definitions. Obviously a full container, carted by rail off the docks and de-vanned at say MetroPort, then its contents put on a curtainsider B-train and carted to five different supermarkets, is a whole different proposition to one destined, in its entirety, to a manufacturer with their own rail siding, in which case a single mode will do.

Rail simply doesn't go where much, perhaps most, of freight destinations actually are. It's like the telco's and the 'last mile' of copper. Roads are always going to handle that, at least until drones can waft a 2-TEU load to its destination.

And the vulnerability of rail is well demonstrated by the Kaikoura earthquake, which has wiped out any notion of north-south single-mode transport for what will turn out to be well over a year. That same vulnerability is termed a 'systempunkt' by John Robb ( and is a natural civil-disorder target. One metre of rail missing from a line, and everything on it stops. Roads, being a network/mesh configuration, always have alternatives, at least for the flows that matter.

That's not to say that Awks should not have its 3rd or 4th main freight-dedicated line. But at least be realistic about the limitations of a 2000-year-old technology (yes, it's that old - see

Because y'all need FMCG, and that don't arrive to retail destinations by rail - or cargo bicycles.

If you can put a container on a train to a port then its only one truck transfer. If it came off a boat and str8 onto rail then again one truck transfer.
The government is weird on rail. They bought it back but dont want to use it. I think the economic benefits of a massive truck fleet and more and more roads is addictive for tax take and spending. Its really the life blood of our economy. From a business model case like the one above its easy to see that rail has widespread benefits not least less congestion and less pollution. Rail has the potential to take ten of thousands of trucks off our roads but would also put hundreds of thousands out of work in the roading and trucking sectors.
It would be good if governments were honest but then they might not get elected.

"hundreds of thousands out of work in the roading and trucking sectors: - seems like an exaggeration or the second word should be "OR". But point taken - definitely weird. Rail will take a subset of freight and maybe a small subset at that. However it will take the heaviest, the bulkiest, the longest distance freight. So even the most fervent road lovers should welcome rail freight. It would pay for its self merely by reducing road maintenance costs - I vaguely remember from school that one heavy truck going round a corner exerts more destructive force dragging the tarmac out wider than several thousand cars.

Problem for rail is that the steel rails are only available for one operator. The rail network should be split into a service organisation (even part of Land Transport Roading network) that maintains and expands the steel roading network. The commercial arm should be sold off and the steel road network opened up to fright operators. Let the likes of Mainfreight, Fonterra, Naked Bus, Intercity, etc, run their own trainsets on the public steel roads.

Furhter problem for rail is that there is now only one Cook Straight ferry that can carry rail wagons. Put more loading on the national rail network and more ferries are needed.

This is precisely the Oz model. Take a gander at 'Australian Railroads' on Discovery, and you will see that many single-purpose operators (wheat, coal, ore) run their own loco's and rolling stock on commonly owned and maintained railbeds. There's a good authoritative summary here:

Excuse my ignorance but how much does a large truck (container or logging) pay per year/per trip/per kilometre towards upkeep of the roads and construction of new ones?

All depends on the exact vehicle type, number of axles, number of trailers.

A typical B-train - Type 6 tractor 12-18 tonne with 3 axles, towing a type 929 leading trailer (any weight) with two close-spaced twin-tyred axles, and a Type 29 second close-coupled trailer > 10 tonnes with 2 close-spaced twin-tyred axles - will set you back 51c/km. There's a pictorial definition here:

For simplicity, think of this rig as a Linfox curtainsider, delivering FMCG to your local supermarket. 'You are following another Fox'.

That compares with 6.2c/km for your typical Remmers Tractor.

The calculator is here

You need to know your regs, here.

But we know that widening the Southern Motorway should have a negative score because it would result in houses being demolished, congestion getting worse and pollution also getting worse. We also know the two rail options, the Third and Fourth Mains, should have carried a positive score. Both would lead to more efficient freight train operations (economic), mitigated congestion on the motorways (economic and environmental) and more frequent passenger trains. That last one would have economic benefits, cultural benefits (via connectivity and accessibility) and environmental benefits (decongesting the motorway).

It "should" do.

Unfortunately we are Auckland, so it doesn't.

In Auckland we have a development plan until 2040. All new suburbs (with one tiny exception) will be constructed far away from the electrified rail network. The new suburbs are to be single dwelling sprawl, disconnected from public transport networks and reliant upon private transportation. Rail will not mitigate congestion, rail is not more efficient, rail will not benefit the planned Auckland. Cars and trucks are going to become ever more pervasive - Auckland needs more roads.

Damage to roads is roughly equivalent to the axle weight to the fourth power. This is why road tax is calculated by number of axles and vehicle weight.

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