Leaked documents, anonymous sources, government lobbying – the events that led to the reversing of KiwiRail’s decision to decommission its electric locomotives and replace them with Chinese diesel machines sounds more like a John le Carré novel than a public works project.

Greater Wellington Regional Councillor Dr Roger Blakeley DistFEngNZ (Life)

Greater Wellington Regional Councillor Dr Roger Blakeley DistFEngNZ (Life)

Fifty years ago, New Zealand Railways made the prescient decision to construct electric traction over a substantial proportion of the North Island Main Trunk (NIMT) railway line. It’s now considered to be one of the most significant development projects in our history. Since completion in the 1980s, the route has been serviced by diesel locomotives from Auckland to Te Rapa, just north of Hamilton: by electric locomotives from Te Rapa to Palmerston North: and by diesel locomotives from there to Wellington. 

In 2016, KiwiRail made the decision to scrap the electric locomotives and buy new diesel machines, stating it would simplify the fleet, improve efficiency, be cost effective, and remove the need to change locomotives en route. But a group of determined engineers felt this was the wrong decision, and their protestations and professional knowledge helped get it overturned by a Cabinet decision in October 2018. 

“I saw [then] KiwiRail Chief Executive, Peter Reidy, on TV explaining the KiwiRail Board decision in December 2016 and thought it was a terrible decision,” says civil engineer and Greater Wellington Regional Councillor Dr Roger Blakeley DistFEngNZ (Life).

Roger says when KiwiRail was asked about the climate change impact, its response was it was advantageous because the diesels would be more reliable and attract more freight from the road. But Roger says refurbishing the electric trains would bring the same benefits, without the associated emissions.

He and fellow civil engineers Alex Gray FEngNZ, and Past President of Engineering New Zealand Bob Norman DistFEngNZ, (who is former Commissioner of Works and State Services Commissioner) along with electrical consultant Keith Flinders, resolved to have the decision revisited. They wrote an opinion piece for the Dominion Post in March 2017, initially advocating that the electric locomotives be replaced by dual-mode electric-diesel locomotives, and, in the longer term, the rest of the NIMT be electrified. Under the Official Information Act, they applied to then Minister of Transport, Simon Bridges, for the board papers on which the KiwiRail decision was based, getting a heavily redacted version.

Documents given to TVNZ, however, revealed that a KiwiRail internal report and one external report by Australian engineering company WorleyParsons had been critical of the decision, Roger says.

He says he was anonymously given the complete unredacted reports, which included reference to trials on the time it takes to change the locomotives at Te Rapa and Palmerston North. While 40 minutes was scheduled for change of locomotives at each terminal, in the trials, it  took between five and 10 minutes. 

“The total extra time of between 10 and 20 minutes per journey was compensated by the faster speed of the electric locomotives.” 

And he says refurbishment of the electric locomotives was the cheaper option.

Doggedly, Roger and his cohorts contacted numerous people with influence in New Zealand rail, from union officials and MPs, to environmental activists. They  challenged the proposed benefits of standardising the fleet and the quality, efficiency and reliability of the diesel locomotives. 

If they had gone ahead, they would have jeopardised the future of fully electrifying the North Island Main Trunk line.

“But in September 2018, we were told the new diesel locomotives were already on the ship on the way out here, so that was a bit distressing for us.”

They then upped the ante, writing to the top echelons of government, including Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Scrapping the electric locomotives would mean pouring an additional 12,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year into the atmosphere, which was at odds with the Labour/New Zealand First Government policy of zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

“Once the Prime Minister got involved, things started to move more quickly and the announcement was made in October 2018 that the 15 electric locomotives would be retained and refurbished in KiwiRail’s workshops. We were delighted with that outcome.”

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters said refurbishing these trains in New Zealand was looking to the future of our environment and economy, and that replacing electric locomotives with diesel would have been a step backwards.

Roger says decommissioning the electric locomotives in favour of diesel would have damaged the country’s international reputation. 

“If they had gone ahead with it, they would have jeopardised the future of fully electrifying the North Island Main Trunk line.” 

Roger has devoted much of his professional career to transport strategy and the environment, and his vision for the future of New Zealand transport is focused on rail. 

“It is a much better way to move both people and freight around.” 

He would like to see the entire NIMT electrified, and says retaining the electric locomotives was the first step.

“The next step is to electrify the lines from Te Rapa to Papakura over the coming years, and the ‘golden triangle’, between Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga,” he says.

“Then the whole North Island main lines would be electrified.”

Roger says climate change effects will require adaptive action on the network itself. For example, the line on the edge of Wellington harbour and other low-lying areas will require protection from rising sea levels and more frequent storm surges.

Rail, he says, is an efficient, environmentally sound transport mode that offers the best customer experience. 

“It also offers great benefits to tourism and freight and is an attractive low carbon alternative to cars and trucks.”

This story originally appeared in EG magazine. To subscribe to EG, email hello@engineeringnz.org.