Frameworks for considering investment in long distance passenger rail

Decision making is often carried out within a framework of ideology and beliefs. This is especially important for considering investments in long distance passenger rail.


Paul Callister

3/6/20234 min read

In his book review blog ‘Still can’t get there from here: A review of André Brett’s history of passenger rail in New Zealand since 1920’, Ross Clark sets out some of the reasons why we no longer have a long distance passenger rail network in New Zealand. The rise of car ownership and the introduction of cheap flights were key reasons. But while these are very important, this was also happening in countries that kept and improved their passenger rail networks, such as Switzerland and Norway. Ross also sets out the institutional factors that influenced the decline of rail. In a neo-liberal political environment, decision makers decided that passenger rail was a transport idea that had passed its time and that cars and planes were the future.

These decisions were made when there was still relatively little understanding or acceptance of climate change. The floods in Auckland over their anniversary weekend and now the major impact of Cyclone Gabrielle show the clearly the impact of a warming climate. While thoughts turn to adaptation rather than mitigation, including more road building, it is even clearer that we need to reduce emissions throughout the world if we are to prevent the climate crisis becoming even worse.

Various studies suggest that globally we need to reduce our individual annual CO2 emissions to below 3 tonnes. As a guide, the Toitu travel calculators suggest just one return flight from Auckland to Queenstown followed by an Auckland to Wellington flight gets one near the first tonne. A return trip to London doubles the budget. Flying is very emission intensive. Driving in fossil fuelled cars also quickly uses up our allocation. And while having ‘zero-tailpipe emissions’ even electric cars have lots of embedded carbon through the manufacturing process. While it is a challenge for individuals to stay within the emissions budget, many New Zealanders already do. We now need many more to reduce their emissions.

Other studies look at energy budgets. Globally, there are suggestions that the well-off need to significantly reduce their energy consumption while the poor can increase theirs. Research using 2020 estimates suggest a decent living energy to be about 15 gigajoules annually for each person. This is just one-tenth of the average American’s annual energy consumption.

As shown in our first blog, passenger rail helps reduce emissions using very small amounts of renewable energy. It is not possible to make a direct comparison between equivalent uses of aviation and trains, but Ministry of Environment data allows us to compare emissions of all train travel in New Zealand, mainly freight, and all flying domestically, mainly passengers. Between 1990 and 2020, domestic aviation emitted between 5 and 8 times as much C02 as did rail operations.

With more widespread electrification of the rail network these emissions will get even lower. While these types of studies tell us about the past and our current day conditions, much is uncertain especially when projecting out to mid-century, a date used in many emission reduction scenarios.

As we know from the past, decision making is often carried out within a framework of ideology and beliefs. This is especially important for considering investments in long distance passenger rail.

Consider two quite differing frameworks for decarbonisation and energy descent, “degrowth” and “green growth.

What might the ‘green growthers’ say?

Growth in demand for fast and convenient aviation is a natural response to economic growth and society should plan to accommodate it. Material and energy use can grow and be allocated in response to demand. Electric, hydrogen powered or biofuel powered planes are the future and such technological breakthroughs are just around the corner. For batteries, there are enough minerals, especially as we switch to newer and cheaper processes (e.g. away from cobalt and rare earths). We can build enough renewable energy to replace fossil fuels. Biofuels, from waste, wood, algae and corn are the answer for long distance flying and can be quickly scaled up.

What might a degrowth framework tell us?

There are not enough minerals to build either renewable energy nor batteries and other technological advances needed for green growth projects. We cannot build and maintain enough renewable energy to supply ever-rising demand. We will not have breakthroughs in battery technology any time soon that will allow large, longer distance regional electric planes. Biofuels are an environmental disaster taking away valuable land for fuel production, relying on feedstocks that are unsustainable (e.g. palm oil) or in short supply such as used cooking oil. Aviation fuel made from trees is hope rather than a reality any time soon.

Green growth is the dominant policy position around the world, at least insofar as efforts have been made to reduce emissions at all. To degrowthers, the green growth agenda – even if it could be realised – would still not constitute true sustainability. Yet Green growth risks sliding into the extremist fringes of eco-modernism and techo-optimism, the belief that technology and economic growth will solve all environmental and human development challenges without fundamental change to society or affluent lifestyles.

There is a fundamental difference between land transport, where low-emission alternatives from walking to electric trains already exist (but fast enough adoption is still difficult), and air transport, where low-emission alternatives do not yet exist.

There is also another framework that is very important. This could be characterised as ‘freedom of choice’ versus ‘collective responsibility’. At one extreme, the market would decide on future investments with little government intervention, at the other the government has a responsibility to influence or directly fund investments. Three yearly elections tip us collectively in one direction or the other.

An additional uncertainty is future population size in Aotearoa New Zealand. Might it be 10 million or even higher if we take in a significant number of climate refugees? If 10 million people were living in large but compact urban centres then inter-regional rail becomes even more viable.

Decisions to invest in passenger rail is a very long-term investment that goes well beyond political cycles. It has to be made within a range of frameworks and uncertainties.

As a researcher, with an economics background, I hope technology will keep providing us with new breakthroughs, including advances in rail technology. But overall, through my research I am more influenced by the degrowth philosophy. And while markets are good at allocating many resources, government needs to set overall directions and to invest in key areas of infrastructure. This leads me to the conclusion that it is wise for us to now invest in restoring passenger rail in Aotearoa New Zealand. It is why I became involved in The Future Is Rail campaign.