Trucks alone are not the answer.

Trucking and road lobbyists will be happy with the recently released Government Policy Statement (GPS) on Transport. Everyone else should be worried.


Paul Callister

3/21/20244 min read

yellow train near platform
yellow train near platform

Trucking and road lobbyists should be happy with the recently released Government Policy Statement (GPS) on Transport, which strongly favours roads over rail. But to move additional freight onto roads means that more large trucks will be driving on our roads.

The presence of more big trucks on our roads is a risky strategy.

Heavy trucks, storms, and road damage

The first major risk is that large trucks destroy roads but are not required to pay the full cost of this damage. Trucks and other heavy vehicles help create potholes, which require significant amounts of money to mend; at the same time, creating ongoing traffic delays while repairs are being carried out.

In an article prepared for Forbes magazine, physicist, and The Future is Rail member, Laurie Winkless sets out why trucks – and storms intensified by climate change – destroy our roads and why this is likely to worsen. Winkless notes that, in 2010, a National-led government began granting permits for supersize trucks - now called 50MAX trucks - in the name of "productivity gains".

But potholes are only one problem.

A dearth of truck drivers

Where will these extra truck drivers come from?  Unlike trains, which require one driver to haul many containers, trucks can only carry a maximum of two containers. Replacing trains with trucks will require many more drivers. According to a Newsroom article published in 2022, there is already a driver shortage. The average age of a truck driver is 54, with many drivers nearing retirement. It is also a relatively low paid job, often involving long hours, sometimes driving at night. This is not attractive to many younger people, especially those with young families.

Also, trucking is an industry that damages drivers’ health. Research by the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health shows that:

"Long-haul truck drivers may develop health problems because of their work environment. If they get a medical condition that affects their ability to drive, it could cost them their commercial driving license."

These surveys found long-haul truck drivers are more likely to smoke; be overweight; suffer from high blood pressure and diabetes; and to be physically inactive, when compared to other workers. Sitting for long hours, then eating a pie in the middle of the night at a Waiouru truck stop, is not a healthy lifestyle.

Trucks, trains and transport emissions

Every transport policy report should start with the question: ‘How will this strategy help us stay within a goal of 1.5 degrees of global warming?’

According to KiwiRail:

"…every tonne of freight carried by rail has 70 per cent fewer carbon emissions than heavy road freight. Getting more freight on rail also reduces road maintenance costs and improves road safety."

Fossil-fuelled trucks currently contribute to New Zealand’s high transport emissions. As yet, we do not have emission standards for trucks. Trains, even diesel trains, have a much lower per kilometre emissions profile than trucks. Global emission data indicate air freight has the highest emissions at 500 gCO2/tonne, followed by trucks at 83 grams, rail freight at 16 grams, and sea freight, the lowest, at 6 grams.

Low-emission electric trains are already operating throughout the world, as the debate about the decarbonisation of the trucking industry continues. Parts of New Zealand’s main trunk line are already electrified, and battery technology, which can bridge the gaps, is also rapidly improving. We can produce low-emission, renewable electricity locally instead of paying for imported oil.

The benefits of rail freight were recognised in New Zealand’s first Emission Reduction Plan. Target 3 seeks to reduce emissions from freight transport by 35 per cent by 2035, through the implementation of the New Zealand Rail Plan and the greater use of coastal shipping.

The 2021 New Zealand Rail Plan, which was intended to run to 2030, has a ‘strategic investment priority of investing in the national rail network to restore rail freight and provide a platform for future investments for growth’.

Making roads safer

Large trucks, cars, pedestrians, and cyclists are a dangerous mix. In a 2022 article, Heidi O’Callahan establishes the case for shifting freight, including logs, to rail. Reduction in road damage and emissions are key rationale, but so too is road user safety. O’Callahan notes that on some New Zealand roads, people restrict their movements to avoid conflict with heavy trucks.

Even oil producers are investing in trains

Ironically, as our coalition government forges ahead with plans to further downgrade our rail network and to ensure our transport sector is even more reliant on imported oil, major oil producing countries are putting considerable investment into rail, including R&D into ways to make it more sustainable and efficient.

In the Middle East, for example, two large rail events are being held this year. A three-day Etihad Rail event aims to attract about 15,000 decision-makers, 1,000 delegates, and more than 300 exhibiting companies from over 40 countries. Attendees ‘are expected to reflect on the next generation of rail transport, smart systems and the role of artificial intelligence in automating railways.’ A Middle East rail conference will also take place this year. New productivity-enhancing technologies – such as self-driving freight trains which are much closer to becoming operational than are self-driving trucks - are key topics. Some metro services already have self-driving trains.

New technology can revolutionise logistics

KiwiRail has been planning to build a new freight hub near Palmerston North. According to KiwiRail, the hub will use ‘best international supply chain practice and is future focused’. With improvements in robotics and AI, freight handling has the potential to become much more efficient. One design feature of the hub is to accommodate longer, more economical 1,500-metre trains. But investment is needed to achieve such productivity gains. A railway system starved of capital cannot achieve these productivity gains.

The Future is Rail

Daily, we see examples of overseas countries investing in both passenger rail and freight. Emissions reduction is a key reason for this investment, but road safety and transport productivity are also important considerations.

Shifting freight to trucks is an outdated policy. Trains are the future.

Image from NZ Rail Plan