THE LAST MILE - Plato was onto something

Thursday, August 20, 2020

From time to time when a Bill is passing through Parliament, a Bill that holds a special interest for me, I read through the submissions made to the Select Committee and the debate reports in Hansard. In reading through these it often becomes quite clear that many of the speakers, our elected or otherwise appointed representatives, have little real-world knowledge or experience but just talk because it is expected of them. Plato (427 to 348/347 BC) observed, “Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something”. A recent Bill I have taken an interest in is the Land Transport (Rail) Amendment Bill; this is the Bill that will legalise the government taking money from the National Land Transport Fund to subsidise rail. Gareth Hughes, Green Party, made one of the speeches in support of the proposals in the Bill. Plato’s description fits this speech to a tee. Hughes states “rail has been robbed for decades and decades in this country. Rail has been underfunded”. This may be the opinion of some, but robbing those who pay to use our roads to create an artificial, effectively subsidised, market is not justification for what this Bill intends to do.

“Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something”
Plato (427 to 348/347 BC)

Mr Hughes again: “It [rail] was deliberately, systematically underfunded, de-invested, and I would actually say sabotaged by that side [the National Party], who has an anti-rail ideology; who would rather put on a pedestal their mates in the Road Transport Forum New Zealand and their profits.” What profits? Perhaps this perception, that our industry is profiteering, is behind the anti-truck ideology of the current administration. Another comment: “I’m angry about this because we know we’ve got an incredibly high road toll in New Zealand. I’ve had whanau who have been killed because of truck accidents on our road, and what we see is too many trucks on our road [carrying freight] that could be more safely carried on rail, more efficiently carried on rail, more sustainably carried on rail.” Nobody would argue that road crashes are a blight on our society. I am not sure when Hughes last checked but, if he did, I am sure he would find that trucks, and cars for that matter, whether they are electric or not, do not cause accidents. They are inanimate things and do not do anything without human intervention. Maybe this will change when we get fully automated vehicles, but for now, accidents involving trucks and cars are the result of a breakdown somewhere in the human chain that is in control of them at the time. So let’s get it right: don’t blame the tools, blame the people in control of the tools.

Perhaps Hughes, and others like him who keep blaming trucks for most things that are that are wrong with the world, are basing their thinking on this piece that appeared in Pearson’s Magazine in 1900: “Dead and mangled citizens – think how impassable the streets will be when thousands of motor cars are rushing along at the high rate of speed they invariably adopt. A horse does not run down a man if he can help it, but a machine of steel and brass will delight in killing people. The path of a runaway motor will be strewn with dead and mangled citizens, and when it finally runs into a lamp post and blows up, the explosion will be worse than that of a fifteen-inch shell.” Further in his speech Hughes suggests, “it’s like these guys [those opposing the Bill] have been in a time machine to the 1950s, and then in that time machine, in a cave, they’re still putting their hands over their eyes and fingers in their ears”. Of course, it is convenient to forget that during the period Hughes refers to rail had a regulated monopoly over freight movements, regulations that were only removed because of the need for a more efficient freight system. It is also convenient to forget that during the period before deregulation, rail never made any money, it was more of a social
service than a business.

Another line from the speech: “If you look anywhere around the world, you see governments investing in rail, you see countries using rail, you see citizens and freight being moved on rail.” New Zealand is a collection of islands tucked away at the bottom of a vast ocean – an ocean across which most of the goods we consume and rely on, including many staple food items, is carried. We also send most exports that generate money to buy these items across that ocean. To support this we need a timely, reactive, and cost-effective internal freight system. One that is currently – and has been for many years – provided by our road freight operators. A freight system that is not confined to a thin strip of steel but a system that the customer can depend on, with the flexibility to rapidly adapt to changing conditions. The Bill will be passed – the planned date for its incorporation into law is 1 July 2020 – and rail will then legally be able to piggy-back on the work and efforts put in by our road freight industry, an industry that has always risen to the challenges to provide the services that keep New Zealand fed and moving.