Letter to NZ Transport Ministers Re Low-Carbon Inter-Regional Transport Options under Alert Level 2

Letter to NZ Transport Ministers Re Low-Carbon Inter-Regional Transport Options under Alert Level 2

Tēnā kōrua Hon Phil Twyford (Minister of Transport) and Hon Julie Anne Genter (Associate Minister of Transport),

We’re writing to you to express our concerns about inter-regional transport options during Alert Level 2 and to inquire how the Government will address the cancellation of train and bus services during this time?

We run a project called The Rubbish Trip. Since 2017 we’ve travelled the length and breadth of NZ giving free talks and presentations about how individuals can reduce their household rubbish. We are committed to evidence-based sustainability actions in all aspects of our life and work, including transport. We run The Rubbish Trip strictly without flying and are members of the international group, No-Fly Climate Sci and local Facebook group Fly-Less Kiwis. For about 18 months we had a small car to get between main centres, but since October 2018 we went car-free (a decision which reduced our annual transport emissions by 1.8 tonnes of C02e). Since then, we have transported ourselves nationwide exclusively through inter-regional buses, very occasionally inter-regional trains (mostly outside our budget), ferries, cycling, walking and hitchhiking.
Of course, the travelling component of The Rubbish Trip is currently on hold and will not recommence under Alert Level 2. We raise our approach to transport above because it’s led us to learn a lot about how difficult (and, frankly, unglamourous) it is to travel in a low-carbon way between (and also within) regions in New Zealand. We’re sure that’s not news to you.

How does this relate to Alert Level 2? 

As you may be aware, Intercity has announced they will not be operating at Alert Level 2. KiwiRail will not resume its inter-regional services (which it calls “tourist trains“) until 30 June at the earliest (despite this being a great opportunity to pivot from being tourist-focused to local passenger/commuter focused). However, flights ARE operating. Sure, not as many flights as usual, but it looks like flying will be the only option for inter-regional transport unless people drive themselves or go nowhere.

Our understanding is that the disappearance or reduction of these inter-regional transport services under Alert Level 2 relates to social distancing requirements making ordinary operations financially unsustainable for these businesses. In relation to KiwiRail, it may also relate to the organisation’s long-standing reluctance to see the inter-regional train component of its operations as anything other than a tourist service (even though there are NZers who chose to use services like Northern Explorer to travel for work purposes, despite the eye-watering prices).

The bottom line is that in this day and age, after all we have been through and all we have learnt during lockdown, it cannot be possible that inter-regional travel recommences in New Zealand, with the only options available to the nation being the high-carbon options of flying or driving a personal car.

What can the Govt do to address this?

One option seems to be to step in and subsidise these services temporarily (presuming that people are going to need to move around – and certainly if the govt wants to promote domestic tourism). This would also support the jobs in these businesses that would otherwise not be operating. We’re open to hearing what other plans you might have. Perhaps further nationalising these services could be another option.

Why is this important?

We are at a turning point in global history. Government failure to support alternatives to flying right now throws into question any sustainable reset for Aotearoa or the chance to direct New Zealanders towards alternatives to flying. Sure, the alternatives we have right now are very far from perfect, but they are absolutely better than nothing. 

Our view is that this is pressing. As a nation we must start Alert Level 2 how we mean to carry on and create a precedent. If people are going to be permitted to travel between regions under Alert Level 2 (regardless of whether we think they should or not), it can’t be on planes alone. Furthermore, it can’t be argued that planes are inherently safer when it comes to this virus’ transmission than buses or trains (although some people may incorrectly infer this from the current situation). Everything needs to be on the same playing field.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Ngā mihi,

Hannah Blumhardt and Liam Prince

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