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Month: February 2018

KiwiRail shakes off impact of Kaikoura earthquake to post improved earnings

Kiwirail posted half-year revenue of $292.7m, down 1.9 per cent down on the previous year.
Kiwirail posted half-year revenue of $292.7m, down 1.9 per cent down on the previous year.

Disruption to South Island rail services caused by the November 2016 Kaikoura earthquake masked a continuation in improved operating earnings from state-owned railway operator KiwiRail in the six months to December 31.

The company reported an operating surplus of $15 million for the period, which would have come in at $40m once the one-off costs associated with the closure of the main trunk line between Picton and Christchurch were stripped out.

While quake impacts would still be felt in the second half of the current financial year, KiwiRail was still on track to deliver operating earnings of between $30m and $50m, said chief executive Peter Reidy.

In the previous comparable period, which included the first few weeks of the outage caused by the massive Kaikoura quake, KiwiRail reported operating earnings of $11m, or $23m underlying once quake impacts were backed out.

As always, the national rail carrier did not report a statutory profit on its activities, reporting a $193m loss for the half-year.

That reflects the fact that revenue earned “above rail” is always far lower than would be required to fully maintain the capital-intensive network.

However, the importance of maintaining a rail network for wider economic and national interest reasons means both the previous and present government accept KiwiRail will always make accounting losses.

The result for the half-year was achieved on revenue of $292.7m, 1.9 per cent down from the $298.3m recorded in the last six months of 2016, and reflecting the fact that the Kaikoura link was only restored in September 2017.

Operating expenses, at $277.4m, were 3.5 per cent lower than in the previous comparable period.

Ports revenue from KiwiRail’s trucking and rail services was up 16 per cent on the half-year, which chairman Trevor Janes said was a “strong result” when placed against overall container volume growth of 7 per cent nationally in the same period.

Forestry revenues rose 8 per cent as the so-called ‘wall of wood’ from maturing plantation forests starts to come on-stream.

Dairy industry and coal volumes rose, contributing to a 6 per cent increase in bulk freight revenue.

Poor weather and “significant and unexpected” repair costs on the company’s ageing South Island locomotive fleet contributed to a “messy” six months, Janes said.

KiwiRail was “working closely with the government on the urgent need for longer-term funding for the organisation, which is critical for efficient procurement, planning and safety”.

The Interislander ferries showed a 12 per cent increase in commercial vehicle ‘lane metres’ as more freight had to travel by road while the rail outage persisted, while passenger revenue rose 7 per cent and yields on vehicle crossings improved.

Reidy said KiwiRail was targeting operating savings of $7m this year, building on $45m of productivity improvements in the last two years.

Announcements relating to the revival of some mothballed regional rail services are expected when the government unveils detail of its $1 billion a year regional economic development fund, in Gisborne, on Friday.

Electric car charging stations on the rise in New Zealand

Kiwis driving electric cars are more confidently going on longer cruises because of a roll out of easy to find charging stations, the Transport Agency says.

It said New Zealand now had about 6,500 electric vehicles around the country.

A prototype video from Tesla shows an arm which finds its own way into the charging port of an electric vehicle.

There were 91 charging stations on our state highways as of the end of January, the NZTA said in a statement.

“Prominent signage along our state highways shows everyday Kiwis and visitors to New Zealand that driving, and charging, an electric vehicle is as easy and convenient as any conventional vehicle,” the agency’s Harry Wilson said.

It’s also better for the environment.

Driving an electric car created 80 per cent fewer carbon emissions than a petrol or diesel car because of New Zealand’s large supply of renewable electricity, he said.

“Supporting the uptake of electric vehicles in New Zealand and encouraging people to make the switch to electric is crucial to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from our transport sector,” he said.

It comes as there were 91 rapid charging stations along New Zealand’s state highways as of January.

The transport agency hopes to eventually have the stations located every 75kms along major routes, with these rapid charging stations – using direct current or DC – to be supplemented by slower-charging alternating current (AC) stations.

“There is also an ever increasing number of public charging stations popping up around New Zealand – at shopping malls, airports, supermarkets and even some petrol stations,” Mr Wilson said.

Germany to fight pollution with free public transportation

Commuters board a Regio train at a railway station in Berlin.

KRISZTIAN BOCSI /BLOOMBERG
Commuters board a Regio train at a railway station in Berlin.

When the discussion turns to the rising costs of living in many global cities, one factor rarely goes unmentioned: public transport fees.

New Yorkers only spend about $116.50 per month on average, compared with up to $200 in London.

Many Germans, however, might soon have to spend a whooping $0.

The country of parental leave, short work weeks and Lederhosen may soon embark on a bold, new experiment: making public transport free.

For a start, residents of five middle-sized cities are expected to benefit from the scheme this year, but it could eventually result in the end of bus or subway tickets across the country.

The plans are included in a letter the German government sent to European Union officials, and was obtained by a number of news agencies and media outlets.

So far, experiments with free public transport have usually been short-lived.

When Paris was plagued by thick smog in 2014, authorities responded with an unprecedented idea – banning half of all cars and making public transport free.

But the measures only lasted one week. Limited experiments with free public transport were eventually also stopped in Portland and Seattle.

Germany’s latest, and more radical plans are similarly supposed to solve the lingering problem of air pollution in German cities, which recently prompted the threat of major EU fines.

More than 130 cities in Europe are currently affected by “life-threatening” air pollution, according to the European Commission.

They are believed to be responsible for about 400,000 deaths each year in the European Union.

And even though Germany is far from being Europe’s most polluted nation, the topic is taken more seriously here than in most other places which have repeatedly breached EU limits on nitrogen dioxide and fine particles.

In Germany, the topic also gained renewed attention after the Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal became public in 2015, which implicated the car manufacturer in having engaged in a deliberate effort to make its products appear more environmentally friendly than they were.

In Germany’s capital Berlin, where standard monthly public transport tickets now carry the name “eco-ticket,” those revelations have triggered an unprecedented willingness to confront the country’s powerful car lobby.

“We are considering public transport free of charge in order to reduce the number of private cars,” three German government ministers wrote in their recent letter to the EU, according to AFP.

“Effectively fighting air pollution without any further unnecessary delays is of the highest priority for Germany.”

Those plans would be costly, as many German transport companies currently finance about 50 percent or more of their earnings through ticket sales.

Instead, under the new scheme, the government would be expected to jump in to shoulder the burden, which would ultimately make public transport an almost fully tax-funded system.

The free public transport plans would be complemented by other measures, such as car-sharing schemes or expanded low-emissions zones within cities.

In Germany – a nation where cars drive on autobahns without a speed limit – the move might convince many vehicle owners to take the subway instead, the government hopes.

But it could also overburden public transport networks in major cities such as Berlin, Hamburg or Munich that are already bustling during rush hours.

The plans, some fear, would result in an exponential rise in associated costs because of costly network expansions.

And would money alone be sufficient to get Germany’s public transport ready for the possible influx?

Berlin’s new airport, for example, was supposed to open six years ago.

It’s now set to welcome air travellers by 2020.

The never-ending saga of the airport continues to highlight the country’s struggle with large-scale infrastructure projects – or perhaps this is all part of an ingenious plot to force Germans to book environmentally-friendly trains instead of polluting planes.

Hamilton to Auckland transport corridor ‘near top of list’

Waikato's transport corridor to Auckland is a priority for the Labour-led government.

NZTA
Waikato’s transport corridor to Auckland is a priority for the Labour-led government.
 Transport Minister Phil Twyford has called mayors from Waikato and Auckland to the Beehive to discuss the commuter rail plan, in the most concrete sign yet of central government support for an Auckland Hamilton link.

Hamilton City, Waikato District and Waikato Regional councils will meet with New Zealand Transport Agency bosses, Waikato-Tainui, Auckland Council and KiwiRail for a 2-hour hui at Twyford’s Beehive office on February 26, said Hamilton-based Labour List MP Jamie Strange.

“It will be with Minister Phil Twyford particularly, as minister for housing and transport, and Nanaia Mahuta,” Strange said.

Transport Minister Phil Twyford is meeting with key players in the Hamilton to Auckland transport equation.

BRADEN FASTIER/STUFF
Transport Minister Phil Twyford is meeting with key players in the Hamilton to Auckland transport equation.
“The Minister is keen for investment in our region around transport particularly rail but roading and housing as well.”

Waikato Regional Council included commuter rail in its draft long term plan in January. Hamilton City Council has already made investment in a park and ride site and want 75 per cent of funding, for the proposed interim service, to come from central government.

Hamilton City Mayor Andrew King is confident the commuter rail initiative will go through.

TOM LEE/STUFF
Hamilton City Mayor Andrew King is confident the commuter rail initiative will go through.
The meeting will look at integrating light and heavy rail with roads and housing to capitalise on Hamilton and Waikato’s growth.

The transport corridor between the cities offers huge untapped potential, Strange said, and will be an important location for the government’s KiwiBuild programme which aims to roll out 100,000 new homes in 10-years with half of them in Auckland.

Collective work done with Waikato councils – the Waikato Plan and the Future Proof document – have mapped a path for central government to follow.

Waikato Regional Council chairman Alan Livingston says work around transport in Waikato is dovetailing nicely.

STUFF
Waikato Regional Council chairman Alan Livingston says work around transport in Waikato is dovetailing nicely.

“There is a strong sense of unity in our region among councils. This certainly building on what’s been done there.”

The Labour-led government is prioritising rail between Hamilton and Auckland. In a list of rail projects government is looking at, the Hamilton to Auckland corridor is “near the top of the list”, he said.

Hamilton Mayor Andrew King said things are moving in the right direction.

The Rail Opportunity Network spokeswoman Susan Trodden is surprised by the speed the government is moving.

KELLY HODEL/STUFF
The Rail Opportunity Network spokeswoman Susan Trodden is surprised by the speed the government is moving.
“I’m confident we will get there,” King said. “It’s something central government wants and Hamilton City Council is working very closely with neighbouring Waikato District and Waikato Regional councils and between us all, I think we are all aligned.”

Waikato Regional Council chairman Alan Livingston said the transport corridor is a strategic look at opportunities that could open up for the region.

“Everything is dove tailing nicely, Livingston said. “Central government is looking for support and direction and it’s working, from a timing perspective, ideally.”

Spokeswoman for rail advocate group The Rail Opportunity Network Susan Trodden is not surprised by the meeting but is moving faster than anticipated.

“Government are really wanting to make it happen this year, as promised, and now it’s been built into the 10-year plan for the regional council, and Hamilton City Council are committing time and money and space, there is the opportunity to step forward,” Trodden said.

Stink bugs discovered on board fourth ship destined for NZ

The Sepang Express vehicle transport vessel, with red hull, docked at Ports of Auckland.

The Sepang Express vehicle transport vessel, with red hull, docked at Ports of Auckland.
 Stink bugs have been found on a fourth ship bound for New Zealand.

Two types of stink bug were found on the car carrier Glovis Caravel, operated by Japanese shipping company Mitsui OSK Lines, on the weekend.

The ship, bound for the Ports of Auckland, was redirected on Wednesday after a check conducted at sea, the company’s pure car carrier (PCC) manager Malcolm Jackson said.

“We decided not to risk bringing that bug to New Zealand.”

Jackson said the company was now looking for ports in Australia where the ship could be fumigated of its brown marmorated and yellow-spotted stink bugs.

The brown marmorated stink bug poses a risk to apples, kiwifruit, corn, tomatoes, cherries and wheat.

The brown marmorated stink bug poses a risk to apples, kiwifruit, corn, tomatoes, cherries and wheat.
 Three car carriers have already reached New Zealand’s shores with stink bug infestations this month: Armacup​’s Tokyo Car, Mitsui OSK Line’s Courageous Ace, and Toyofuji’s Sepang Express.

All three were turned away.

The port was largely empty of cars on Wednesday.

There are concerns the bug could destroy fruit and vegetable industries.

There are concerns the bug could destroy fruit and vegetable industries.
 “It’s had a huge effect. Just about every manufacturer has been affected into New Zealand,” Jackson said.

“Japan is high-risk and there are some meetings being held very soon to discuss the whole car industry at the moment.”

Jackson said Mitsui OSK had conducted a check of all ships bound for New Zealand after bugs were discovered on the Courageous Ace.

An MPI spokeswoman was unable to confirm stink bugs had been found on the Caravel, but a spokesman said earlier in the day that the third ship, the Sepang Express, was found to have 30 dead brown marmorated stink bugs on board and was treated with a knock down spray.

“After this treatment, a further 19 of the bugs were found on the vessel along with other insects.”

The spokesman said the cargo would need to be fully treated before it returned to New Zealand waters.

MPI would hold a meeting with involved parties to discuss the situation and ways to manage the risk, he said.

Ports of Auckland spokesman Matt Ball said there was no impact on the Auckland Council-owned company or its employees, “except for the fact that our vehicle-handling wharves are a bit quieter than usual”.

About 6000 cars and heavy vehicles were unable to be unloaded, but they were expected back once approved for import, he said.

“We may end up having a quiet February and a really busy month when they all come back.”

The noxious pest could cause hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to the New Zealand economy if it made it ashore.

Threatened foods included apples, kiwifruit, corn, tomatoes, cherries and wheat.

It could also invade properties and affect gardens.

Kiwifruit Vine Health (KVH) and Federated Farmers have both expressed concerns over the recent discoveries of stink bugs.

KVH chief executive Barry O’Neil said the brown stink bug could destroy fruit and vegetable industries.

“These are ships that have had hundreds of stink bugs on them and it is nothing like we have seen before.”

Federated Farmers biosecurity spokesman Guy Wigley earlier said the stink bug would have a huge financial impact on farmers if found here.

“I am worried. MPI have had this pest on their radar for a number of years.”

Stink bugs are native insects in Japan and hibernate in contained spaces during the northern hemisphere winter.

The insect releases a chemical when threatened, emitting a pungent odour.

Lyttelton Port hears RMTU planning industrial action

Lyttelton Port of Christchurch (LPC) has heard that the Rail and Maritime Transport Union of New Zealand (RMTU) are planning industrial action.

LPC Chief Executive Peter Davie says the Company has made LPC RMTU members a very generous offer while asking them to accept small changes most of which have already been embraced by their MUNZ colleagues at the Port.

“We are offering annual salary increases of at least 3%. That is almost double the current rate of inflation (1.6%). They are asking for salary increases up to 15.45% for some of their members. These jobs in the Port are all well paid.

“We are a fair and reasonable employer but such salary demands by RMTU are unreasonable. These demands come on top of the substantial salary increases we have given their members over the last three years. The 187 employees who make up 40% of the LPC Container Terminal staff covered by these negotiations received total wage increases of 7.5% during that time.

“We concluded negotiations in 2017 with the other major Union at our Port, theMaritime Union of New Zealand (MUNZ), which 60% of our Container Terminal staff belong to. We agreed with MUNZ more efficient roster alignment in the Container Terminal to support our operations and growing customer needs. We are keen to see these arrangements also adopted by the RMTU so we can continue to improve customer services and remain competitive with other New Zealand ports.

“With our ongoing volume growth there is the need for better mechanical maintenance coverage. We have agreed with the RMTU a roster for these staff which we both find acceptable but we reject their unrealistic wage demand.

“We were very disappointed to hear of the planned industrial action, as negotiations until now have progressed constructively. We would expect that the next step will be mediation and we remain hopeful that we can continue to make progress and reach agreement.”

Thousands of jobs at risk after ships with stink bugs onboard turned away from NZ ports

Tens of thousands of jobs in the car retailing industry are at risk as three ships float aimlessly in the Pacific.

The car carriers have been turned away from New Zealand ports after hundreds of marmorated stink bugs were found on board.

The pest has the potential to destroy the country’s fruit and vegetable industry.

No facility in New Zealand can effectively treat the infested ships.

Vehicle Importers Association chief executive David Vinsen says the car industry understands the danger to agriculture and MPI has done the right thing, but he says it’s causing a huge problem for his industry, which at this time of the year imports about 12,000 vehicles a month.

Vinsen says a disruption like this, even of one to two weeks, has enormous consequences and he’s worried about the jobs of tens of thousands of people who process and sell those vehicles.

Three ships, carrying cars from Japan, have all been turned around at New Zealand ports in the past week.

Vinsen says one has headed to Brisbane but has been told it can’t berth in Australia either.

He says the car industry and shipping companies need to know quickly what happens now.

The brown marmorated stink bug

• The pest is a voracious eater of horticulture produce including apples, grapes and tomatoes

• A wide range of crops would be unmarketable if damaged by the bug. In the US some growers have reported crop losses of up to 95 per cent

• It is resistant to many insecticides, making it difficult and expensive to control

• When it gets cold, the stink bug bunches up in dark spaces in homes making it a major public nuisance

Congestion charges on table in fight against Auckland gridlock

Commuters have been warned Auckland’s gridlock nightmare is set to dramatically escalate, and the thorny issues of congestion charges is back on the agenda as Auckland Council grapples with solutions.

Aucklanders already spend the equivalent of four working weeks, or 160 hours, in traffic, but a new council report prepared for Tuesday’s planning committee meeting reveals motorists should brace for even longer trips to work.

The report said severe congestion is expected to increase by 30 per cent at peak hours, and 50 per cent between the morning and evening peaks.

And while the Waterview Tunnel has successfully reduced congestion, the report warns that could be short-lived.

“This means that Aucklanders’ access to jobs, education and other opportunities will become more difficult,” the report says.

Thousands of Aucklanders have already packed up and left town in the face of the traffic chaos and expensive house prices.

But one of the options mooted to reduce congestion – congestion tolls – could be up to a decade away.

The report is the first in a three-step project which could lead to motorists being charged at different times of the day and in different locations across the city.

The report is the first phase of investigating ways of easing congestion by charging motorists to encourage them to change the time, route or way in which they travel.

The first phase updates the growing congestion problem facing the city, looks at models overseas and recommends moving to the next phase of developing options by August this year. The third phase is expected to recommend a final option. No date has been given for the final report.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson, Transport Minister Phil Twyford and Auckland Mayor Phil Goff have approved the project to proceed to the second phase.

A spokeswoman said Goff had not read the report and could not comment at this stage.

While the first phase found congestion pricing would have a greater potential impact on transport than any transport project, the report said Auckland was heading into “uncharted territory” when it comes to introducing congestion pricing.

If Auckland does proceed with congestion-busting tolls, the report recommends a “bespoke” approach reflecting the city’s geographic, social and transport characteristics and introducing any system in steps.

The report said a number of international cities have successfully introduced congestion pricing but “no ‘New World’ cities with dispersed trips patterns and relatively low density of housing has yet introduced congestion pricing”.

The latest plan for tolls in Auckland comes after the former National Government and Auckland Council decided last June to look at the “taboo” subject of charging motorists at different times of the day and different locations across the city.

Three years earlier the council worked up a tolling scheme that would have seen motorists pay $2 each time they used the motorway, which the Government rejected.

Alarming figures released last year by Auckland Transport show a quarter of the city’s busiest roads, including Lake Rd, Lincoln Rd and routes to the airport are already clogged during the morning and evening peaks and one in three main roads will be congested by 2020.

The morning crawl from Westgate to Nelson St also doubled from 15 minutes to 30 minutes between 2012 and 2016 and the evening peak journey from Hobson St to Te Irirangi Drive has gone from 18 minutes to 24 minutes.

The report to be tabled to the council committee again highlighted congestion levels had appeared to have stabilised since the opening of the Waterview tunnel last July, but the authors revealed they expect that continued growth in demand for travel will see congestion levels increase again.

Journeys from the airport to the CBD via the tunnel in the afternoon peak now take 25 minutes, compared to between 35 and 44 minutes via Manukau Rd and Gillies Ave, according to the New Zealand Transport Agency.

Automobile Association's principal infrastructure adviser Barney Irvine. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Automobile Association’s principal infrastructure adviser Barney Irvine. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Barney Irvine, the Automobile Association’s principal infrastructure adviser, said congestion charging had potential to help get Auckland moving, but warned it was a “complex and controversial business”.

Some of those concerns had come through via survey work of the AA’s Auckland members.

“There’s a lot of impact on the people who can least afford to pay,” he said. “There are also a lot of folk out there who don’t like the idea of paying to drive on roads they have already paid for.

“Congestion charging is a complex and controversial business – that’s why plenty of cities around the world talk about it, but very few have actually implemented it, and none in car-oriented, low-density cities like Auckland.”

He added if politicians could make a strong case for the introduction of congestion charges, then the programme shouldn’t take 10 years to implement.

National Road Carriers boss David Aitken said the industry would be in favour of road pricing on the proviso it made a difference and freed up journey times.

Something had to be done, said Aitken, who was concerned at the prospect of many roading projects in Auckland being canned by the new Government.

Building public understanding and acceptance will be critical to successfully introduce congestion pricing, the report said.

The project was originally called the ‘Auckland Smarter Transport Pricing Project’, but has been renamed ‘The Congestion Question’.

Is it time for a Cook Strait bridge or tunnel?

The Cook Strait is a violent body of water. It’s an exception. Unlike other straits around the world, it has opposite tidal flows at either end. When it’s high-tide on the Tasman side, it’s roughly low-tide on the Pacific side and vice versa

Before the end of the last Ice Age, you might have been able to walk between the two islands – if there had been anyone around to do it. But for the last 20,000 years this strait has divided New Zealand in a way most countries have never known.

What if the country could become physically connected again? Is a Cook Strait bridge or tunnel pure fantasy?

What if the country could become physically connected again? Is a Cook Strait bridge or tunnel pure fantasy? Julian Lee ...

ROBERT KITCHIN/STUFF
There would be far more to gain than just the novelty of being able to take a 27 hour 2,000 kilometre drive from Cape Reinga to Bluff: an immense increase in traffic between the two islands, the untold billions saved in shipping and flying costs, the Marlborough and Wellington areas thriving and booming from increased commerce, the tourist dollars, the sheer convenience of replacing a three-hour ferry ride (and its associated on- and off-loading times) with a short drive.

It’s an idea that’s so outrageous even some of our more seasoned politicians have never heard it being raised before.

But Stuff pitched the idea to Transport Minister Phil Twyford.

Transport Minister Phil Twyford suggested a tunnel would be ruled out by the Alpine Fault and a bridge by the strait's ...

BRADEN FASTIER/STUFF
Transport Minister Phil Twyford suggested a tunnel would be ruled out by the Alpine Fault and a bridge by the strait’s rough waters.
 “This is the first time I’ve heard the idea. I know there is a successful tunnel between the United Kingdom and France, but I would have thought our faultline would rule out a tunnel. It is also a very rough stretch of water, and I’m no engineer, but I suspect that would rule out a bridge,” he said.

Judith Collins, who has National’s transport portfolio, was impressed by the idea, but pointed out an obvious flaw.

“Wow, this is a hugely ambitious and audacious idea. Where would be the fun of a Cook Strait pie in the middle of a howling gale though?” she said.

The idea of having a bridge or a tunnel between Wellington, pictured, and the South Island was raised seriously just ...

ROBERT KITCHIN/STUFF
The idea of having a bridge or a tunnel between Wellington, pictured, and the South Island was raised seriously just once by Premier Richard Seddon in 1904.

It seems to have been seriously raised only once by a New Zealand politician. A long time ago.

Hawke’s Bay Herald article from 1904 said that Premier Richard “King Dick” Seddon had been travelling all over the country bragging about how much money the Government had for grandiose projects, including a tunnel through the Cook Strait .

The unnamed reporter at the time felt it was inappropriate given the large loans New Zealand had taken from London. With a tongue-in-cheek, the reporter said that if Seddon told the public about the reality of the Government’s financial position, they might agree to his tunnel plan some time in the future.

One of the possible routes for a Cook Strait bridge or tunnel: Cape Terawhiti to the peninsula east of Picton, the ...

JULIAN LEE/GOOGLE MAPS
One of the possible routes for a Cook Strait bridge or tunnel: Cape Terawhiti to the peninsula east of Picton, the shortest route between the mainland and the North Island, 27km.
 These days something like 1.1 million people and 350,000 vehicles cross the strait every year with the two ferry companies, Interislander and Bluebridge. Should there be a drive option, many more would be guaranteed to use it – those who would normally fly or not take the trip at all.

With a bridge or tunnel, the prohibitively expensive and time-consuming trip from somewhere like Palmerston North to somewhere like Nelson becomes a drive that could be done in less than five hours.

Ask someone in the know and they will quickly explain that it is a pipe dream.

University of Canterbury structural engineering and materials professor Alessandro Palermo suggests that a "submerged ...

DUNCAN SHAW-BROWN
University of Canterbury structural engineering and materials professor Alessandro Palermo suggests that a “submerged floating tunnel” could be a better option for the strait.
 “I think given the geometry and the morphologies of the strait, a conventional bridge is not possible. The water is extremely deep and the cost will be prohibitive. Tunnelling will also be very expensive.”

That’s from University of Canterbury structural engineering and materials professor Alessandro Palermo – one of New Zealand’s top bridge specialists.

Palermo does have a proposal, but before that, what are we dealing with here? And most importantly, how much would these projects cost?

The Bluebridge and Interislander ferries, seen here in Picton, both take about three hours to cross the often violent ...

STUFF
The Bluebridge and Interislander ferries, seen here in Picton, both take about three hours to cross the often violent stretch of water.
 It is tempting to look at the strait’s narrowest point of just 22km for a potential crossing from Cape Terawhiti to Arapaoa Island in the Marlborough Sounds. That, however, means building a state-highway tier road through the extremely hilly country behind Karori all the way to the coast, another such road across undeveloped Arapaoa Island in the sounds, a bridge across the Tory Channel and another road to get back to State Highway 1.

A 27km bridge or tunnel from the cape directly to the mainland and bypassing Arapaoa, landing on the peninsula east of Picton, would still involve significant roadworks.

If, on the other hand, you wanted to build a link between the two closest developed points (Wellington city and either Picton or Blenheim), the distance is 64km to Picton and 65km to the shoreline just east of Blenheim.

The 2.4km Waterview Tunnel in Auckland, pictured, cost $1.4b, which equates to about $583m per kilometre. For a 27km ...

CALLUM MCGILLIVRAY/STUFF
The 2.4km Waterview Tunnel in Auckland, pictured, cost $1.4b, which equates to about $583m per kilometre. For a 27km tunnel, that’s $15.7b. For a 65km tunnel, that’s $37.9b.
 BRIDGE OR TUNNEL?

Bridges are much cheaper than tunnels. The catch? A bridge would have to withstand a highly turbulent Cook Strait, probable earthquakes and be high enough for ships to get through (or at least able to open up).

A 65km-odd bridge would be New Zealand’s biggest bridge by far. The current longest bridge is Canterbury’s Rakaia Bridge at just 1.8km.

One of the possible routes for a Cook Strait bridge or tunnel: Cape Terawhiti to Arapaoa Island, the shortest point ...

JULIAN LEE/GOOGLE MAPS
One of the possible routes for a Cook Strait bridge or tunnel: Cape Terawhiti to Arapaoa Island, the shortest point between the two islands, 22km.
 It’s so long, in fact, that if it existed it would be the sixth-longest bridge in the world.

But the cost of a bridge is not impossible for New Zealand.

The 38km Lake Pontchartrain Bridge in Louisiana, United States is the longest in the Western world. It cost roughly NZ$561m in today’s dollars. For a 60km-odd long bridge, that would be more than $1 billion.

Looking towards Wellington city - the starting point for a tunnel or bridge?

ROBERT KITCHIN/STUFF
Looking towards Wellington city – the starting point for a tunnel or bridge?
 The 55km Bang Na Expressway in Thailand, which would be closest in size to a Cook Strait Bridge, cost about NZ$1.9b in today’s dollars when it was completed in 2000. Both are a steal compared to the estimated $3.4b cost of Auckland’s City Rail Link.

Tunnels, on the other hand, are much more expensive.

The 2.4km Waterview Tunnel in Auckland cost $1.4b, which equates to about $583m per kilometre. For a 27km tunnel, that’s $15.7b. For a 65km tunnel, that’s $37.9b.

One of the possible routes for a Cook Strait bridge or tunnel: Wellington to Picton, the shortest route between two ...

JULIAN LEE/GOOGLE MAPS
One of the possible routes for a Cook Strait bridge or tunnel: Wellington to Picton, the shortest route between two developed centres, 64km.
 Stuff pitched the strait drive options to the New Zealand Transport Agency (NZTA). A spokesman pointed out that using the Waterview’s costing was probably not worth while.

“Waterview Tunnel went through rigorous business case and cost/benefit analysis. It’s hard to imagine a serious case for a Cook Strait tunnel that would be more than 10 times longer and three times deeper than Waterview and considerably more expensive.

Nonetheless the NZTA was open-minded.

“To the best of our knowledge there’s never been a serious feasibility study of a Cook Strait tunnel, nor has there been a need for it,” the spokesman said.

“The costs to build and operate such a tunnel would be huge, but anything is possible with unlimited time, money and expertise.”

There does not appear to be a simple way to work out how much tunnels cost.

The Channel Tunnel, or “Chunnel” connecting Britain and Europe has the longest undersea portion of any tunnel in the world – its total length is 50.45km, just shy of what would be required under the Cook Strait. The Chunnel’s lowest point is 75 metres below sea level – the strait averages almost twice that depth at 128m.

The Chunnel cost £9b at the time of completion in 1994 – something like $30b in today’s New Zealand dollars.

Japan’s Seikan Tunnel is 54km connecting the islands of Honshu and Hokkaido across the Tsugaru Strait, which is much deeper than Cook with a maximum depth of 200m. Japan, like New Zealand, is a shaky country. It cost around NZ$10b in today’s money.

Stuff pitched the idea of crossing the strait to Treasury. A Treasury spokesman said: “In a hypothetical situation such as what you suggest, the Treasury would provide analysis and free and frank advice to the responsible ministers.

“We would factor in a number of aspects, such as cost-benefit analysis, alternative options and solutions for whatever issue the project is intended to address, impact on the Crown accounts, the government’s capital spending allowances, project funding alternatives (eg government-funded, privately funded, a public-private partnership etc), broader considerations such as environmental and social impacts, and other matters.”:

The spokesman also said how much money was in the kitty for transport infrastructure projects: There is $3.4b available this year and another $3.4b next year, but in 2020 there will be only $3.1b and the following year just $2.7b.

In other words, even if the government were to spend 50 per cent of the country’s capital allowances for transport over the next four years, a tunnel starting from Wellington might not even get to the water.

ANOTHER SOLUTION

Having to choose between a bridge that could fall over in the next earthquake and a tunnel that could impoverish the entire country would be enough to make most Kiwis spit their tea out. But perhaps there is a third way.

Palermo, the engineering professor who wrote off the idea of a traditional tunnel or bridge, has another, more modern idea. A “submerged floating tunnel” – a tunnel that floats on or near the surface of the sea and is anchored to the ground.

One has never been built, but the idea is being developed and explored in places like Japan and the USA.

Palermo said sea currents, earthquakes and tsunamis are the main challenges, but: “I think the concept could be feasible. Construction will not be easy, but not far different than building an off-shore petrol platform. The bridge could be manufactured with innovative ultra-high performance concrete and segments of the tunnel prefabricated in a specialised precast yard.

“The great challenge will be the anchors, but it will not be more challenging than an off-shore platform.

“Given the flexibility of the tunnel, its response to earthquakes may not be so problematic and the anchors could be designed to accommodate big ground displacement generated by fault rupture.”

Palermo said the ultra-high performance concrete will reduce the amount of concrete required and guarantee long-lasting durability – perhaps more than a century.

“I also like the possibility to create within the tunnel an outlook with structural glass windows and turning it into an iconic tourist attraction.

“Moreover, it could have a negative carbon footprint (this means that it doesn’t have embedded energy costs) if the impact of currents could be turned into energy to be used for the tunnel or possibly sold out to Wellington and Marlborough.

“It will not have a strong environmental impact and I think it could be seen in the future, especially if there will be a take over with electric cars.”

Palermo said the concept is still being developed and costs are unknown.

The closest New Zealand has ever come to physically uniting the country seems to be a bit of political banter loosely attributed a politician more than a century ago. Seasoned politicians from our own time have not even heard the idea raised once in the halls of Parliament – not even in the back halls.

If New Zealand were to really bridge a 20,000-year-old gap over one of the more problematic stretches of water the world has to offer, it may be time, rather than money, that might be the best bet.

 – Stuff

How Bill Gates aims to clean up the planet

It’s a simple idea: strip CO2 from the air and use it to produce carbon-neutral fuel. But can it work on an industrial scale?
An artists impression of what Carbon Engineering’s ambitious direct air capture plant in Squamish, British Columbia could look like.
 An artists impression of what Carbon Engineering’s ambitious direct air capture project would look like when completed. Photograph: Carbon Engineering

It’s nothing much to look at, but the tangle of pipes, pumps, tanks, reactors, chimneys and ducts on a messy industrial estate outside the logging town of Squamish in western Canada could just provide the fix to stop the world tipping into runaway climate change and substitute dwindling supplies of conventional fuel.

It could also make Harvard superstar physicist David Keith, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and oil sands magnate Norman Murray Edwards more money than they could ever dream of.

The idea is grandiose yet simple: decarbonise the global economy by extracting global-warming carbon dioxide (CO2) straight from the air, using arrays of giant fans and patented chemical whizzery; and then use the gas to make clean, carbon-neutral synthetic diesel and petrol to drive the world’s ships, planes and trucks.

The hope is that the combination of direct air capture (DAC), water electrolysis and fuels synthesis used to produce liquid hydrocarbon fuels can be made to work at a global scale, for little more than it costs to extract and sell fossil fuel today. This would revolutionise the world’s transport industry, which emits nearly one-third of total climate-changing emissions. It would be the equivalent of mechanising photosynthesis.

The individual technologies may not be new, but their combination at an industrial scale would be groundbreaking. Carbon Engineering, the company set up in 2009 by leading geoengineer Keith, with money from Gates and Murray, has constructed a prototype plant, installed large fans, and has been extracting around one tonne of pure CO2 every day for a year. At present it is released back into the air.

But Carbon Engineering (CE) has just passed another milestone. Working with California energy company Greyrock, it has now begun directly synthesising a mixture of petrol and diesel, using only CO2 captured from the air and hydrogen split from water with clean electricity – a process they call Air to Fuels (A2F).

Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher of Climeworks.
 Christoph Gebald and Jan Wurzbacher of Climeworks. Photograph: Julia Dunlop/Climeworks

“A2F is a potentially game-changing technology, which if successfully scaled up will allow us to harness cheap, intermittent renewable electricity to drive synthesis of liquid fuels that are compatible with modern infrastructure and engines,” says Geoff Holmes of CE. “This offers an alternative to biofuels and a complement to electric vehicles in the effort to displace fossil fuels from transportation.”

Synthetic fuels have been made from CO2 and H2 before, on a small scale. “But,” Holmes adds, “we think our pilot plant is the first instance of Air to Fuels where all the equipment has large-scale industrial precedent, and thus gives real indication of commercial performance and viability, and leads directly to scale-up and deployment.”

The next step is to raise the money, scale up and then commercialise the process using low-carbon electricity like solar PV (photovoltaics). Company publicity envisages massive walls of extractor fans sited outside cities and on non-agricultural land, supplying CO2 for fuel synthesis, and eventually for direct sequestration.

“A2F is the future,” says Holmes, “because it needs 100 times less land and water than biofuels, and can be scaled up and sited anywhere. But for it to work, it will have to reduce costs to little more than it costs to extract oil today, and – even trickier – persuade countries to set a global carbon price.”

Meanwhile, 4,500 miles away, in a large blue shed on a small industrial estate in the South Yorkshire coalfield outside Sheffield, the UK Carbon Capture and Storage Research Centre (UKCCSRC) is experimenting with other ways to produce negative emissions.

The UKCCSRC is what remains of Britain’s official foray into carbon capture and storage (CCS), which David Cameron had backed strongly until 2015. £1bn was ringfenced for a competition between large companies to extract CO2 from coal and gas plants and then store it, possibly in old North Sea gas wells. But the plan unravelled as austerity bit, and the UK’s only running CCS pilot plant, at Ferrybridge power station, was abandoned.

The Sheffield laboratory is funded by £2.7m of government money and run by Sheffield University. It is researching different fuels, temperatures, solvents and heating speeds to best capture the CO2for the next generation of CCS plants, and is capturing 50 tonnes of CO2 a year. And because Britain is phasing out coal power stations, the focus is on achieving negative emissions by removing and storing CO2 emitted from biomass plants, which burn pulverised wood. As the wood has already absorbed carbon while it grows, it is more or less carbon-neutral when burned. If linked to a carbon capture plant, it theoretically removes carbon from the atmosphere.

Known as Beccs (bioenergy with carbon capture and storage), this negative emissions technology is seen as vital if the UK is to meet its long-term climate target of an 80% cut in emissions at 1990 levels by 2050, according to UKCCSRC director Professor Jon Gibbins. The plan, he says, is to capture emissions from clusters of major industries, such as refineries and steelworks in places like Teesside, to reduce the costs of transporting and storing it underground.

“Direct air capture is no substitute for using conventional CCS,” says Gibbins. “Cutting emissions from existing sources at the scale of millions of tonnes a year, to stop the CO2 getting into the air in the first place, is the first priority.

CO2 solidified into carbonate minerals after being injected into basalt formations at Hellisheiði geothermal power plant in Iceland.
 CO2 solidified into carbonate minerals after being injected into basalt formations at Hellisheiði geothermal power plant in Iceland. Photograph: Sandra Ó Snæbjörnsdóttir/OR

“The best use for all negative emission technologies is to offset emissions that are happening now – paid for by the emitters, or by the fossil fuel suppliers. We need to get to net zero emissions before the sustainable CO2 emissions are used up. This is estimated at around 1,000bn tonnes, or around 20-30 years of global emissions based on current trends,” he says. “Having to go to net negative emissions is obviously unfair and might well prove an unfeasible burden for a future global society already burdened by climate change.”

The challenge is daunting. Worldwide manmade emissions must be brought to “net zero” no later than 2090, says the UN’s climate body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). That means balancing the amount of carbon released by humans with an equivalent amount sequestered or offset, or buying enough carbon credits to make up the difference.

But that will not be enough. To avoid runaway climate change, emissions must then become “net negative”, with more carbon being removed than emitted. Many countries, including the UK, assume that negative emissions will be deployed at a large scale. But only a handful of CCS and pilot negative-emission plants are running anywhere in the world, and debate still rages over which, if any, technologies should be employed. (A prize of $25m put up by Richard Branson in 2007 to challenge innovators to find a commercially viable way to remove at least 1bn tonnes of atmospheric CO2 a year for 10 years, and keep it out, has still not been claimed – possibly because the public is uncertain about geoengineering.)

The achilles heel of all negative emission technologies is cost. Government policy units assume that they will become economically viable, but the best hope of Carbon Engineering and other direct air extraction companies is to get the price down to $100 a tonne from the current $600. Even then, to remove just 1% of global emissions would cost around $400bn a year, and would need to be continued for ever. Storing the CO2 permanently would cost extra.

Richard Branson and Al Gore at the 2007 launch of the $25mVirgin Earth prize for carbon capture solutions, as yet unclaimed.
 Richard Branson and Al Gore at the 2007 launch of the $25mVirgin Earth prize for carbon capture solutions, as yet unclaimed. Photograph: Adrian Dennis/AFP/Getty Images

Critics say that these technologies are unfeasible. Not using the fossil fuel and not producing the emissions in the first place would be much cleverer than having to find end-of-pipe solutions, say Professor Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, and Glen Peters, research director at the Centre for International Climate Research (Cicero) in Norway.

In a recent article in the journal Science, the two climate scientists said they were not opposed to research on negative emission technologies, but thought the world should proceed on the premise that they will not work at scale. Not to do so, they said, would be a “moral hazard par excellence”.

Instead, governments are relying on these technologies to remove hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere. “It is breathtaking,” says Anderson. “By the middle of the century, many of the models assume as much removal of CO2 from the atmosphere by negative emission technologies as is absorbed naturally today by all of the world’s oceans and plants combined. They are not an insurance policy; they are a high-risk gamble with tomorrow’s generations, particularly those living in poor and climatically vulnerable communities, set to pay the price if our high-stakes bet fails to deliver as promised.” According to Anderson, “The beguiling appeal of relying on future negative emission technologies is that they delay the need for stringent and politically challenging policies today – they pass the buck for reducing carbon on to future generations. But if these Dr Strangelove technologies fail to deliver at the planetary scale envisaged, our own children will be forced to endure the consequences of rapidly rising temperatures and a highly unstable climate.”

Kris Milkowski, business development manager at the UKCCSRC, says: “Negative emissions technology is unavoidable and here to stay. We are simply not moving [to cut emissions] fast enough. If we had an endless pile of money, we could potentially go totally renewable energy. But that transition cannot happen overnight. This, I fear, is the only large-scale solution.”

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