Ports of Auckland could become a make-or-break issue for the Coalition

An artist’s impression of a port-less Auckland. Graphic/Stop Stealing Our Harbour

An artist’s impression of a port-less Auckland. Graphic/Stop Stealing Our Harbour

New Zealand First appears as closed-minded on the Ports of Auckland as the other vested interests, who are either opposing change or advocating for alternatives.However dysfunctional those charged with providing vital transport infrastructure can be, they somehow always manage an instant massed-wagon-circling at the very mention of reform.

The Government is about to receive reports on both the future location of the Ports of Auckland and the feasibility of upgrading Northland’s rail. Labour’s support partner, New Zealand First, is fervently committed to moving some of Auckland’s port business to Northland, saying it will relieve our biggest city of congestion and bring much-needed growth to the north. For the coalition, this could become a make-or-break issue.

Unfortunately, NZ First appears as closed-minded on the issues as the other vested interests, who are either opposing change or advocating for alternatives, such as Tauranga, the Firth of Thames or Manukau Harbour.

Because of the complex governance and ownership issues of Ports of Auckland and other potentially affected ports and public entities, any Government changes will be extremely hard to negotiate. The choices available will also be sandbagged by the virtual impossibility of getting any case for new or restored rail to stack up financially.

However, the biggest hurdle will be patch protection – not just from commercial interests, but also from public agencies who too quickly forget the wider obligation that their state-conferred monopoly status puts on them.

Chief interested party is Auckland Council, which owns 100% of the Ports of Auckland. It has consistently defended its right to the port’s undiminished annual dividend of more than $50 million – to the point of vowing to build a multistorey waterfront car park for more revenue.

Mayor Phil Goff is adamant the port is essential to Auckland’s future. However, this assertion is debatable, given that a city such as Sydney survives very well with its harbour reserved for cruise ships and cargo sent to Port Botany, Wollongong or Newcastle.

Loss of port revenue would, however, doubtless force Aucklanders to pay for the loss with even higher rates, for benefits mostly accruing outside its boundaries. This would be unfair, especially to those on low incomes, and so politically dangerous that no sane administration would cause it to happen.

Perhaps a better starting point would be to regularise, even centralise, the haphazard patchwork of ports ownership. This would inevitably land the Government with a fat compensation bill, but the existing potpourri of local body, port-specific and private shareholders is a barrier to efficiency. Intra-agency competition and multiple interests – Auckland part-owns Tauranga’s and Northland’s port as well – further occlude the picture.

The National Party’s policy of treating the ports as discrete commercial entities immune from state interference is recklessly hands-off. But, by the same token, Aucklanders may be incensed at seeing their port asset commandeered, especially with NZ First so blatantly using Northland as its electoral base.

Yet, Auckland’s port must somehow be restored to being part of the national ports network. Aucklanders, used to the city’s infamous congestion, would be the first to agree it remains an international embarrassment that a prime waterfront site is used to store second-hand cars. Moving the port would unlock 77ha of superb shore land.

Northland’s Marsden Point tempts as an existing deep-water port, which, with a suitable rail spur from the Auckland line, could handle the business. Tourist and even commuter growth could ensue. Yet, there are other considerations, including the likelihood that moving the port to Northland would hugely increase congestion in Auckland, since most goods exported out of it are produced south of the city and would have to pass through it. Even if some of the goods went by train – and the expense of building rail tracks could itself prove prohibitive – the trains would be more frequent and longer, causing frustrating delays at level crossings. There are also the climate-change considerations, with increased emissions from transporting freight over longer distances.

In New Zealand, 99.7% of all imports and exports travel by sea, so the ports issue is not trivial. Any changes to these assets will affect, for better or worse, numerous other sectors and projects, not least the still-uncosted light rail to Auckland Airport. The sheer complexity and political risk may simply end in inertia. But everyone concerned has a duty to approach this debate with the country’s best interests at heart.

Tauranga leaders say port will thrive regardless of Auckland decision

Port of Tauranga. Photo / File
Port of Tauranga. Photo / File

By: Jean BellJean is a multimedia journalist for the Bay of Plenty Timesjean.bell@nzme.co.nzbay_times

Tauranga’s port will continue to “flourish” regardless of whether Auckland’s port moves, city leaders say.

But some warned infrastructure investment was needed to make that happen.

The comments come as the Government is poised to make a big call on whether or not to shift Auckland’s port to the economically-deprived region of Northland.

It followed New Zealand First leader Winston Peters vowing to move Ports of Auckland up north in 2017 and a Labour-led coalition Government leading a study into the three Upper North Island ports with a focus on moving Ports of Auckland to Northport at Marsden Point.

An interim report on that study by a working group headed by Wayne Brown, a former Far North mayor, had been provided to ministers and was due to go to Cabinet shortly.

Ports of Tauranga chief executive Mark Cairns said nobody had seen the recommendations yet, but he believed Tauranga’s port would continue to perform well whatever the outcome was.

He believed the port’s strong growth would continue due to Tauranga’s location as the origin of a majority of the goods exported out of the port are located south of Auckland, not north.

The port owned a half share of Northport, he said.

Tauranga mayor Greg Brownless said if the shift happened, it would not happen for some time.

Tauranga’s port would become busier if it did, due to its good reputation throughout Australasia, he said.

He did not think any increase in activity at the port would be short-lived as it had the capacity for double the number of containers currently moved there.

Congestion caused by inadequate roading would become an issue if Tauranga’s port did get busier, so investment into the city’s state highway, roading and rail network would be vital to cater for any increased freight activity around the city, he said.

He said the port would need to ensure the benefit would be shared with the community.

Bay of Plenty Regional Council regional transport committee chairman Stuart Crosby said it was too early guess what the impact would be, but he was confident Tauranga’s port would continue to operate successfully regardless of what happened up north.

“We have the best operating port in Australasia and it will continue to flourish in the future.”

The Government, however, did need to invest “billions of dollars” in infrastructure to keep up with the port’s development.

Shareholders would solve Ports of Auckland’s problems

New cranes at Ports of Auckland. Photo / Jason Oxenham
New cranes at Ports of Auckland. Photo / Jason Oxenham

NZ Herald Editorial

COMMENT:

Of all the policies the NZ First Party brought into this coalition Government, the wildest and wackiest was to move the entire port of Auckland to Marsden Pt. The Labour Party agreed only to commission a feasibility study the idea of moving the port and left open the choice of alternative sites. Winston Peters, hoping to hold the Northland seat, promised to move the whole operation to Northport, but the coalition agreement merely directed Northport be given “serious consideration”.

The feasibility study led by former Far North District mayor Wayne Brown is reported to have produced an interim report for the Government and its tentative suggestions ought to be interesting. The fact that ministers will receive at the same time a report on upgrading the railway from Auckland the Marsden Pt suggests Northport is the preferred alternative for at least some of Auckland’s imports.

Doubtless there are countless ways that goods shipped to or from New Zealand could be better shared between various ports, not only for more efficient handling and distribution but also to stop the Auckland port encroaching ever further on the Waitematā harbour.

Doubtless too, the companies running ports would quickly find a more efficient use of them — within the constraints on Auckland — if Ports of Auckland Ltd had commercial shareholders.

Its nearest rivals, Port of Tauranga and Northport, are majority owned by their local bodies but also have tradeable shares which has resulted in a degree of cross-ownership. Tauranga has a stake in Northport, as does Ports of Auckland Ltd. But PoAL is entirely owned by the Auckland Council which has been averse to any of its business going to other ports.

Total public ownership has been a mixed blessing for Auckland citizens. While the council collects all the port’s dividends it suffers a conflict of interest when Aucklanders oppose the port’s further expansion. Despite a long campaign to stop the port company extending wharves for the latest cruise ships, the council is allowing moored “dolphins” and walkways to extend Queens Wharf.

Mayor Phil Goff did not exactly welcome news this week that an interim report of the feasibility study has arrived on ministers’ desks. “Any decisions on the future of Ports of Auckland should have the agreement of the council,” he said. “We accept that at some point the growth of freight into Auckland will outgrow the land available…..” Citizens opposed to further harbour reclamation would say that point was reached some time ago. Goff said the same when he stood for election.

“However, the port is also a critical lifeline of freight into our city,” he says now. No it is not. Freight from any other port could reach Auckland, making room for cruise ships within Auckland port’s existing harbour footprint.

Most of Auckland’s port is unlikely to be going anywhere. The feasibility study should be looking at rationalising the use of all New Zealand Ports but it should not suppose politicians can best decide where freight goes. The Hawke’s Bay Regional Council is planning to partially float its port at Napier. If the Auckland Council did likewise it would see the city’s interests more clearly.

Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones launches the New Zealand Infrastructure Commission

The Government has launched a new independent Crown entity tasked with addressing New Zealand’s “unprecedented infrastructure deficit”.

The New Zealand Infrastructure Commission – Te Waihanga – would look at ways of fixing and further funding areas where infrastructure investment is needed.

Transport projects and urban infrastructure issues would likely be the focus of the new commission.

Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones said New Zealand has an “unprecedented infrastructure deficit” and the commission was tasked with addressing that.

He said New Zealand’s transport and urban infrastructure was struggling to keep up with population growth.

“This infrastructure deficit is manifesting in housing unaffordability, congestion, poor-quality drinking water and lost productivity.”

“That’s simply not good enough,” he said.

The Treasury has estimated the total infrastructure spend over the next five years would be $42 billion – more than double that of the past five years.

Jones said this showed why the establishment of the Infrastructure Commission was needed.

Overall strategy and planning would be the focus of the new body.

In a Cabinet paper, Jones said the Infrastructure Commission would also act as a “shop front” for private companies looking to invest in New Zealand.

He pointed the finger at the previous Government, accusing National of focusing on short-term projects and under-investing in infrastructure projects.

Local Government New Zealand president Dave Cull said unprecedented population growth and the need to adapt for climate change, as well as a low-emissions economy, means that New Zealand was “behind the eight ball in terms of infrastructure investment”.

“Having a central agency to act as a shop front that the private sector can interact with, and having an ability to buy goods and services in bulk will be a massive benefit to regional development projects,” he said.

The Cabinet has approved just over $4 million to establish the commission and legislation establishing the body would go before Parliament in April.

The creation of the Infrastructure Commission has been well flagged – in August last year Jones announced work had begun on establishing the body.

He said Treasury had been unable to properly quantify the value of the infrastructure deficit New Zealand was facing which he said “was not good enough”.

The new body would work to quantify the level of the deficit, as well as figuring out how to fix it.

The Government received 130 submissions on what the body should look like.

“We have heard that message, and we have delivered.”

Ministers will retain final decisions on infrastructure investments, but the Commission will have an independent board and the autonomy it needs to provide robust, impartial advice.

“It will help hold this Government, and future governments, to account and we welcome that,” Jones said.

Hydrogen opportunity for NZ transport hubs

Hydrogen could play a key role reducing emissions from heavy trucks using the country’s major transport hubs, Refining NZ chief executive Mike Fuge says.

Hydrogen is challenging to store and transport, he says. Establishing a national distribution network would be difficult, just as it would be for heavy electric trucks.

But he says there is an opportunity to use hydrogen at transport hubs around the country, like at Northport – the refinery’s neighbour at Marsden Point – which has fleets of very heavy trucks travelling to and from it daily.

“There’s an opportunity, with the right sort of assistance, to turn those trucks to hydrogen,” he told BusinessDesk.

The Marsden Point oil refinery is the country’s biggest maker of pure hydrogen and has just completed a major upgrade of that capacity. It has 40 years’ experience making and using hydrogen and wants to use that as the country works to reduce emissions from the transport fleet.

Refining NZ has spent several months working on a new long-term strategy which it plans to lay out mid-year.

Fuge told investors today that the company is committed to a profitable refining business remaining at its core.

But he said the company is also looking at how it can leverage its existing assets and technical skills to play a part in the country’s energy transition.

“We see ourselves having a very active role to play.”

Many New Zealand firms are trying to assess the potential of hydrogen as a low-emission fuel for transport or industry.

Ports of Auckland has hired global energy consultancy Arup for a hydrogen pilot to test its suitability as a fuel for its straddle carriers and tugs. Hiringa Energy is working with TIL Logistics to test its potential in trucking and warehousing, while Pouakai NZ last year sought a loan of up to $20 million from the Provincial Growth Fund to test the feasibility of a combined power, hydrogen and fertiliser plant in Taranaki.

Earlier this month, Concept Consulting said hydrogen could be a good fit for return-to-base trucking operations, or for never-leave-base applications like forklifts and port cranes.

But it doubted hydrogen would be economic for industrial processing due to the volume of power needed to split it from water – in the case of electrolysis – or the high cost of capturing and storing the carbon emitted when it is made conventionally from hydrocarbons such as natural gas.

The high cost of public infrastructure also made hydrogen problematic as a fuel for long-distance trucking, Concept said.

Fuge said converting the refinery’s hydrogen-making to a clean process over time could provide a material reduction in emissions and the firm would be interested in working with the government to help make that happen.

Fuge says New Zealand’s fuel standards are already high, so offer relatively little scope for further emissions reduction.

Electric vehicles will replace more of the petrol fleet and that is less of an issue for the refinery, given its production is biased towards diesel and jet fuel, he said.

Biofuel currently needs a carbon price of about $400 a tonne to be viable, he said, but long-term the firm could bring its expertise into that sphere, particularly wood-based processes making fuel from cellulose.

KiwiRail pleased with early Northland studies

KiwiRail says it is pleased with work undertaken to date on a potential extension of its rail network to Northport at Marsden Point.

The firm began geotechnical work in late October on a route for a 20-kilometre spur line from Oakleigh, running east toward Marsden Point.

The final drilling was completed today and further exploration work will continue this year, acting chief executive Todd Moyle said in a statement.

“Our investigations have focused on areas where the most significant engineering works would be needed,” he said.

“Concurrently we are looking at how we can upgrade the North Auckland Line between Auckland and Oakleigh. The tunnels on that line are old, low and narrow. We have had two significant derailments on the line in recent months due to a lack of funding for maintenance. It has been unable to carry passengers for the past year and freight options are restricted.”

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones visited the drilling site today.

New Zealand First has driven an investigation into the feasibility of relocating Ports of Auckland to Northport. That is being considered by a five-member working group tasked with developing a broader strategy to better integrate transport logistics chains in the upper North Island.

The cost of the new spur line was estimated at $100 million a decade ago. Bringing the Auckland to Northland line up to standard to handle major freight volumes has previously been estimated at more than $2 billion.

Jones, a list MP, lives in Northland and is a fan of rail. Tourism and freight projects of state-owned KiwiRail have so far received close to $90 million from the Provincial Growth Fund he oversees, including funding for the Northland spur study.

KiwiRail chair Greg Miller says significant agricultural and horticultural investment going into Northland will require an efficient supply chain.

The Provincial Growth Fund will allow a renewal of regional rail and there is a growing acceptance of the wider benefits rail brings by taking trucks off roads, reducing road maintenance costs and improving road safety, he says.

“There is a long way to go in Northland but we are heartened by what we have found so far.”

Will new rail freight hub attract $200m in new business?

A freight train stops traffic at a level crossing.

A new freight centre in Palmerston North is expected to provide spinoffs for Manawatū, bringing more business to the region.

The Provincial Growth Fund’s $40 million investment in KiwiRail for planning and buying land for the freight centre might be just the beginning, unlocking growth.

Spearhead Manawatū chief Craig Nash said the development would attract another $200m in investment into the facility, and create new business opportunities.

“It will have four times the productivity of the current site.

“The goal is to be the fastest and lowest-cost freight hub in New Zealand, that meets or exceeds best-in-the-world standards.”

A more efficient transport network, including a planned ring road around Palmerston North and replacement for the closed Manawatū Gorge route, would tie in with the freight centre as part of a broader transport hub.

Palmerston North's railway yards, viewed from the Milson Line overbridge.
MURRAY WILSON/STUFF
Palmerston North’s railway yards, viewed from the Milson Line overbridge.

There are already about 12,000 freight train services operating to, from, or through Palmerston North each year.

They carry a variety of freight, with pulp and timber accounting for 24 per cent of the 2.5 million tonnes that pass through.

Finished dairy products account for 19 per cent of the tonnage, with bulk wine, milk, meat and other produce making up the balance.

​KiwiRail’s sales and commercial group manager Alan Piper said freight volumes were expected to increase by 60 per cent over the next three decades, and KiwiRail wants to secure or improve its share of the market.

Rail was two-thirds more fuel-efficient than road, with every wagon on the rails meaning one less long-distance truck on the roads.

But Piper said KiwiRail would work with the trucking firms on the project, as freight arriving or being loaded on the railway still needed to be delivered by road.

“We are not competing with trucks. It’s about how we work with road transport to create the most efficient distribution centre we can.”

Palmerston North's rail freight yards are expected to move to land near the airport.
MURRAY WILSON/STUFF
Palmerston North’s rail freight yards are expected to move to land near the airport.

Piper said moving from Tremaine Ave to a location near the airport would create new opportunities for businesses and industries that relied on a quick and efficient network for moving goods around New Zealand, and the lower North Island in particular.

The northeast industrial area was ideal as it was on the main trunk railway line and near the airport.

He said the Government’s injection would pay for planning and buying land.

“And then it’s up to us. Although it might not be us paying for the buildings.”

Palmerston North's rail freight yards are on the move.
MURRAY WILSON/STUFF
Palmerston North’s rail freight yards are on the move.

Nash said having KiwiRail and the New Zealand Transport Agency working together on distribution plans was vital to ensuring the planned regional freight ring road connected well to the new site.

It would make Palmerston North more attractive for a range of industries and manufacturers.

“It will be a major change for central New Zealand, and will unlock potential for companies to move here. It will be bringing the world closer to where we are.”

 

Ports of Auckland to build hydrogen production and refuelling facility

In a first for Auckland, Ports of Auckland has committed to build a hydrogen production and refuelling facility at its Waitemata port. The company, and project partners Auckland Council, Auckland Transport and KiwiRail, will invest in hydrogen fuel cell vehicles including port equipment, buses and cars as part of the project.

Ports of Auckland Chief Executive Tony Gibson said “We have an ambitious target to be a zero emission port by 2040. In order to meet that target we need a new renewable and resilient power source for heavy equipment like tugs and straddle carriers, which are difficult to power with batteries. Hydrogen could be the solution for us as it can be produced and stored on site, allows rapid refuelling, and provides greater range than batteries.”

Ports of Auckland will fund the construction of a facility which will produce hydrogen from tap water. The process uses electrolysis to split water into hydrogen (which is then stored for later use) and oxygen, which is released into the air. Demonstration vehicles will be able to fill up with hydrogen at the facility, which will be just like filling up a car with CNG or LPG. Hydrogen is used in the fuel cell to create electricity which powers the car. The only by-product of the process is water.

“If this trial is successful”, said Mr Gibson, “the technology would have a very wide application. It could help Auckland and New Zealand towards energy self-sufficiency and our emission reduction goals. Trucks, trains and ferries could also run on hydrogen – something which is already being done overseas – which would be a significant benefit for the community. Hydrogen powered vehicles are quieter and emit nothing more than clean water.”

The project partners will provide technical support and will purchase hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for the project. Global hydrogen experts Arup are also helping support this project through the development, design and delivery phases.

Mayor Phil Goff said, “I welcome this trial. It is a first for New Zealand and shows Auckland’s desire to lead on climate change action and meet our ambitious emissions reduction targets.

“With 40 per cent of emissions in Auckland coming from our transport system, alternative energy sources to power vehicles, such as electric and hydrogen, are critical to meeting the target of global warming to 1.5 degrees.

“With infrastructure in place, hydrogen has the potential to power our buses and other parts of our vehicle fleet both reducing global emissions and cutting back on air pollution in Auckland such as in Queen Street where carbon levels are very high,” says Mayor Phil Goff.

Auckland Council’s Chief Executive, Stephen Town, says, “We’re proud to collaborate with the Ports of Auckland, Auckland Transport and KiwiRail on this innovative hydrogen project – a first for New Zealand. It is important for organisations like ours, as signatories to the Climate Leaders Coalition, to continue leading on climate change action; it’s also important for us to push the boundaries with ambitious projects that demonstrate leadership here in Auckland. Trialling new technology to reduce emissions and signalling a smarter economic future is important for our city’s people, places and prosperity.”

KiwiRail Acting CEO Todd Moyle says KiwiRail is delighted to be part of this ground-breaking project. “KiwiRail is committed to a sustainable future and has set a goal to be carbon neutral by 2050. While rail is an inherently sustainable form of transport with 66% fewer carbon emissions than heavy road freight, new fuel sources like hydrogen have enormous potential for the future of transport in New Zealand.

“Just weeks ago, two hydrogen-powered trains with a range of 1000km per tank began operating commercial services in Germany. If successful with passengers, there is no reason why the next development could not be hydrogen-powered freight trains.

“Joining forces with Ports of Auckland in this project will allow us to explore how KiwiRail could use this new technology as we deliver stronger connections for New Zealand.”

Auckland Transport Chief Executive Shane Ellison says AT is committed to clean technology and is very interested in the possibilities of hydrogen power. “This could be part of the answer for our fleet of buses and harbour ferries. The idea of a vehicle which only produces water as a by-product is very exciting.”

The project is currently in the planning phase, and Ports of Auckland is about to start stakeholder engagement before applying for resource consent in early 2019. The facility is planned to be operational by the end of 2019.

An aerial view of Ports of Auckland from the west.
SUPPLIED
An aerial view of Ports of Auckland from the west.

A rift has opened up between Auckland Council and the Government over how the future of the city’s port will be decided.

Mayor Phil Goff says there’s a risk that a Government-appointed working group looking at the upper North Island ports might have pre-determined whether Auckland’s council-owned port could move, and if so where.

Goff said he put a “robust” view to the working group’s chair, former Far North mayor Wayne Brown, in a private meeting last week.

A council commissioned study found shifting the vehicle import trade, could lose Auckland $1 billion
BEVAN READ/STUFF
A council commissioned study found shifting the vehicle import trade, could lose Auckland $1 billion

He said Brown’s public rejection of two potential locations identified by a council study didn’t give confidence, and the group didn’t appear to have enough time or resources to do a proper job.

The council on Tuesday approved a blunt letter to be sent to Brown, ahead of the council’s first formal meeting with the working group in just over a fortnight.

Goff favoured the eventual shift of the port from its current location on the downtown waterfront, but was unhappy with the approach being taken by the working group.

The council will tell the group that its priorities include protecting the value of Ports of Auckland, which last year paid it a $51.1 million dividend.

It is also telling the working group it wants a transparent, objective and evidence-based approach to reviewing the future of the ports in Auckland, Tauranga and Whangarei.

Auckland Council has conducted the most detailed work so far on the future of its port.

Previous mayor Len Brown funded out of his office budget the Port Future Study, which in 2016 found the port might not outgrow its current site in 50 years, but that work should begin on identifying alternatives, in case it did.

Before the 2017 elections New Zealand First advocated an early shift of the vehicle-import trade from Auckland to Northland’s port.

The coalition government including New Zealand First took a bigger picture approach, setting up the Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy working group, in line with a request from Auckland Council.

New Zealand First MP and Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones who oversees the working group, has since been vocal on matters relating to the future of Auckland’s port.

At the start of November Jones said he would do all he could to head-off a planned multi-storey carpark building planned by Ports of Auckland, to house vehicles arriving in the port.

“Public statements have created the impression of pre-determination,” said the council in a letter to the chair of the working group Wayne Brown.

Brown has made public comment favouring a move to Northland, including an opinion column published in November 2017 before being appointed to chair the group.

“Imagine the Auckland waterfront without used cars getting the best views,” Brown wrote.

“Watch for self-justifying job-saving promises from Ports of Auckland to fend off any sensible moves like Sydney has made keeping the harbour just for cruise liners and sending cargo to Wollongong and Newcastle.”

The council’s letter pointed to comments by Brown.

“Indicating a strong preference for relocation of some or all of POAL activities to Northport prior to any analysis is unhelpful,” said the letter which Goff will sign.

“Any plans to move all or some of the Port’s functions requires the concurrence of its owners, the people of Auckland, through Auckland Council,” said the letter.

“I’ve already said to the chair, we’ve put a lot of work into two future options (Manukau Harbour and Firth of Thames) and you’ve dismissed this out of hand, which gives us no confidence,” Goff told today’s planning committee meeting.

The council has spelled out 10 areas it wants the working group to examine closely.

These include the feasible capacity of all upper North Island ports, as well as the climate change impacts of moving freight to and from the ports.

It wanted work done on the social and community impacts of any change, and how and when a future new port would be funded.

The council will have its first meeting with the government’s working group on December 13.

 

Twyford reassures Kiwis on road safety after NZTA revelations

Transport Minister Phil Twyford made a ministerial statement in Parliament reassuring the public about the NZ Transport Agency and road safety, and revealing some more detail about investigations.

It comes after he announced last week that he was initiating a regulatory review of the agency which was set up 10 years ago to combine three functions as the transport funder and builder, and safety regulator.

Twyford said there had been systemic failures by the agency to properly check operators who certified vehicles as safe for the road – Stuff has reported on one death, cracked truck towbars, and suspension of certifiers.

Phil Twyford has been dealing with the crisis at the NZ Transport Agency.

ANDY JACKSON/STUFF
Phil Twyford has been dealing with the crisis at the NZ Transport Agency.

Out of the 850 “open files”, or unresolved safety problems, the worst had been resolved but there were still 28 that were being urgently investigated, Twyford said.

There had been 157 files considered high priority, 370 classed as “orange”, and 345 “yellow”.

Twyford said he has been assured the highest priority cases had been dealt with by formal compliance action either completed or under way.

“Injuries on our roads are not the price we pay to travel. They are unacceptable and preventable,” he said.

“I’m disappointed that NZTA has failed to carry out its regulatory functions.”

He had appointed the Ministry of Transport  to review those functions, and given what the public and Government now knew, it was appropriate to appoint external advice, he said.

Law firm Meredith Connell took up the job near the end of September to review the files and the agency was moving quickly to rectify lapses. The cost of engaging the law firm so far was $400,000

The agency had failed to properly check operators who certified vehicles or operators, as safe for the road, and when problems were identified there was often no follow up, Twyford said.

Staff had been redeployed with reduced focus on the regulatory role over the past decade with an emphasis on education and encouragement rather than enforcement, made worse in 2014 when it lost staff from its heavy vehicle compliance team.

Twyford said the systemic failure of one of the government’s most important agencies over several years was unacceptable

As previously reported, the failures of the agency have led to one fatality in a car, and cases of metal fatigue in truck towbars.