Take Back the Track

And the rest of the Railways

- Murray Horton


Tranz Rail has achieved infamy by becoming the first transnational corporation (TNC) to win the annual Roger Award for a second time. This feat was first achieved in the inaugural 1997 Award, and now again, Tranz Rail has won the 2000 Award. In every intervening year, it has been a finalist or runner up. The judges’ report for the Roger Award for the Worst TNC Operating in New Zealand in 2000 was sent out with Watchdog 96 (April 2001).

The judges’ report can be accessed at the CAFCA Website – http://canterbury.cyberplace.org.nz/community/CAFCA or spare hard copies can be bought from CAFCA, Box 2258, Christchurch, for $5. I recommend that you read it yourselves, it is a succinct and damning document. One fact stuck in my head – Tranz Rail has killed more New Zealanders than the military deployment in East Timor.

Yet Another Rail Worker Killed On The Job

The various sets of Roger Award judges over the years have always picked Tranz Rail as the winner or deserving finalist, primarily because of its appalling (un)safety record and its quite callous disregard for human life and limb, be it that of its own workers, rail passengers or the general public. Nothing has changed in that regard, in fact the situation has got worse. A rash of Tranz Rail workers’ deaths in 2000 prompted a Ministerial Inquiry into the company’s safety record and safety practices – the evidence presented made horrifying reading. Tranz Rail was announced the 2000 Roger Award winner at the beginning of April 2001 – at the end of that month, it was fined $50,0000 after pleading guilty to causing the death of Christchurch railway worker, Neil Faithful, a year earlier. This is the highest fine imposed on Tranz Rail so far for killing one of its workers ($37,500 was the previous benchmark). The Crown stated that Tranz Rail knew that a rail in its Woolston shunting yards had drifted perilously apart but did nothing to fix it for several months. In the words of Judge Abbott it was "an accident waiting to happen" (Press, 28/4/01; "Hefty fine for ChCh rail fatality"). In April 2000, the inevitable did happen, and Neil Faithful was crushed to death by a derailed wagon which tipped on top of him. Half of the fine was ordered to be paid to his widow, which is little consolation for the loss of a husband, father and grandfather.

The very day after this court case was the annual International Workers Memorial Day, which commemorates workers killed and injured on the job. In Christchurch, there is a memorial stone situated behind the former Christchurch Railway Station (which is now the Hoyts Cinemas/Science Alive building). Several hundred people attended, including family members of those killed (mainly railway workers) over the past couple of decades. It is always a solemn occasion, marked this year by speeches, trees planted by the most recently bereaved families to commemorate their lost ones; and a squadron of black balloons launched into the sunny blue sky to mark the large number of workers killed on all jobs. The Tranz Rail workers attending needed no explanation as to why their employer had won the Roger Award yet again, and copies of the judges’ report went like hot cakes.

I should explain at this point, that I don’t attend this event primarily to represent CAFCA or the Roger Award organisers. I was a Railways worker from 1976–91, when it was a Government department and then the very first of the State corporations that became all the fashion in the Rogernomics years. When I started, Railways employed more than 20,000 around the country and was very much its own world, a major national presence. During my years there I was a union representative from grassroots delegate up to acting chairman and secretary of the Canterbury branch of the former National Union of Railwaymen. I was amongst the thousands made redundant, being dumped out as soon as the Employment Contracts Act came into effect and before Railways was privatised and sold off to an American TNC, in partnership with NZ Big Business collaborators (that American company, Wisconsin Central, recently underwent a vicious boardroom battle and ended up selling its 24% Tranz Rail stake to Canadian National Railways). So I retain a keen interest in the world of rail, and I attend the annual commemorations because several of those killed on the job were friends and workmates of mine. I couldn’t be a shunter (being partly colour blind can have some advantages), so never directly worked in that most dangerous of railway jobs (there’s a lot of one legged ex-shunters and numbertakers) and mainly knew them by nickname and sight only. But when Neil Faithful’s face flashed up on the TV news during the court case, I realised with a shock that, although I’d been out of Railways for a decade, I’d known him and worked with him, without knowing his name.

Tranz Rail has achieved a very special status. It is one of the very few TNCs that the New Zealand media will actually attack, let alone criticise (it ranks up there with Telecom, the banks and power companies). In the Christchurch context, Tranz Rail has succeeded the former TransAlta (which became On Energy and then sold its South Island customers to Meridian) as the corporate target of the Press’ editorial wrath. Most appropriately, on May Day, the Press put the boot in. "Tranz Rail has been given a sharp message that its appalling workplace injury record is unacceptable…Union complaints about Tranz Rail’s perilous working conditions have been justified, and not just by this court judgment…Underlying many complaints is the suspicion that this foreign-controlled company is more interested in profits than safety…Compounding Tranz Rail’s poor image has been its past callous reaction to accidents…It was also good that Tranz Rail pleaded guilty in the recent (Faithful) case, and expressed regret for the accident. Much more will be required if Tranz Rail is to be accepted as a good corporate citizen" ("Message for Tranz Rail", 1/5/01).

But Tranz Rail continues on its merry way, indifferent to the safety of its own workers, passengers or the public. The Rail and Maritime Union (RMTU) newsletter The Transport Worker regularly records the carnage. For instance, the April 2001 issue reports on the Transport Acident Investigation Commission investigation of the May 2000 death of Christchurch shunter, Robert Burt (known as Scruff). He had only had had two weeks experience as a shunter and the operator of the remote controlled locomotive had only four weeks experience. The investigation also found the fatal wagon footstep to be unsuitable. The same issue records a visit of RMTU General Secretary, Wayne Butson, to the Wanganui freight sheds. Upon inquiring about the source of the appalling sour milk smell, he was taken to the mangled remains of four derailed milk wagons dumped in the yard. Since February 1999 there have been four, largely unexplained derailments of milk trains between Hawera and Wanganui. To say that dairy farmers and the milk companies aren’t happy is a mild understatement. The centre spread of the magazine is comprised of photos of a December 2000 head on collision between two goods trains on the outskirts of Christchurch’s Middleton shunting yard (known by shunters as Siberia, because of its bleakness). And so it goes – also in December 2000, three people were injured when two commuter trains collided, near Ellerslie station, Auckland. In May 2001, the Tranz Scenic Bay Express passenger train, from Wellington to Napier, was delayed for three hours after colliding with one of Tranz Rail’s own maintenance vehicles north of Wellington. These are but some of the most recent examples of a non-safety record that is truly Olympian in its scope and longevity.

Tranz Rail Selling Up And Getting Out

The reason Tranz Rail doesn’t much care about improving its safety record is because it’s selling up and getting out. Already, Wisconsin Central, the American railroad company that bought the Railways in 1993 (when the National government privatised it) has sold its stake and gone. In late 2000, Tranz Rail announced that it was planning to sell several of its groups (such as passenger trains) and concentrate on its core business, of freight. This would involve cutting staff down from the remaining 4,000 to an absolutely bare bones 600. This process started, in June 2001, with the announcement that Tranz Rail had sold its Tranz Scenic long distance passenger train division, to West Coast Railways of Victoria (Australia). West Coast was presented to the public as a niche passenger train operator, but buried in the small print was the fact that the purchase is backed by Connex, part of the huge French transnational, Vivendi, which is best known in this country for being part of the transnational consortium that has got its hooks into Papakura’s water services, a hugely controversial subject. In Christchurch, it is represented by Onyx, the transnational contractor which collects the city’s rubbish and recyclables. To quote from CAFCA’s commentary on the April 1999 Overseas Investment Commission approvals:

Vivendi is the trendy new name for Compagnie Generale des Eaux Societe Anomyne (CGE), one of the two largest water companies in the world, the other being Suez Lyonnaise, also of France. Both are highly diversified into many different services and are expanding rapidly. Both have extensive records of price gouging, dubious business practices, and convictions for corruption amongst senior executives. Vivendi also owns Onyx, which runs refuse and other services in Whangarei, Auckland, New Plymouth, Wellington, Christchurch, and Dunedin.

Vivendi’s international record of investigations for corruption include:

    • two senior employees admitted in court in October 1996 that their company had funded elected officials on the French island of La Reunion, in a trial focusing on alleged corruption in a water deal on the island involving Vivendi/CGE.
    • in mid-1996 five out of 13 directors on the main board of Vivendi/CGE were under investigation for corruption (mostly in connection with their jobs with other companies).
    • corruption allegations have been made surrounding the awarding of contracts in the UK and in South Australia (the latter involving a joint venture with Thames Water).

So West Coast Railways is not some quaint little Thomas the Tank Engine outfit, but is involved with one of the world’s biggest and most corrupt service industries transnationals.

Southerner On Hit List

And the announcement of the Tranz Scenic sale was accompanied by the news that West Coast doesn’t want several of the existing passenger train services, the unprofitable ones, namely the Southerner (Christchurch to Invercargill); the Bay Express (Wellington to Napier); the Geyserland Express (Auckland to Rotorua) and the Kaimai Express (Auckland to Tauranga). Of these, the one that attracted most public uproar was the Southerner, which has been under threat, on and off, for decades (the late Norman Jones, one of the 1975-84 Muldoon government’s most colourful MPs, had threatened to lie across the tracks in his Invercargill constituency, to stop an earlier proposed closure). Green Co-Leader, Rod Donald, said the answer lay in more marketing (the Southerner is neglected in contrast to the world renowned Tranz Alpine, from Christchurch to Greymouth, and the Coastal Pacific, from Christchurch to Picton). He also suggested a Government subsidy, of up to $10 million, to keep the threatened services alive. Subsidies for railways (or anything else) have been the very pinnacle of political incorrectedness since the Rogernomics coup, and this idea sent the corporate media into a frenzy. West Coast Railways could barely conceal its glee at the prospect of being paid taxpayers’ money to operate services that it doesn’t want.

Local body politicians in Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill (the latter two face being virtually shut out of public transport services), and the media called for the retention of the Southerner, but not on grounds of sentiment. All agreed that it needs to be improved and run as a properly marketed tourist-oriented train service. The Christchurch Star headlined its editorial: "Dumping Southerner unthinkable" (4/7/01). The Press had another editorial poke at Tranz Rail: "With the passenger services, Tranz Rail has denied that it is trying to sell a part of its business which it has deliberately run down…The Southerner should be saved but not simply because of the social arguments. It must be reforged to become part of the new economy of tourism…" ("Saving rail again", 26/6/01). There is no doubt that these services have been run down. The Mayor of Gisborne, John Clarke, said: "The rolling stock is decrepit and the line is too" (Listener, 21/7/01; "Gravy train", Bruce Ansley). Napier Mayor, Alan Dick, added, "Tranz Rail doesn’t seem to bother with washing carriages" (ibid). At the time of writing, the future of the Southerner and the other threatened passenger services is unclear.

Several commentators drew attention to the irony of calling the campaign "Save Rail". I was a Railways worker and union official, in the early 1980s, when Richard Prebble, as Opposition rail spokesperson, barnstormed the country on just such a campaign. He headed a march of several thousand Railways workers through central Christchurch; the then union put tens of thousands of dollars into Labour’s 1984 election campaign funds. As Minister of Railways in the Labour government, Prebble promptly decimated the Railways (and the union disaffiliated from the Labour Party). "Save Rail" is a phrase that leaves a very bitter taste in the mouths of tens of thousands of former Railways workers. Prebble saved rail all right – he saved it for the transnationals and NZ Big Business asset strippers and profiteers who bought it for a song under the next Government and proceeded to reduce it to the anaemic creature that it is today. Alliance Leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Jim Anderton (who as a Labour backbencher in the 1980s played an honourable but futile role in the battle to save rail) has said that passenger services could be eligible for the regional development grants programme that he is initiating, but Labour Ministers are staying out of the issue. Before this latest sale proposal, Tranz Rail announced that it was looking at closing the Napier-Gisborne line. Anderton raised the possibility of renationalisation but was rebuffed by the PM, Helen Clark, who said that the Government could not afford it. Mind you, the front bench hasn’t rejected the idea out of hand – even Michael Cullen, Minister of Finance, has said that he is neutral on renationalisation.

At the same time, Tranz Rail is eager to get rid of its commuter passenger train services, in Auckland and Wellington. But only for a whopping profit. When it bought the Railways, in 1993, it was allowed control of the country’s entire track infrastructure for an annual payment of $1 to the Government. Tranz Rail has said that it is willing to sell back the Auckland rail corridor for $112 million – not a bad sort of mark up (and bear in mind that it paid $328 million for the entire Railways). Any sale of Wellington’s Metro trains is on hold until Auckland is sorted out.

Not only is there a (classic kneejerk) campaign to save the Southerner and the other threatened passenger services, but a broader campaign to do something about the parlous state of the nation’s rail system. The Greens have launched a campaign to boost rail as an alternative to more and bigger trucks on the roads (which is exactly what the trucking industry wants). And the Rail and Maritime Transport Union (RMTU) has launched its Take Back The Track campaign. The General Secretary, Wayne Butson, said: "We want the rail track returned to public ownership. There’s a fundamental inequity here. Roads in this country are funded by taxpayers. The rail system is entirely privately owned. So many more costs are built into rail. It’s not a level playing field" (Listener, ibid). Butson made clear that: "We don’t want it to be a Government department" (ibid). The union would like the track infrastructure to be run by a new State-Owned Enterprise.

Below is the text of the Rail and Maritime Transport Union’s leaflet entitled Take Back The Track. Ed.


What Happened To Our Rail Network?

The National government made a huge mistake in 1993 when it sold the nation’s rail assets to private enterprise for only $320 million (actually $328.3 million. Ed.). This, after spending $1.2 billion in writing off existing rail debt. The new private owners then set about degrading the worth of the rail asset through insufficient investment in:

  • train protection
  • infrastructure maintenance
  • the maintenance of wagons and locomotives and safety whilst making huge private gains for themselves.

What Has Tranz Rail Done?

Over the intervening years taxpayers poured millions of dollars into rail through subsidies and grants but are left with nothing to show for that investment. Much of that money was, instead, used to (upgrade and maintain the assets of a private company and) pay dividends to company shareholders.

What Are We In Danger Of Losing?

Tranz Rail Ltd has now said it is willing to sell access rights to the Auckland region for the outrageous price of $112 million – just under half what the company paid for the entire system eight years ago. Who knows what the infrastructure-superior Wellington operation will be worth? They also wish to sell business units like the long distance passnger trains, workshops, depots and the infrastructure operations and have threatened to abandon lines unless they are given more public money to keep them open. New Zealanders may end up losing their rail system.

Why Won’t They Sell The Track?

What they will not sell, it appears, is the track itself. They wish to be the landlord and charge for its use. This is a role other, foreign, governments have kept for themselves when going down the privatisation road The sale of the Auckland and Wellington operations alone should recoup for Tranz Rail Ltd its original investment - and still retain the major asset – the rail track network. Who is the mug here?

What Needs To Happen

We do not have a level playing field in this country for land transport – road and rail. Taxpayers subsidise truckies on the roads by undercharging for the true cost of providing roads strong enough to take the punishment of their heavy axle loads. Meanwhile rail has to pay all costs of providing a rail corridor. This means that truckies can charge less than the true cost of road transport whilst rail has to use its fuel efficiencies and economies of scale – its edge – to compete on cost. How can a truck compete with rail on a long haul, bulk freight, cargo haul? In New Zealand they can because of the imbalance in infrastructure provision costs. To provide a level playing field for land transport, the Government must "Take Back The Track" and Tranz Rail should not be selling access alone. The Government could then set up a State-Owned Enterprise to maintain and manage the track asset and to set the safety standards and regulations for rail service operators. Their budget would come from charging access fees to operators who wish to operate trains on the network – similar to the road charges paid by truckies.

How Can we Provide Safe Rail For New Zealanders?

To ensure the future of rail transport in New Zealand we must have the rail infrastructure asset returned to public ownership. The Rail and Maritime Transport Union believes New Zealand citizens want a safe, affordable and reliable rail service which provides a clean, green and efficient alternative to congested roads and heavy trucks. Tranz Rail has failed this nation – the current Government has taken over negotiations for Auckland and has not ruled out purchasing back the whole system.

We Did It Wrongly In 1993 –

We Now Have A Chance To Put It Right

Copies of this leaflet and other campaign material are available from the RMTU, Box 1103, Wellington. You can also help distribute the union’s Take Back The Track petition. But you’ll need to be quick. It will be presented to Parliament on August 31st. Photocopied and faxed petition sheets are invalid. Ed.



CAFCA Supports Union Campaign – As Far As It Goes

CAFCA fully supports the union campaign and has offered to help with it. But we don’t believe that it goes far enough. Essentially, as a minimum position, the RMTU is calling for the renationalisation of the track, which runs the length and breadth of the country. But it has publicly congratulated West Coast Railways on its purchase of Tranz Scenic and said it is "comfortable with the sale of locomotives, passenger cars, railcars, and such" - going on to say "we view with concern the sale of strategic elements of the rail asset like station buildings and depots…While Government procrastinates, Tranz Rail is happily selling the asset out from under their noses" (RMTU press statement, 26/6/01; "Tranz Scenic Sale Underscores Need For Union’s Take Back The Track Campaign’). On the other hand, we believe that the Railways should never have been sold, and that the whole lot should be renationalised. We wouldn’t be too fussy about compensation either. If anything, Tranz Rail’s foreign and NZ owners owe the people of New Zealand a huge amount for the damage they’ve done in the less than ten years they’ve been running it into the ground, whilst killing and maiming New Zealanders in the process. This is a wrong that is very overdue to be put right.

It takes a lot of work to compile and write the material presented on these pages - if you value the information, please send a donation to the address below to help us continue the work.

Foreign Control Watchdog, P O Box 2258, Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa. August 2001.

Email cafca@chch.planet.org.nz

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