Robbing the regions -- and rail's rejuvinating power

The regions are being chipped away at... so here's an idea for a serious shot in the arm

It seems our state-owned enterprises are letting us down somewhat these days. Last week it was Solid Energy dashing the hopes of the Pike River families, today it's Air New Zealand cutting flights to more regions. If we want more zombie towns, this is a pretty good way of going about it. Just cut 'em off.

Air New Zealand is shutting down these routes:

Kaitaia - Auckland; Whakatane - Auckland; Whangarei - Wellington; Taupo - Wellington; Westport - Wellington; Palmerston North - Nelson; and Hamilton - Auckland.

This is, of course, after the Gisborne-Napier railway line has been left to rust and there's even talk of rail to Northland being mothballed as well. This is the sort of thinking that only makes it harder to live and do business in the regions, many of which are struggling at the moment post-GFC and as commodity prices fall.

While those are temporary woes, Shamubeel Eaqub has laid out the risk of zombie towns in this country and when you consider that incomes in Northland are akin to Timor Leste, there's certainly no room for complacency.

Perhaps the government should consider placing a Kiwishare-style requirement on Air New Zealand. It was good enough for Telecom to be required to keep some public good at the front of its thinking, even if that came at a cost. Maybe the 'public good' of keeping air routes open should be required by government of a company that's ticking along quote nicely now.

Sure, the marketeers will argue that if the demand is there some new company will meet it. Perhaps. But if we're meant to think like NZ Inc these days, sometimes there will be an infrastructure cost required that isn't profitable but is still important to our overall growth.

Which brings me to an idea I've been spouting a lot recently, and one that would help counter these sorts of decisions that are hurting some regions.

I'd like to see a full costing of high-speed rail around the top of the North Island -- between Whangarei, Auckland, Hamilton and Tauranga.

Close to half the population would live within coo-ee of it and it could be a game-changer on so many fronts. Hey, if you can't do it in the air, do it on the tracks.

It could help boost development all along its shiney new tracks (in existing corridors), especially in the north. Think of the tourism and freight opportunities if people and goods could be moved rapidly to Marsden and into Northland. Think of the benefits of taking trucks off the road. Think of it as a way of combatting the poverty in the north. Think of the potential to unlock value on Auckland's waterfront if you don't need to grow (and could even shrink) Auckland's port.

Think of the villages that could be revitalised or shoot up along the tracks, moving people out of Auckland and relieving Auckland house prices. Think of the benefits to the Waikato and Bay of Plenty.

The list goes on -- I'm sure you can think of other pros (and cons). It would of course be hugely expensive and Vogel-esque in its vision. But remember what Vogel's bold dreams did for this country's economy in the 19th century.


It just needs someone with the right smarts to take a serious look at the costs and benefits, and a politician with the balls to back it. Perhaps a new Transport minister from Tauranga, who wants to one day be Prime Minister? Just sayin'.

Certainly we need some long-term thinking on how to boost the regions, because the short-termism of the likes of Air New Zealand will be costly indeed.