The Loss of the Napier-Gisborne Rail Link: Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold

This article criticising the current government’s decision to close the Napier-Gisborne rail line was published in the NZ J Forestry in December 2012.


Turning and turning in the widening gyre

The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

WB Yeats. The Second Coming

The Napier to Gisborne rail line is closed.  A storm created the final straw, a cost of a few million to repair.  There are ironies in that a storm became the excuse, but you need a bit of history and breadth to see them, and Yeat’s ‘passionate’ men do not usually see irony, so intense is their fervour and belief.

Therefore, with fervour, and a little spin, one of the peripheral transport network strands is cut from the central rope because, if you look at the costs and returns internal to that one strand, at this time, in this place, a case can be made to trim.  And so we do.  And words like ‘efficiency’ are bandied about, meaningless without context (Whose efficiency?  Efficiency relative to what?).

There are decision-making frameworks of course; but they are the same ones that rationalise the loss of historically-developed heavy engineering capacity of the Hillside Railway workshops, and buying cheap from overseas.  Short-term expedience, and an almost pathological avoidance and perhaps fear of thinking strategically about our long-term future, the retention and development of value and legacies, or of building social and economic capacities.  We become less resilient by following this legacy-destroying path, but someone will be better off.  Someone always is.

A forest decision-making analogy is the destruction of the Kauri, a rape that Sir David Hutchins referred to as “one of the saddest features in the history of this fair earth”, suggesting it will go down in history as “a dark blot in the story of Anglo-Saxon colonisation[1]”.  Like a mature Kauri forest, these rail values and capacities extend far beyond the dollar, slow to develop and very easy to destroy.  And then, as with the Kauri, we look back on the loss, and wonder why it happened, and why didn’t those people we trust to make the right decisions act in the people’s interests over the temptation of the short-term shilling.  There is a lesson in our butchering of the Kauri; lessons we still haven’t learned, and so we keep repeating them.  Hutchins’ comments are as relevant today as in 1916.

That framework that destroys rather than creates legacies is about thinking financially rather than strategically; about considering only the short term; about not thinking beyond the books to service or the future of New Zealand or the regions; about taking what you can, when you can; about cutting expenditure rather than building capacity and custom; about a central government ideology of market and private in all things; where there is no need to ‘strategise’ about transport or the future price and availability of energy, or regional development, because the ‘market’ (mythical omniscient entity be praised) will do all that anyway.

We may analyse things, and cut them up into ever smaller pieces, and then presume we are providing reasons, and meaning, and some basis for sound judgment.  That is one of the myths of the day; that by wilfully ignoring any but the thing that stands in front of our narrow vision – disconnected, reduced to quanta of our own subjective choosing, held forth without a shred of irony as some objective truth by passionate men – that we can make a path to the other end of the field.  Better still to look at our feet while doing so.

It is difficult, therefore, to look at the loss of the Napier to Gisborne line without touching on some of the ‘passionate intensity’ ideas behind it all.

Network Economics

The study of the folly of narrow technocrats ought to be sufficient to light a beacon of warning against their possession of decision-making power.  Ultimately, the real world tests all hypotheses.  But, as Jane Jacobs[2]  proclaimed in reference to the abandonment of our search for truth and understanding rather than religious application of one method (the preserve of the passionate men), when the answers from the real world seem to come slowly (climate change, the planetary limits, the future price of a low-grade commodity, an economic theory based on false assumptions, etc.), then:

“it is seldom the evidence itself that is slow to appear; rather, observers are blind to evidence or emotionally can’t bear to credit it.  This is why the crashing of the Berlin Wall was required as an exclamation point, after unheeded evidence of many decades reported that Marxism was untruthful as an economic theory.”

Even large shocks haven’t changed our decision-making bias of short-term narrow expedience and faith-blind arrogance from a less and less Earth-bound hierarchy.  The Auckland CBD, New Zealand’s commercial hub, lost power for five weeks after a positive cascade effect of failure begeting failure.  The subsequent inquiry into the management of Mercury Energy identified issues around corporate governance, risk management, contingency planning, asset management and lack of responsiveness to what engineering staff had warned was at risk.  You need not listen or consult if you know you know it all.  In the midst of the debacle, the company chairman repeatedly stated in a riveting radio interview that the company was “well-run”, to the near apoplexy of the interviewer Kim Hill.  Under his narrow definition, it was.  He knew.

In 2008, we saw another great collapse that exposed the pseudo-rationalism and benevolence of the Lord Market as deeply flawed, other than for those zealots who – like their communist brothers in faith – insisted that it would all work once it was a ‘pure’ free market.  But the thinking in New Zealand, if anything, has become poorer yet with more short-term finance, and less long-term strategy.

Rail has had its own debacles.  A story within strategy circles tells of the effect of reductionist accounting on the UK rail systems.  Primary and secondary lines made profits.  Many third and fourth order lines did not.  So the obvious decision if your god resides within a spreadsheet is to close the unprofitable lines.  The result was the collapse of the profitability of the next order lines up the chain.  Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.

Rethink followed crisis.  Within network economics, the peripheries feed the main trunk routes through hubs, whether in roads, shipping, rail, or air transport.  You make decisions based only on the figures of a peripheral line at the risk of the whole.  If that was our approach, a high percentage of our county roads would not be financially viable in and of themselves.  And without them, New Zealand would not be financially viable.  So you have a choice: a financial analysis ‘internal’ to the parts of the system, or a strategic approach around other decision making frameworks such as ‘resilience thinking’.

We don’t close down unprofitable peripheral road networks because transport links are strategic, not financial, and because – if and when you apply economic arguments – network economics is the narrowest potentially useful framework.

And yet, another feeder line has been cut with the Napier to Gisborne line, which now makes the Palmerston North to Napier line less viable, and potential unrealised.

Resilience Frameworks and Transport Strategies

Line-specific financial frameworks for decision making within transport networks has not basis for intelligent decision making.  Network economics is better, but still too narrow.  There are considerably more complete frameworks than even network economics.

Far from the narrow expedience side of the decision-making complex sits the ‘resilience’ framework[3].  The principles are similar to those required for the successful survival of a species.  The capacity to cope with a shock whether localised, or universal; the capacity to adapt should the unforeseen occur, as it inevitably will; the capacity to shape a new future; if possible; the capacity to foresee possibilities, to retain capacities, and to build those we may need to both reduce uncertainty and cope with shock.  It is inherently long-term in its focus, accepts uncertainty and uncontrollability rather than predictability and quantifiable risk as the essence of any future.  You cannot model uncertainty because by definition it isn’t there; not even stochastically.  Resilience thinking is the opposite of what we generally see from the technocrats, though more and more the spin doctors will throw in the word to appear hip, without any appreciation of what a culture change it represents.

Many of the capacities necessary for resilience relate to: integrated infrastructural systems; diversity in options (the ‘many rivets’ argument); the integrity of localised nodes or modules that have some decentralised functionality; a multi-functional landscape rather than a single-function factory of paddocks and compartments; a vibrant social ‘knowledge system’ where those at the top are disabused of the delusion that they represent all wisdom; social collaboration; and the values of innovation and improvisation.

All of these capacities are destroyed by the very prescriptive thinking that goes hand in hand with narrow expedience, command, control and faith in quantitative prediction.

Resilience was a key idea of the past Labour-Greens government’s transport strategy.  It emphasised the future probability of future fossil-based transport fuel constraints, the need for energy conservation, the disruption of positive feedback loops building growing energy-dependency (the motorway-suburban spall-motorway-spall feedback), creating options including coastal shipping and rail, and regional modularity with transport committees taking an overview.  Better yet, it emphasised public transport, walking and cycling, the linking of communities to open spaces and the transport system, as well as integration with the renewables and decentralisation-focused energy strategy, and adapting to climate change.

With the change of government in 2008, as the Global Financial Crash suggested such resilience thinking was at least worth a second thought, policy went into reverse.  Motorways were emphasised.  The regions were put back in their place and Auckland given its rightful dues.  Climate change was barely mentioned.  Expanded oil, gas and lignite extraction was a new hope to stave off any suggestion of the need for thinking change; or simply thinking.  Transport strategy was decoupled from energy, climate change and regional development.  Decision making was centralised where it could be better controlled.

Through all this, rail was an embarrassing failure of privatisation; an underfunded system, bled white first by private sector owners until the public once again was forced to bail out yet another corporate beneficiary, and secondly by the government.

Vulnerability of Northern HB Gisborne – Transport and History

The Napier – Gisborne railway is a personal journey, as all journeys are.  This is a route on which in days past you could ask the driver of the railcar to drop you off at Matahoura Station, just over the viaduct, and it would be done.  It was over these viaducts that road traffic was diverted after the road was cut after the Napier earthquake of 1931.  My own grandparents made that trip, and there are stories of unsympathetic husbands stopping their Model T Ford in the middle of the Mohaka Viaduct to get a rise out of the newly betrothed.  But that was a different New Zealand.

The rail system has suffered from major underinvestment and deferred maintenance since it was privatised during the 1990s and purchased by a benighted merchant banker amongst others.  The poor asset management that Mercury Energy were charged with applies as well, if not more so, for the Napier-Gisborne rail.

The levels of travel on the rail are no indicator of potential.  Only in the last year was tunnel work undertaken to better enable container trade.  This arrested development approach of the short sighted is not new to the governing board of rail.  In the 1990s, requirements for log-carrying rolling stock maintenance lead to a choice between upgrading the stock or discontinuing the service which was due to grow with the expansion of the Otago-Southland forests.  They chose to discontinue, much to the bemusement of the local forestry sector.  For these growers, rail was an important tactical choice for producers who transport long distances and want price competitiveness.  The same applies for particularly Gisborne enterprises.

The country from Napier through to the East Coast is steep, erodible, and subject to major storms.  We also enjoy earthquakes.  The road and rail have a history of being cut.  Sometimes both, often one or the other.  Most recently, the Manawatu road access to the east was cut while the rail still ran.  The Waioeka Gorge, another major access point for Gisborne, was temporarily cut in the 2012 autumn.  It is not inconceivable in this landscape for Wairoa and Gisborne to be cut off at any one time.  This is more likely in the future in a climate where the incidence of storm events and in particular the frequency of south-tracking tropical storm systems, is expected to increase.  Given that possibility, the option of rail is obviously strategic, and internal costs and returns to rail are mischievously insufficient; more justification of political will than any attempt at truth and understanding.


Yeat’s was presenting his scenario of a dysfunctional world as the basis for some second coming of goodness and purpose.  That dysfunctional world is here.  The ‘best’ perhaps lack all conviction both because a broad and long view raises the fuzzy contingency of time, place, point-of-view, and meaning that cannot be logically or easily reduced to a few dimensions; and because the ‘passionate intensity’ of the zealots that have no problem with logic (or deep thought for that matter) have such a dominant hold on the hierarchy of the central government and corporate minds.  The ‘best’ give up in the face of spin and con.  Don Quixote was one of the ‘best’, but the windmills he tilted at moved mechanically, oblivious to all but their own functioning.  It is doubtful whether many of the mechanical technocrats behind many of the policies we have endured over the last 30 years have ever sort to understand the philosophy behind what they do.  Technocrats follow their preferred method, like the worst of science, with their models acting as guide dogs for the blind rather than one of many considerations for the thoughtful.  They have lost the ability, and certainly the wider organisational ethos, to seek truth and understanding.

In so doing, they do great harm to our country and to the long-term success of their own organisations.  When they are blind to their own failure to think is bad enough, but when they no longer care about the right decision, and instead attempt to justify a poor decision by orchestrating public relations for political ends, then the situation becomes appalling.

And the decision to cut the Napier-Gisborne rail was political.  The government may have used the promotional cant of selectively-chosen financial data, weak and irrelevant though they were.  But no attempt was made to take a broader strategic view that considered transport as more than a piecemeal set of unlinked financial entities expected to stand on their own feet outside a wider network.  Absolutely no attempt was made to consider this rail link within a broader strategic framework, certainly not one that aligned with ‘resilience thinking’, perhaps better expressed as ‘basic evolutionary survival strategies’.  The fear with that is that Jane Jacob’s real world “exclamation points” are not always as trivial as a wall coming down.

In a recent paper to the NZAIA Conference 2012, Geoff Bertram from the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies at Victoria University shifted the challenge from the promoters to we the public[4].  He strongly advocated that we beware of the vested interests of the promoters; proclaiming that New Zealand’s greatest psychological weakness is gullibility when faced by promoters often using big numbers, and that promoters will only be honest and open in a policy environment where honesty and openness pay, and where naked propaganda doesn’t.

For that we need the ‘passionate intensity’ to be the chosen preserve of the ‘best’.

Chris Perley


Published NZJ Forestry  2013 57(4): 39-41

Referenced in Roche, M  Sir David Hutchins and Kauri in New Zealand. .  Accessed 10 December 2012

[2] Jacobs, J. 2004. Dark Age Ahead. Random House, NY Chapter  4. Science Abandoned. p66

[4] Bertram, G. 2012.  Lessons from Think Big.  Conference paper at NZAIA Conference 2012,Wellington

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One Response to The Loss of the Napier-Gisborne Rail Link: Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold

  1. Pingback: The Loss of the Napier-Gisborne Rail Link: Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold | Chris Perley's Blog

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