Navigator, Navigator, Rise Up and be Strong…

19th Century UK Railway Navvies

The Pogues have a song on their album ‘Rum, Sodomy and the Lash’ titled, ‘Navigator’. It is a homage to 19th Century Railway workers (the navigator or navvy) and is about the hardship suffered by those who built the railways in often dangerous and hostile conditions for the ‘supply of an empire where the sun never set’.

The song had a special resonance for me, as a considerable number of my relatives had worked on the Railways at various times. My father was the last. He worked on the New Zealand Railways for over 35 years, starting as a Surface man and retiring as a Ganger in the mid 1980s.

New Zealand Railways (NZR) as it was known then, was a completely different creature to what it is now (Kiwi Rail). Firstly, it was well staffed, being one of the major state employers in New Zealand. Secondly, it was well financed (it had not been asset stripped and plundered) and lastly, it was busy. There were lots of trains, going lots of places.  The tracks were full of goods trains and passenger trains which took people and/or rolling stock to where they wanted to go or where they were needed. I remember as a child, accompanying the old man to work (safety regulations weren’t really in force in the 1970s) and watching the trains trundle by and, from memory, there were a lot of them.

The Railways employed thousands of people in diverse jobs ranging from those who served the tea, to shunters, drivers, labourers, gangers, station staff and on to painters, plumbers and electricians. The Railways managed and rented their own houses for married and single people. There were railway communities and even towns. I grew up in a railway house, which was essentially a statehouse owned and administered by the Railway’s Department, and went to school with friends whose parents were also employed by the Railways.

Why the bout of nostalgia? It came about as a result of the Government’s infrastructure package, which placed more money and support in the hands of road transport. Despite all the talk about supporting public transport upgrades, the Government supplied yet more resources to the road transport lobby, fronted by former National (Muldoon) Cabinet Minister, Tony Friedlander.

Yet, if ever there was an agency that would be prefect for significant infrastructural investment it would be New Zealand Rail. As the world finally staggers away from its drunken dalliance with the free market and towards economies that are employment and (more) environmental friendly; and where investment in people and communities are more important then the ‘brass in the pockets of entrepreneurs’, then projects that promote that vision need to come to the fore. Rail is certainly one of those projects.

For the past 20 years, the road lobby has done very well as the rail network has been systematically dismantled and sold off. While, most people think this was because of the work undertaken by former Labour Minister of Railways, Richard Prebble (who ‘saved’ rail by sacking most NZR workers and shutting down significant sections of its operations), the decline of the Railways started in the early 1980s with then Minister of Rail, Colin Mclaughlin corporatising the railways and asking the ideologically driven US Accounting firm, Booze, Allen and Hamilton to undertake a cost analysis of the railway system.

Prebble, of course later took up the Booz Allen Hamilton Report, after first saying that he wouldn’t and then proceeded to implement it. He later acted as a consultant for the buyers during the privatisation of TransRail by the Bolger National Government in 1993. Since then, New Zealand rail has been in private hands and has been systematically asset stripped. When it was finally brought back (renationalised) by the Labour Government in 2008, it was facing complete financial and infrastructural collapse.

The fact is that railways are very effective as a domestic employer and as a maintainer of the domestic economy. (A point worth noting in a recession).  Its network of branch lines went practically everywhere in the country from large cities to small towns, ensuring ease of travel and the easy shifting of frieght.  In terms of frieght. the Railways also kept very large and expensive trucks off New Zealand roads, with the 75 km limit.  This ensured that goods had to be transferred to rail. With the lifting of the limit and the reorganisation of rail, freight levels dropped in the 1980s and 1990s, aided by the formers owners shifting goods to road. Only recently has this decline been reversed. In 2008, there was more freight on rail than at anytime since 1975 (although, the amount of total freight in New Zealand has increased over the 1980s and 90s).

In a world that is facing the prospect of fuel shortages, where people are paying increasing amounts of money on petrol and petroleum products and where road taxes are used to subsidise the building of highways (and the trucking lobby), surely a cleaner and effective option is rail. Its time has (re)come.

Sadly, this does not appear to be the case in New Zealand, which as of always, lags behind everyone else.