Long-term gorge solution needed, say Manawatu logistics firms
By Dave MacIntyre
An aerial view of the Manawatu Gorge slip – millions have been spent on annual maintenance and clearance costs over the last decade
A long-term alternative is needed to the slip-prone Manawatu Gorge road, if the role of the Manawatu as a logistics and distribution hub for the lower North Island is not to be compromised.
That’s the overwhelming view of transportation companies and businesses in the region, who feel the government needs to come up with a new roading alternative. State Highway 3 through the gorge has been sealed off since a large slip occurred on 17 October last year. The gorge is the main artery for the flow of imports and exports between the Port of Napier, the Hawke’s Bay region, and the Manawatu/Wanganui/ Horowhenua areas.
All of this traffic has had to painstakingly detour via the Saddle Road linking Ashhurst and Woodville or the Pahiatua Track between Aokautere and Pahiatua. The detour adds at least 15 minutes each way, but the complications are increased by a lack of passing lanes and the fact the roads are not designed for this amount of traffic.
With the gorge cut off until mid-year, companies are ruefully counting the cost and are mounting a drive to get the government to recognise that a long-term alternative is needed.
Absorbing the costs
Tim Crawley, managing director of automotive and diesel service company AutoKraft, says the direct impact on his business is the extra time taken by technicians going to call-outs in the Dannevirke and Pahiatua areas. “It can mean up to 30 minutes extra for the trip, particularly if they are patching the road or if there are holdups. This entails a cost, but the question is where that call falls. Is it on the customer or on us? Someone has to absorb it. “The gorge closure has also impacted on many of our customers in the transport and logistics sector,” he adds. “Palmerston North is a major distribution hub for the lower North Island, and it is essential to have a road link to the East Coast capable of taking high volumes of heavy traffic.”
Looking to the future, Mr Crawley says there needs to be a long-term viable alternative to the gorge. “Neither of these roads is made for high volumes of heavy vehicles. The truck and trailers cut the corners and damage the edges. There are a number of roads in New Zealand that are designated alternative state highways. One of these roads at least needs to be lifted in status so that extra money can be spent on it.”
Graeme Musson, branch manager of AWF (Allied Work Force) Manufacturing & Logistics, which supplies drivers for many transport operators, is very concerned at the safety implications of the detours. “As a company, we carry our own ACC exposure, so if there was a fatality or serious accident, there could be a major effect on us,” he says.
He sympathises with the impacts that the detours are having on transport dispatchers. “If a driver is taking an extra half an hour for a trip, it has a cumulative effect. That is one driver and his vehicle that are not available for a halfhour later in the day. Then you only need something to occur, like the recent accident on the Saddle Road involving a truck and trailer unit, which blocked the route for two-and-a-half hours, and it disrupts the entire operation.”
Mr Musson says the current problems are a lack of foresight in road planning, and what particularly disturbs him is the lack of planning for a long-term solution. “The three current options of the gorge, the Saddle Road and the Pahiatua Track are not good. The politicians have not realised the gravity of the situation. They need to review the capital cost of a short-term repair against the investment in a new road. In my opinion, there must be a new route found.”
Delayed truck trips
The impact on a major distribution company which chose the Manawatu as the base for its distribution centre can be seen in the case of Foodstuffs and its subsidiary, AF Logistics.
AF Logistics CEO, Craig McCulloch, and Foodstuffs domestic logistics manager, Mike Aberhart, calculate that 276 truck trips a week from Palmerston North to destinations east of the gorge, as far afield as Wairoa, are being delayed. “That means over 14,000 delayed truck trips per year, undertaking an extra 8 km or so for each trip over a demanding hill road,” says Mr McCulloch.
“The approximate cost to us is $13,500 a week in direct extra running costs and time delays, to which should be added additional repairs and maintenance which are already starting to be seen. The bottom-line impact for us is getting on towards three-quarters of a million dollars a year.”
Mr Aberhart says the unseen effects spread further: “Our deliveries to supermarkets are highly scheduled, but we have a safety buffer built into the schedule. Once you have a longer trip to get across, and especially when further delays occur through roadworks or accidents, it strips that buffer out.”
Not a long-term option
Mr Aberhart feels the closure must be having a significant impact on the supply chain. “Napier is the primary port for the lower North Island, and a high percentage of its cargoes must be transiting the gorge. The thing about the gorge is that even if you fix it, there are Foodstuffs and Ezibuy both have major distribution centres in Palmerston North, and have been affected by the closure of the gorge no guarantees this won’t happen again.”
Mr McCulloch agrees. “There are two facts you can’t ignore. One is that the gorge is not a long-term option as a state highway capable of handling the freight transport volumes it has to take. The second is that Palmerston North will continue to be a freight hub that needs good transport access to the East Coast regions. I haven’t seen any evidence of the government investigating options on how to fix this for the long-term.” These firms confirm the findings of the Manawatu Chamber of Commerce which recently polled members for their views. Chamber CEO, Steph Gundersen-Reid, says businesses don’t want a continuation of the situation whereby every five years the gorge is shut by a major slip closing the road for at least a month.
“They want a new east–west roading project underway with urgency. There is a perception that the strategic importance of the Manawatu as a distribution hub is being overlooked,” Ms Gundersen-Reid says. “The government has set out the importance of its roads of national significance (RoNS) as being pivotal to the national economic growth. Here in the Manawatu we have a long-term problem that threatens our regional economic growth and the growth of the economies of Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa.”
No new road
Ms Gundersen-Reid wrote to government ministers, seeking to initiate debate on a long-term solution, but Minister of Transport Gerry Brownlee is unconvinced. He told FTD: “The NZTA’s top priority at present is reopening the Manawatu Gorge and maintaining and, where possible, improving the alternative routes. Once the gorge reopens, the NZTA will be able to carry out a significant overhaul of the Saddle Road to ensure it is better equipped to carry heavy volumes of traffic should the gorge close again in future.
“There are no plans for a new road. The Manawatu Gorge route is the most viable long-term route; what’s important is that a robust alternative route is available in the event of a closure.”
Mr Brownlee also dismissed the idea of making the alternative routes state highways or elevating the gorge road to RoNS status. “The gorge road is already rated as a national strategic route, which makes it a very high priority, and it is being treated as such. There are no plans to make it a RoNS.”
Most economic answer
However, recent research on the gorge closures throws up a query as to whether short-term fixes are in fact the most economic answer. Corporate Logistics, a consultancy company based in Palmerston North associated with education provider Logistics Training Group, says the cost of ‘carrying’ the current gorge road closure is over double the values being touted in local media, even when ignoring the loss in asset value associated with the use and subsequent damage that is occurring on the Saddle Road and Pahiatua Track. It contends the cost of the road closure needs to be established and calculated in terms of regional loss of GDP and what additional cost the region has suffered in its capacity to effectively act as a distribution hub for the lower North Island.
Corporate Logistics’ leading analyst, John Hannan, who has a geological/environmental background, has based his calculations on average traffic flows recorded by the NZTA and assumed additional travel time for each alternative route as 15 minutes, with the detours approximately 13 km in length.
A conservative hourly rate of $20/hr has been assigned to the journey to account for loss of productivity and driver wages, and a cost per km of 80 cents for light vehicles under 3.5 tonnes and $2.20 for heavy vehicles over 3.5 tonnes.
The total cost of a single return trip works out at $15.40 for a light vehicle and $33.60 for a truck. This does not factor in any cost for further delays caused by breakdowns or slow traffic.
Mr Hannan calculates the total cost to road users in the first six months of the gorge closure has been $21.6 million.
Going back over the last ten years, Mr Hannan has further estimated the annual maintenance costs spent on the gorge road, plus the clearance costs for the 2004 and 2011 slips, and added the detour costs incurred during those two major closures.
The net result is that around $46–48 million has been spent in the last decade – and the trend is expected to continue into the future. “The continued cost of maintaining access and potential road user costs following road closures for the gorge is extrapolated over a 20-year period to be around $100 million,” Mr Hannan says. “
Any long - term solutions proposed for continuing road access through the Manawatu Gorge region should consider this sum and develop an answer in conjunction with the imposed geological constraints of the area. Are there any better ways in which this money could be used by considering a longer term of investment payoff (20–50 years) for any proposed solution?” he concludes.
Dave MacIntyre is an awardwinning journalist who specialises in transport issues within New Zealand; he can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org