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The big and the little guys

We all recall that David beat Goliath, but more often than not, big businesses trample on small ones. We just need to look at some recent reports on the relationship between the two supermarket giants and their suppliers.

In this story, the corporation is called KiwiRail.

KiwiRail is a state-owned enterprise, best known for its train services throughout New Zealand and for running the Inter-island ferries. Throughout its history, KiwiRail has had huge amounts of money ploughed into it by successive Governments. In return, it gets most local commuters to work late, it pays no dividend to the taxpayer, and it does not appear to make any return on the capital that has been invested in it.

Last year, KiwiRail announced it would close seven railway crossings across Masterton, Featherston and Masterton. They held consultation meetings in Carterton and Masterton [but not Featherston], and this created an uproar. When people asked KiwiRail for the data they were basing their decisions on, there was none to speak of. The data that many people would have liked to have had was traffic flow data [if you close one part of a road, what impact does this have on other roads?] and some idea of the economic cost of closures.

After much discussion and some heated town hall meetings, KiwiRail did go and ask an Australian firm to do a study. As a result of that study, KiwiRail has announced it will only close five crossings and that it is willing to reduce that to four crossings if the Masterton community stumps up with $1.5-2 million for intersection improvements on Judd’s Road. This is where the David versus Goliath analogy comes in, because if Masterton says to KiwiRail “Can we negotiate, or maybe pay 50/50”?, KiwiRail is not under any obligation to even discuss the subject. It can just adopt a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.

Meanwhile, without any town hall meetings, KiwiRail has sprung a surprise on Featherston by announcing two crossing closures. I will not go into detail here, but one of those closures [in Brandon Street] must inevitably create huge safety risks whenever the traffic backs up along the southern stretch of State Highway 2 coming into town. And back up it does. This occurs whenever there is a large event being held in the region, such as the Martinborough Fair, or Wings over Wairarapa. It also happens whenever there is a crash on the Wairarapa side of the hill road.

This story ends with something else that KiwiRail did, also in Featherston. At Anniversary weekend, they refurbished the track running through the town. This involved major disruptions for traffic travelling along State Highway 2. KiwiRail gave such little notice to retailers in town about this disruption that they were unable to adjust their plans in time. Anniversary weekend is traditionally one of the ‘big’ weekends for local retailers as visitors from over the hill come into town. But not when roads are closed or blocked, and heavy machinery is all around. What happened was that people got out of town as quickly as possible. What might have been a profitable weekend turned very quiet, except for the noise made by KiwiRail.

When the work was finished, KiwiRail had installed two new concrete islands along the centre of State Highway 2, either side of the railway line. One of those islands prevents southbound traffic entering what had been a very popular car park and that has been devastating for some of the small businesses that relied on people parking and shopping. Again, there had been no discussion with affected businesses, and no opportunity for people to suggest amended arrangements that might have been win-win. Big corporations do not have to discuss or negotiate. Often, they are monopolies that ignore what life is like for real businesses that need to make a return on their capital.

    Martin Connely is currently on leave. He wrote this column before going on leave.

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