Wednesday, 22 August 2012

This Train

Recently I've heard the "I haven't seen a train running to the local dairy/supermarket" argument, or variants thereof, mostly from supporters of the trucking lobby.

I haven't seen ultrafast broadband yet, but that doesn't mean it's not a good idea.  But I digress.

As much as I am not a fan of big-box retail, it is a trend.  It's a trend because some people, many people, like it enough for it to be profitable.  The principles are fairly simple, lots of customers, low paid and quite transient staff, high turnover and mass produced goods.
Supermarkets are the same.  Most of what people spend on food is through the supermarket.  The staff ask how your day has been because it's their job (the supervisor is watching) and they are not going to make their fortune at the checkout, or stacking shelves.  The food is pretty much the same wherever you go.  A cauliflower from one is the same as a cauliflower from the one down the road, same goes for wine biscuits, toilet paper or vanilla icecream.
For these businesses it's about volume; getting as much through for the lowest cost possible.  When I started my career it was called economies of scale.
It doesn't apply to dairies so much, the higher cost is a reflection of the convenience of not having to travel to the supermarket.

As much as you might sense disdain in my writing, it's meant as an observation, not a criticism of or argument against bulk retail.  If the mood takes me, I'll make that the subject matter of another post.  For the purposes of this post I'll run with the idea that bulk retail holds some virtue.  And it's an increasing trend.

Another trend we can see is the decline of the CBD.  It's a corollary to the rise of bulk or big-box retail.  Christchurch's CBD, for example, was wrecked by earthquakes.  While it is to b rebuilt (and I have already written about the plan to rebuild it), it was widely acknowledged to be in decline before the earthquakes.  A selection of suburban malls had popped up all over the city.
Similar debates have occurred in Hamilton, with the CBD competing for customers with The Base in Te Rapa at the northern end of town.  And in Hawkes Bay there has been the conversion of railway land in Napier and of Nelson Park in Hastings.

I hope that's a reasonable case that as a society we have expressed a preference for bulk retail.  So I'll move to the case for bulk transport to the bulk retail outlets.  Sure, it's a step removed from the retail customer, but the principle remains the same.

Originally the question was framed:
"have you seen a train running to your local supermarket?" - implication is it has to be supplied by truck.

Maybe the question would be better expressed as:
"why doesn't the railway run to my local supermarket?", or
"why isn't my supermarket built somewhere where it can be supplied by rail?"
After all, if the trend is to bigger volume and lower cost per sales unit then the future is not looking good for the trucking industry.

As a footnote, the Hamilton CBD, The Base at Te Rapa, the old railway yards in Napier and Nelson Park in Hastings are all within a stones throw of a rail line already.  Only the Christchurch CBD isn't, and while they are rebuilding it and confiscating land is the ideal opportunity to create a multi-modal transport facility, not just a bus station.  The best reason not to is that it doesn't suit the present government's ideology.

But what if bulk retail is not the long-term direction?  If the cost of transport fuels rose significantly for some reason, we would be looking at a future where people and goods travelled less often and shorter distances.  We would have to make more of the things we wanted locally, using local resources, and accept that doing stuff like importing tropical fruit and cheap sneakers from Asia, or exporting cowards to Ecuador, was just not viable.  Unless they went slowly.
Stretching to an extreme, if most things we used had to be sourced locally, within about 100km, farmers would have to move away from their monocultural approach to agriculture, retailers would know their customers by name (and because their would be more of them CBDs would come back to life, and there would be more competition for customers - sounds terrible I know) and as a society we would be sure to use the most efficient means of moving things around.  Which isn't trucks.

The last scenario fills me with horror (no coffee! - aarrrrrrrghh).  But it is similar to the shape of the society that my grandparents grew up in.  And I'm not convinced that the cost of transport fuels will remain stable in the next five to ten years.  After that, it's difficult to say.

Verlaines - Some Disenchanted Evening, 1989

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