A famed Stanford University “marshmallow experiment” involved children being offered one marshmallow treat to eat straight away, or two of the sweets if they could wait 15 minutes.
The test assessed the concept of delayed gratification and found that while only a minority grabbed and ate the marshmallow immediately, fully two-thirds of the children could not wait the 15 minutes to gain the extra rewards. They ended up with one, quick fix. They also ended up with worse life outcomes.
Auckland’s transport chiefs and councillors faced a similar conundrum this week: grab a new, $207m battery-powered train set now or wait five or six years until full electrification of the region’s trains was completed in conjunction with the government.
They opted for the one marshmallow now, and agreed to place an order for new trains which will use battery packs to run on the un-electrified segment of tracks between Papakura and Pukekohe. The battery trains are kind-of AC-DC – they use the batteries along the track which is not electrified and then move onto the main part of the electrified track in which the batteries are re-charged.
The transport chiefs would argue they couldn’t pass up the marshmallow now, as the city’s hunger for public transport is pressing and just could not wait for a double treat, the permanent solution. People would be left waiting on platforms, the chance to persuade them to make a “modal shift” from cars to rail would diminish.
The councillor chairing the Finance and Performance Committee, Ross Clow, quipped: “A cheaper option might be to look at Tokyo where you have got the guards there and they just push everyone in.”
Councillors accepted the battery solution, despite the borrowing taking the council towards its maximum position within a debt-to-revenue ratio set by credit rating agencies.
Veteran councillor Mike Lee, a former board member of Auckland Transport, was the sole vote against the new train deal at the committee yesterday. Part of his objection was that by opting for the battery train fleet now, the city would forgo a proper electrified line to Pukekohe for many years. It would let Transport Minister Simon Bridges off the hook.
“Doing this really means you can forget about completing the electrification of the Auckland network and all the benefits for our political lifetime,” Lee said.
“Instead, we should be renewing our efforts before the election to pressure the government and all leading political parties to get this done. Why should Auckland have second best. Why can we not have a complete electrified network like Wellington got 60 or 70 years ago?”
He was concerned the costs would be carried by ratepayers rather than, in the future, the Crown.
“If we are going to create huge new housing developments, one of the prerequisites is rail.”
Councillor Christine Fletcher accepted Auckland had let the government off the hook in the past but did not believe the people of southern Auckland deserved to endure a delay if an earlier solution was at hand. “This is the most cost-effective way of achieving this.”
Mayor Phil Goff strongly backed the battery solution. “It provides us with a headache. It takes us right to the threshold of our debt to ratio rate. [But] It is an expenditure item which is absolutely justified.”
He linked it to the government announcement at the weekend of a Special Purpose Vehicle which would pay for $600m of the infrastructure costs needed around big housing developments.
“If we are going to create huge new housing developments, one of the prerequisites is rail. Two new stations at Drury and Paerata will be funded out of the SPV. Without these new units we will hit maximum capacity and not meet demand, and create a reputation we cannot afford to have.”
Auckland Transport chair Dr Lester Levy said the goal of better public transport was not just to solve congestion but also to address social equity. “This is a critical element in decisions we are making at Auckland Transport. All these people who have some sort of disadvantage as it relates to transport still have a right when it comes to access to transport services.”
The council-controlled AT made the urgent request for council financial backing so it could make a deposit on the 17 three-car units of rolling stock by September and ensure they were delivered by early 2019, to meet expected peak hour demands on the rail system. The new units would expand the existing fleet of 57 electric trains.
The number of people using the urban train system had been predicted in 2013, when the first electric vehicles rolled out, to reach 17.8 million this year, but had already hit 19.6 million in the past year and is now forecast to hit 21.9 million in 2019.
The new units would help cater for that new peak. Auckland Transport is also looking to change seating and the layout of carriages.
At present, passengers from Pukekohe have to change from diesel trains to electric at Papakura station. “This is unpopular and detracts from the passenger experience,” a council paper said.
Auckland Transport hopes to have the national Transport Agency pay “at least half” of the $207 million cost, with that being considered by the NZTA board at its next meeting. The Auckland body would also need to save $50 million from its own budgets to contribute to the new fleet.