Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A brief and partly accurate history of the NZ rail network

The last time I caught a train from Auckland to Wellington it took all day and half the night.  In the early nineties, you may recall, it was decided that the best way to make the trains in this country run on time was to sell them to a mob of shameless profiteers.  The assumption was, I think, that if the railways were owned by companies who had no particular interest in maintaining them or investing in new infrastructure, we would end up with a state of the art rail network that would be the envy of the world.  We shouldn't laugh - the decisions were made by policy-makers who cut their teeth in the eighties, remember, when governments everywhere were motivated by strange ideas.  Ronald Regan, for example, wouldn't even get out of bed without consulting his astrologist.  Here in New Zealand, our economic policy was mostly informed by a machine called the MONIAC, which modeled the domestic economy using a baffling system of water-filled tubes and counterweights.  That mistakes were made in this environment is unsurprising to say the least.

What the MONIAC and the occultists who interpreted its gurglings failed to predict was that the company that eventually ended up owning what was left of the railway lines by the mid-2000s would try to increase its margins by firing the maintenance staff.  Actually, maybe they did know that.  It was fashionable for a while  there for politicians to complain that as they rumbled along in their state-owned trains, they looked out the windows and saw all these guys leaning on shovels, not doing much work and generally representing a check on economic growth.  I think privitisation was supposed to make the organisation leaner and meaner or something, removing all these make-weight layabouts from the payroll.  It turned out that this might have been a case of selective perception - the maintenance workers were generally quite busy, but they weren't going to be doing very much with their shovels while the politicians were actually rolling past, because they would get hit by trains and die.  This is kind of like a train driver wondering why all the level crossings in the country are closed all the time.  Anyway, after ten or so years of Tranzrail's ownership, what with the asset-stripping, large-scale redundancies, and the massive reduction of investment in maintenance, the tracks were a mess. It sometimes took as much as fifteen hours to get from Auckland to Wellington, which is insane.

More selective perception: from a train, all the towns look like this.

That's why I had some misgivings about catching the train to Wellington last week to play a show in Paekakariki with Rosy Tin Teacaddy.  Don't get me wrong - I love playing in Paekak, and I love playing with the Teacaddies, and I really love their new songs.  Thing is, it sounds pretty romantic to catch a train to play a show, and just about every folk musician you talk to will tell you that they've got plans to do a tour of the main trunk line or something, but it can be a bit of a pain.  I mean, you spend all day traveling, and then you wind up in a railway station with about half a ton of gear.  Profit-driven delays on top of this is just adding insult to inconvenience.  As it turned out last week, though, catching the train from Auckland to Wellington is quite a lot of fun these days if you're in good company and the weather is nice.  Ms. Millicent Crow was plying her wares at Craft Country Wairarapa in Greytown on the Saturday, and I had the Paekak show on the Friday, so we put on our best traveling outfits and escorted one another on a Grand Day Out.

They didn't actually let me drive.  But they did let me pretend to drive, which is basically all you can do with a train anyway.

 There's a balcony now!  But they won't stop if your hat gets blown off.

The main thing that's changed since last time I caught that train is that now I own a part of it again, so it's working a whole lot better.  A few years ago, the government bowed to pressure from just about everybody, and admitted that maybe the MONIAC crew had made a mistake - actually, private companies don't seem to be that good at making trains run on time at all.  They admitted that yes, this was embarrassing, but they did the decent thing and renationalised the whole show.  Now it's actually quite lovely, and not at all like a train in, say, North Korea or 1970s Poland.  It turns out that state ownership does not have to be highly correlated with surly train guards, back-breaking seats, and salmonellous dining options.  In this case, we had things like leg-room, reasonably priced and quite tasty refreshments, and a pleasant stop at National Park so we could take photos of trucks.  And, although I hate to belabour the point, it was even on time.

Mountains, a tractor: what more could you want?

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Don't go changin'

You might have noticed that musicians are getting smellier lately. That's not just because you're getting a bit older and more respectable and noticing these things more keenly, and it's not even because we're in the grip of the nineties revival and we've gone all, ah, 'grunge,' as we used to say. There are actually sinister forces at play here; forces that conspire to keep our musicians down and out and smelling like socks.

Putting our feet up
What's going on is that these days, if you want to fly in an Air New Zealand plane, you get to check one bag. It used to be, you may recall, that you got the twenty kilos, which you could spread across as many bags as you thought might be useful. In fact in our healthily sports-focused democracy, you actually got a bit more weight for 'sports equipment,' so if you were up for trying to convince the staff that your massive bag of effects pedals was actually golf clubs, you were basically home and heading for the showers. You could check in your guitar, your pedal board, your merch, a sack of brightly-coloured educational toys for the rhythm section, and, crucially, a change of socks. Or even two, if you were going to be gone for more than a week.  Recently, though, they changed the rules. Everything is a bit more efficient, and the staff have been replaced by cheery robots who are not easy to trick. One bag means one bag.

That means you have to prioritise, and plan ahead.  The one bag, in the first instance, is going to have to be your guitar case. The massive pedal board may seem important, but let's be honest - no-one really knows the difference between 'fuzz,' 'overdrive,' and 'distortion.' There's probably going to be pretty serviceable reverb on the amp when you get there, and nobody, nobody wants to hear 'flange.' All you need to do is stick your delay in one pocket - get that small one by Boss and stop your whining - and shove just the one fuzzy sort of overdrive pedal in your guitar case. The guitar is the main thing - arrive without the guitar and you will find that you don't look so cool when you walk out of the airport. Merch is more tricky. Apart from the bit where you get to walk out of the airport looking cool with a guitar case, there's not a lot of point in going on tour unless you're going to sell merch. Now, it won't fit in your guitar case, so what you'll need to do is fill your hand luggage with CDs or vinyls or commemorative dolls or whatever the kids are buying these days at their concerts, and carry the whole thing on board looking all nonchalant like 27 kilos ain't even a thing.

That pretty much takes care of the checked baggage and most of the hand luggage, especially if you're like me and insist on taking your violin everywhere (that's kind of a looking cool thing as well - nothing says 'I may not have a job but at least I can complain about suffering for my art while you buy me a drink' like a battered old violin case). That means you really don't have much room left, so you're not going to be able to bring anything to keep the rhythm section busy.  Which means honestly I think they shouldn't come because they'll just act up and it will be a headache.

The upshot of this is that not only is there no room for the rhythm section, which is not in itself a bad thing, but there is also no room in the modern musician's touring kit for a spare pair of socks. Or, say, a clean shirt.  Sometimes you even have to only bring one cape, which can be a hard decision.  You see where I'm going with this, of course.  A few nights of the devil's music, no change of socks and whoops I forgot my toothbrush, and it's no wonder if that musician in your life smells a bit like teen spirit.