Last Tuesday before the budget I got a call from a reporter from the Herald asking my opinion on the Government’s rail announcements. I told him if he told me what they were, I’d tell him what I thought! He asked my opinion on the Government’s decision to close the North Auckland Line (this isn’t what the Government actually proposed) and my comments appeared in this article:

Fears for Northland rail link

By Mathew Dearnaley

Photo / Mark Mitchell

Transport campaigners are concerned that mothballing the rail line to Northland would reduce options for diverting freight from Auckland’s congested Auckland waterfront.

KiwiRail yesterday disclosed that as part of its $4.6 billion “turnaround plan” – into which the Government will pump $750 million over three years – it is considering mothballing four under-used railway lines, including the link between Auckland and Moerewa.

Chief executive Jim Quinn said the company was responding to a signal by the Government, which owns it, “to focus the scarce capital we get into the most productive areas where the revenue is”.

He denied that KiwiRail had an aggressive closure agenda, but expected all four lines to be mothballed by 2012 unless the communities they served could show ways of making them viable in the short-term.

Campaign for Better Transport spokesman Jeremy Harris said that would defy commonsense, given the potential for a large amount of extra business from a spur line to the port and oil refinery at Marsden Pt.

Although several tunnels would need widening before trains could carry containers to and from Northland, Mr Harris said that could be done for just a fraction of the cost of the 38km highway the Government wants to build between Puhoi and Wellsford for $1.53 billion to $2.04 billion.

He said sending containers to Northland would take pressure off Auckland’s port, which faced growing demands for greater public access to the waterfront.

Northland Regional Council chairman Mark Farnsworth hoped to make a strong case for the Government and KiwiRail to take a long-term strategic view in keeping the line open.

Yesterday’s announcement was principally about freight services, although the Auckland and Wellington regional councils are on notice from the Government that their ratepayers and commuters will have to pay more for track maintenance.

Transport Minister Steven Joyce said $7 million would be allocated in tomorrow’s Budget to help to cover an undisclosed shortfall on passenger rail services in the two regions while rail access charges were being renegotiated.

The Auckland Regional Council fears not only that its annual bill for access charges may treble to $6 million, but also that it will be called on to contribute to loan repayments for the electric trains the Government has agreed to buy the region for $500 million.

Mr Quinn said KiwiRail intended to hold consultations over the next year with all communities likely to be affected by decisions to mothball the four lines on its list.

My point was quite strong given what I’d been told, it didn’t make sense to me to announce it’s closure without taking into account Marsden Pt. I didn’t really think too much about it till two days later this letter appeared in the herald:

There may be many reasons for the Northland Rail Link remaining open but, unfortunately for the Campaign for Better Transport spokesman Jeremy Harris, a container port at Marsden Pt. is unlikely to be one of them, either in its own right or as a relief port for Auckland.

If he knows anything about transport, “better” or otherwise, he might be aware that the trend by container shipping lines like Maersk is to reduce their number of ports of call. In the not-too-distant future there’s likely to be only two ports in New Zealand where the largest container ships call – one each for the North and South Islands. The North Island port will likely be Auckland or Tauranga’s – not Marsden Pt. And that’s just if we don’t just become a spoke in the wheel of a hub port in Australia.

So we better not go widening those tunnels yet.

Steve Newman, Birkenhead

It’s amazing how quickly you get used to being called an idiot in public. Sadly the Herald didn’t print my response but here it is:

In response to your correspondent Steve Newman, who claims that there is no need for the North Auckland Rail Line to Marsden Pt. due to shipping consolidation.

I hope after writing his letter to the Herald he wrote a letter to Northport informing them to cancel their upcoming board meetings and for the wharfies to down tools and head off to the WINZ office, as the capitalist system of competition is no longer needed, he has decided Northport will fade into the history books – despite their obvious advantages of having the only truly deep water port in the North Island and the country’s largest refinery immeaditely adjacent to the port.

I hope he also wrote a letter to Steven Joyce demanding a rail head at Whangarei and an upgrade to the North Auckland Line – now urgently required to freight logs from Northland’s maturing forests to Auckland and Tauranga.

The name, Steve Newman seemed really familiar to me and I couldn’t figure out where I had seen it.

Update: As noted in the comments it seems that there are (at least) two Steve Newmans and they got mixed up. Many apologies.

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  1. I think your point was inherently sensible Jeremy, and Steve Newman doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

    Marsden Point is the best deepwater port in the North Island, from what I know. That’s why the oil refinery was built there and that’s why there has been pressure put on to sort out the rail link.

    A lot of Auckland’s local government politicians are eyeing up Bledisloe Wharf, and fair enough too – it’s scandalous how we are shut off from the majority of our waterfront here. So I think in the longer term it’s inevitable that Ports of Auckland will struggle the maintain its current area – let alone expand to cater for increased freight.

    Furthermore, my understanding is that the main shipping trend being seen at the moment is a shift towards extra extra large ships – that would only be likely to make one stop in the North Island. While Auckland seems to be the logical place for that to happen, if they’re too big for the Auckland Port then it would seem as though the deepwater Marsen Point would be the next best bet.

    In short, Northport does potentially have a very important future. And we need a good rail link to it.

  2. This is exactly the type of misinformation spreading and muddying of the waters that the road lobby has indulged in for years. Why didn’t he just be honest and declare himself the CEO of a trucking company rather than just a “concerned citizen”. (let’s be honest it will be the same Steve Newman)

    It’s a shame the Herald did not run your response.

  3. I’ve heard that Northport may not be able to be expanded too much because of it’s shape, so Newman may be right, even so the two points that irked me though:

    1). It’s Auckland or Tauranga for the North Island port – no explanation why needed
    2). He didn’t declare that he was involved in the industry – at least when I state things publicly I put my opinions and where they come from out there clearly

  4. If Steve Newman is correct then there is certainly no need for Puhoi – Wellsford either.
    Somehow I seriously doubt he would write a letter in complaining about that waste of money.

  5. Well that is another thing that annoys me Luke, people who aren’t really interested in NZ having the best transport system but the transport system that best lines their pockets…

    Please be very clear the “Steve Newman” referred to in earlier blogs in not Steven Newman, CEO of EROAD. This is a different individual.
    Steven Newman – CEO, EROAD

  7. In an unrelated meeting at the Beehive back in 2003, it was mentioned to me by a relevant government official, that a major shipping line was pressing the government to turn Marsden Point into the major NZ shipping hub.

    As far as I can see everybody has been wanting Marsden Point to happen for a long time but nobody wants to invest. A catalyst is required I think to turn Marsden Point into a reality, maybe it’s big container cranes? Still, these cost money too.

  8. Thank you for stopping by Steve – that is why I e-mailed you… I shall update the post this afternnon…

  9. Steve W: “As far as I can see everybody has been wanting Marsden Point to happen for a long time”

    I know MP has the deepest water of any harbour in NZ, but it is way up one end of the country. I realise the point is to offload at the hub location and then distribute to coastal shipping, but surely there are better options somewhere a bit more central. Tauranga has been mentioned as another alternative. What is the size limit for vessels at Tauranga? It might be sufficient for any non-tanker ship that is likely to visit NZ.

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