As part of the recent Coalition agreement between Labour and New Zealand First, one of the major policy wins for NZF was the creation of a $1 billion a year fund for regional development projects included Regional Rail. It is highly likely that these Regional Rail projects will include upgrades to the Northland rail such North Auckland Line to Whangarei as well as a new branch line to Marsden Point.
So what do we know about these likely projects?
North Auckland Line
The North Auckland Line (known as the NAL) is the rail line between Westfield Junction (near Penrose) and Otiria Junction (near the Bay of Islands). It is in pretty poor shape once you get past the end of the Auckland rail network past Swanson. Due to funding constraints, the line has not been maintained to a great standard with several speed restrictions along the route. It is nearly all single track and many of the tunnels do not have the approved clearance for standard containers yet alone Hi-cubes which does limit the type of rail traffic between Auckland and Northland.
In June I OIA’d KiwiRail which tunnels were the issue and how much it would cost to upgrade the loading gauge for them to carry Hi-Cubes which they estimated at between $50-60m. The tunnels that need to be upgraded are tunnel 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 10 ,11 and 13.
KiwiRail back in April at the Grow Northland Rail Seminar was quoted as saying
Gordon says it would cost $240 million to bring the railway from Waitakere to Whangarei up to the same standard as the Hamilton to Port of Tauranga railway.
He also quoted some other figures but we likely won’t need a massive upgrade of signals nor electrification.
While I am not sure much container traffic will use the NAL, focusing effort on freight such as on logs, bulk goods and cars could help provide a really good alternative freight link. Focusing the upgrade around a potential of moving car imports to Marsden could result in an outcome that benefits both Northland and Auckland. Who doesn’t like a win-win, or as Matt the other day put it:
While moving all port operations to Whangarei seems impractical, perhaps moving a specific part of the port there could work, the cars. Northport has plenty of flat land near the port that could be used to store vehicles while they are processed. Combine that with a fleet of car carrying rail wagons for the upgraded lines and cars could be railed to Auckland. They could pass through the urban area at night to avoid conflict with passenger services. Even adding an extra $100 or so to cover the cost of transport those cars, it is minor compared to the cost of buying a new car. An option like this would have many benefits. It would allow the Ports of Auckland to focus their efforts on improving how they handle containers. At the same time also freeing up a lot of their land closest to the city centre. A solution that might be able to keep everyone happy. What’s not to like?
The upgrade of the tunnels alongside the commitment to electrification to Pukekohe could also make the Rodney Local Boards desire to run a diesel shuttle to Huapai slightly more feasible as the relevant safety issues would be addressed and enough spare trains would exist to make the service more viable. I’m still not sure if this will make the service feasible as there are other issues but as long as it goes through the business case process, does not detract from the much needed Northwest Rapid Transit Corridor or sucks up outrageous operational expenditure at expense of the New Network, then I’m open to it.
It would also be smart to work with freight companies on the possibility of an inland port on the NAL in Northwest Auckland creating a major rail/road transfer point without having to send every train through the congested Auckland Rail Network as well as opening much more opportunities for the use of the NAL.
Marsden Point Branch
One of the major projects that would likely happen is the building of the Marsden Point Branch Line between Oakleigh and the Port, connecting Marsden Port to the national rail network. The Upper North Island Freight Story estimated that the cost of this link would be around $130m and recommended that in the short term KiwiRail develop a business case for the link. However, in the same OIA as above KiwiRail told me they have not completed any business case for the Marsden Point Rail.
The good news, however, is that ONTRACK designated the corridor in 2009 and it was approved.
Re-opening of Mothballed Lines
The Dargaville Branch, as well as the North Auckland Line north of Kauri, was recently mothballed and an easy win for Northland Rail would be to re-open these sections. Another interesting idea from Nick to re-lay the line to Opua Wharf in the Bay of Islands then running a scenic train similar to the Northern Explorer from Auckland to the Bay of Islands. This would be a fantastic addition to KiwiRails Great Journeys of New Zealand. Interestingly The Bay of Islands Vintage Railway recently gained received resource consent to re-lay much of the line themselves privately so this is very feasible.
Reopening these lines will be very cheap and coupled with the Marsden Point Rail Link could provide lots of value internally within Northland as logs could be moved off trucks and go direct to Marsden, very much as the situation was before the port was moved as the old port (located in Whangarei) did have rail links.
So the costs of these upgrades would likely be around $500m range. This compares pretty favourably to National’s commitment of an expressway to Whangarei which NZTA estimated between $2.2b – $3.2b.
I think this is also good news for Regional Rapid Rail. If $500m of spending on Northland rail can be justified then spending of around the same amount of money for Stage 1 and 2 of Regional Rapid Rail in the Golden Triangle which now makes up over 50% of New Zealand’s population and is expected to account for over 70% of New Zealand’s growth in the future can definitely be justified.