The new government’s Regional Development Fund was the highest profile part of the coalition agreement between Labour and New Zealand First. Improving the country’s rail network in areas outside the main cities was highlighted as key area where the fund could be targeted:
They agreed to create a $1 billion regional development fund that would invest significantly in regional rail and plant 100 million trees per year in a billion trees planting programme.
One obvious early area to target some of this money would be to reopen some of the regional railway lines that were mothballed (track still in place but trains no longer running) under the previous government.
Late last year I wrote about the potential upgrades that could occur for Northland rail which included:
- Re-opening the track to Dargaville Branch which was mothballed after a 2014 derailment;
- Re-opening the line north of the Fonterra factory at Kauri to Otiria (near the Bay of Islands) which was mothballed 2016 after KiwiRail cancelled the contract with the customer due to lack of suitable wagons;
- Work with the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway who wish to relay the track to Opua Wharf which was partially closed in 1985 with some sections used for local tourist trains over the years.
Re-opening parts one and two will be mainly for freight purposes which coupled with building the Marsden Point rail link could result in mode shift back from truck to rail, especially around logging.
Re-building part three as written about by Nick here would allow a scenic train similar to the Northern Explorer from Auckland to the Opua Wharf in the Bay of Islands. This would be a fantastic addition to KiwiRails Great Journeys of New Zealand. However, this would likely involve significant wider upgrades to tracks and bridges to ensure they are at much higher stages, so this is likely best suited as a longer-term project.
Napier – Gisborne
After washouts just north Wairoa in 2012, the line north of Napier was also mothballed. While the Napier to Gisborne line had been struggling for a while, about 6 months before the washout the line was open to ‘high cube’ containers which is made it much more attractive for export freight companies. As a result, the line was busy again for a few months, but Kiwirail’s shortsightedness & fiscal straight-jacket meant the line was closed. The cost to repair the washout will be about $5 million.
Interestingly the Napier to Gisborne line has strong community support, and Hawkes Bay Regional Council has been wanting to reopen the line ever since it was closed. Strong support has also been shown from local from local food and log export businesses and Weatherall Transport who are a major Gisborne based freight operation. A local company known as the ‘Napier Gisborne Railway Company’ was even formed as an operator for the rail line given Kiwirail’s reluctance to be involved. This group had intended to take over the lease of the line and run themselves but so far they have been unsuccessful in their negotiations with Kiwirail and progress seems to have stalled over the last year. If you’re interested in further background this is useful long read from a local magazine. The original plan was to run log trains between Napier and Wairoa (avoiding the washout) which would have minimised investment, though a new log sorting & transfer yard would have been required at or near Wairoa.
It should be noted that all three parties that make up the Government either promised an investigation or to re-open the line all the way to Gisborne, so there is strong political will for this reopening to occur.
Another line that was mothballed was the Stratford–Okahukura Line a 144km line running from Stratford in Taranaki to Okahukura (just north of Taumaranui) where it joins the North Island Main Trunk. The line follows a similar to the well known Forgotten World Highway through Whangamomona.
Due to deferred maintenance, this led to a lot of speed restrictions. A derailment death occurred in 2002 and in 2009 was mothballed because of a serious derailment which damaged 9.5km of track. The cost to repair was estimated at that time at $450,000 to fix and KiwiRail had just spent $750,000 to upgrade tunnels along the line.
Since the mothballing freight from Taranaki to Tauranga and Auckland (mostly Fonterra exports from their large Whareroa site) now travel via Palmerston North. However, the slow travel time means rail is not competitive for many types of freight that require overnight delivery. The line is currently only used for rail carts by a local tourist venture. Costs to reopen the line are expected to be much higher than the initial estimate due to the need to catch up on deferred maintenance along the line. In 2010 a cost of $7 to $10 million was quoted to cover essential maintenance over the next 3 years.
Re-opening this line would be a win for the Government while also providing resilience as an alternative route to the North Island Main Trunk.
While the simple costs to reopen the lines are often only a few million dollars, the actual figure required will probably be two or three times higher than this. All the lines would have suffered from deferred maintenance for many years before they were mothballed and will have a low quality of track and other infrastructure overall.
Some of the lines also have low axle loads, which means they cannot handle fully loaded modern container wagons. The lines would also benefit from providing new modern freight handling and transfer facilities, notably for containers and logs. These corresponding investment will ensure the reopening of any line sis commercially viable in an operational sense on a day-to-day basis. Overall this means we should allow $10-15 million dollars for the reopening of each line, though of course more exact figures should be determined in the Regional Fund applications with input from Kiwirail and future customers.
Overall re-opening these lines would still be relatively cheap but could be really good short-term wins for the Government and a great use of the Regional Development Fund given we expect that these lines could all be easily reopened in the next 2 years. The Government could also consider adding the Wairarapa upgrades to the Regional Fund list as well.