A few months ago I outlined the opportunities for Northland rail upgrades. After doing some more research I have found some more interesting information that backs up the case. For this post, I will focus on the Marsden Point line and log traffic.
Much of the talk around reopening the Marsden Point branch line has focused around the opportunity this to enable the port at Marsden Point to take over some or even all of the freight trade from the Ports of Auckland. This is a complex area that we will return too in later posts. In this post I will focus on how the line will benefit other freight opportunities within Northland.
In 2011 Kiwirail was reviewing the future of the Northland lines outlining some of the key issues:
- There are 270kms of operational track;
- The distance between Westfield and Whangarei by rail is 215km, compared with 185 km by road;
- Travelling time between Whangarei and Auckland is five hours by train;
- Current rail traffic is two return week-day freight services and occasional passenger charter services between Auckland and Whangarei and local services within Northland for forestry and dairy customers;
- Commodities moved by rail are predominantly dairy and forestry;
- The Northland to Auckland portion of the rail network earns revenue of $8 – $9 million a year, however it costs approximately that much to operate the trains;
- Northland’s rail lines are old, some dating back to 1880s and have been maintained to low standards in recent years because of the low traffic levels and funding constraints. Considerable investment is needed to allow for faster train speeds and larger modern sized containers
- There are 13 tunnels between Auckland and Whangarei and work is needed at six of them to create enough space for larger containers.
Currently, Northland rail is in a bit of bad state. In late 2014 the branch line to Dargaville closed because of poor track conditions. Then in late 2016, the section of line from Kauri (just north of Whangarei) to Otiria (near Kawakawa) was closed because of the poor condition of wagons and lack of commercial returns. These two lines were carrying logs to the chip mill at Portland, and the logs now go by road. There is currently only one train a day each way, and this carries export containers from the Fonterra dairy factory at Kauri, and wood products too & from Tokoroa. The closed branch lines still have the track in place, and the Dargaville line is now used for rail cart tours.
The Marsden Point railway line does have an advantage over many other infrastructure proposals. Thanks to some foresight from Kiwirail’s predecessor ONTRACK and the Northland Regional Council the line was designated in 2009. This means the corridor has been identified, protected and effectively consented. Subsequent to this some property has even been purchased.
Therefore, there is the opportunity for this project to proceed quickly, and perhaps even be open within 3 years.
The majority of freight handled by Marsden Point currently is logs, with over 2.6 million tonnes being handled in 2016. This volume is growing fast with tonnages up 11% over the previous year.
Marsden Point port was opened around the year 2000 to replace the Whangarei Port which was very constrained. Rail was used to transport logs from around Northland to the old Whangarei location, however when the port moved no rail line was built and the traffic was lost. This was a big hit to rail in Northland, with tonnages per annum dropping from 1,000,000 to only 300,000 tonnes.
The map below shows the 18 major plantation forests in Northland.
Most of the forests appear to be well located to be intercepted by the rail line at key locations. The key exceptions would be about 5 forests that are closest to Marsden Point itself.
Four key transfer stations could be established at the following locations for logs to be loaded from trucks onto trains.
- Otiria (north end of rail line near Kawakawa)
At least 3 of these locations were operating until the last couple of years. Some investment would be required at each of the sites to create a flat yard with space for trucks & log loaders to operate, however, the overall investment would be minimal.
These log transfer yards have been created a number of locations around the country in the last few years. In 2016 one opened in Masterton to increase the transport of logs by rail to the port at Wellington (Centreport). This yard cost $1 million and was a partnership between local forestry companies, Centreport and Kiwirail.
As well as the port, the Marsden Point line has the opportunity to serve other major adjacent industries. Two key ones are the oil refinery and the Carter Holt Harvey LVL plant. Both of these are adjacent to the port as can be seen below.
Most of Refining NZ’s fuel products are sent to Auckland by pipeline, or by coastal shipping to other ports around New Zealand. However, a few niche products do travel by road, so there is some potential for that instead to travel by rail.
Rail could also potentially play a useful role in providing emergency capacity if the pipeline ever was to suffer from disruption again. As we saw in September last year it is difficult to provide emergency road capacity for fuel haulage due to driver licence restrictions. Therefore, a rail link could reduce the issues, however, this would depend on how quickly appropriate fuel tank containers could be obtained.
There is also the potential for Carter Holt Harvey to use rail for inbound raw logs, and as well as taking finished products to Auckland for export or around New Zealand for domestic use.
Overall there appears to be a strong case that the Marsden Point line can be a successful & busy line from local forestry traffic alone, without requiring containers or cars to be shifted from Auckland.