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.
Map from Kiwirail, via https://fyi.org.nz/request/3925-nal-reports

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.

Detailed route map of the Marsden Point Line

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 – http://marsdenmaritime.co.nz/

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.

Northland Plantations

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)
  • Dargaville
  • Wellsford
  • Helensville

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.

Marsden Point

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.

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  1. By completing the port link freight traffic south through Auckland, low as it is, is likely to fall further as more Northland sourced product instead heads to Northport. This, along with reductions in road freight, is a good thing indeed. And may open up capacity for new rail traffic overnight through the AKL network, like the possibility of a new Northport based import trade, without requiring any change to the AKL network to accommodate it.

  2. I like the idea of log transfer yards but for a different reason. For years New Zealand has continued to export logs without any value added. Making them transfer logs a few times before they get to a ship would work a bit like an export tariff. In contrast any New Zealand mill or factory that needs logs should be allowed to ship them directly on trucks. Maybe that would finally get some value to be added.

  3. Good article. Also the plans to “one day” move Chelsea refinery to Marsden point would provide another customer for rail. The port at Whangarei when closed was handling approx 6,000,000 tonnes a year do the math. If trucking gets all of that (and more) at say $60 a tonne you’re looking at a whole lot of money and 360,000,000 reasons on Toll Transport and other behalves to oppose any investment in rail.
    The future of Northland is tied directly to this port running well and taking at least the car import business off Auckland, the rest will take care of itself given efficiencies that’ll become apparent over time.
    The fly in the ointment is however that Northport is part owned by ports of Tauranga and Ports of Auckland and they for one don’t have an interest in seeing Marsden Point taking their business.

    1. I can’t see Northport taking container business off Auckland. The reason Tauranga has made this work is it is New Zealand’s largest export port. This means there are already container ships calling with space on board, thus railing imports to Auckland can be cost effective. There are no export container ships leaving Marsden Point, they would have to begin bringing ships in specifically to offload imports, I can’t see where your efficiencies would come from.

      1. The problem is that Auckland wharves are cluttered with hundreds of imported cars. The problem is so bad that Ports of Auckland wants to extend the wharves further out into the harbour. The public are against it. By offloading the cars further north, the shipping companies would save some cost (fuel and wages) and time (the very slow route in the channel past Rangitoto Island to a berth).

        1. My comment was around the idea that containers would come through Northport instead of Auckland. I agree it is certainly an option for cars, although I would have thought the cost of transporting the cars from Marsden to Auckland would be a lot more than the saving of not coming into the Waitemata.

  4. Harriet, totally agree with your post on this.

    In your previous linked post I am suspicious of Gordon from NZR in his estimation of how much is would take to get the Helensville to Kaiwaka section up and running properly. They are pretty sad old wooden bridges up there.
    I liked your image showing an electrified train carrying cars. The scope needs to include electrification of the NAL from Waitakere through to Northport. That is consistent with the Carbon Transition plan from Minister Shaw.

    So let me try an idea out on you.

    What if NZTA were tasked with rebuilding the line from Kaiwaka to Northport.

    They are already required to design a fresh motorway through the Brynderwyns to Whangarei.

    The Kaiwaka to Whangarei line section is the most cumbersome and time-wasting.

    So what if the rail line were re-aligned from Kaiwaka to Marsden Point, using the same designation as the new motorway?

    Of course, some tunnelling would be required to get under the Brynderwyns and out to the Waipu plains.

    But from the Waipu plains it’s level right through to the port.

    Under NZTA, both rail and motorway would be able to be built quickly and under an integrated designation, by one agency.
    That is quite cost efficient. It also takes the responsibility for new capex away from Kiwirail begging for it, and inside NZTA/NLTP.

    I suspect they are going to have to get use to this degree of responsibility for accelerating rail anyway.

    The result would be significant time savings, time reliability, and safety benefits for both rail freight and for public road traffic. As well as opening up Northport.

    And of course the old rail designation land could be put on the block as part of the northern Treaty settlements.

    1. It would be quite nice if rail didn’t have to necessarily wend its way all the way out west of Auckland too but that is another argument. Getting the NZTA to take responsibility for rail has always made a lot of sense.

  5. I think the real opportunity for Marsden is to relocate the Navy base there. The Navy could then provide cheap housing there for families. The existing Navy land in Devonport could be zoned high density for residential.

    It would be a big boost for Whangerei with all the navy families and young people moving there and the Navy could build a state of the art training facility.

    That will also help Lake Road as most Navy personnel have to drive from off the Peninsula and that will just get worse with the Navy no longer supplying housing for its people in the area.

    1. Plus Whenuapai and Papakura, military bases in the largest and most expensive city in the nation is daft. Especially as land value is high, housing provision is undersupplied, and some regions need investment. Britain’s 3 major naval bases are in Portsmouth, Plymouth and in a damp loch in Argyll, not exactly high land values or popular cities to live in. In Nz no base should be located within the Golden Triangle, this would aid with regional development and offset shrinking or stagnant population growth in these areas.

    2. Not sure how keen the Navy would be on loosing a significant number of staff. I don’t think it is realistic to think all of the Navy’s sailors and other employees would uproot their families and head to Whangarei.

      I agree though this is a wise idea in the long run.

      1. Great idea. Have said this in the past as follows:

        Navy to Marsden
        Air Force from Whenuapai to Marsden
        Joint base between Navy and Airforce (even get some Army in there too).
        Whangarei needs a new airport (the existing one is too small and runway too short).
        Build a new airport there for the both civil and military (2 birds, 1 stone).
        Whangarei could then have jet flights to places like Wellington and maybe even the odd international service (basically would become Auckland’s second airport – 2 hours drive once the motorway is built…. takes about that long to get to Auckland airport a lot of the time from the North Shore!).
        All of a sudden you have a lot more jobs going on in Northland with development happening for housing etc (with cheaper housing costs than Auckland). It is only 2 hours from Auckland so those that want their families there can still have them there and spend time over the weekend – many will live halfway in-between in places like Warkworth.

        As others have mentioned it would free up a huge amount of valuable land in Auckland as well as free up thousands of houses there. Devonport in particular could be excellent for high density with a new ferry service to the city and shops etc.

        The rail link will of course help all of this and eventually even a passenger service could be considered in the future.

        1. +1, an airport at Marsden with Navy and Army housing would also support an urban passenger service for Whangarei anchored by Kaeo and Marsden.

        2. Fully agree, this would be a good regional development initiative for Northland as well as freeing up prime current Government owned military land in Auckland for much needed housing.

          Perhaps people should raise these ideas with Regional Economic Development & Associate Transport Minister Shane Jones and Deputy PM & SOE Minister Winston Peters, who are both from Northland.

        3. I fully agree IRT to moving the Jack Tars/ the pus to Marsden PT, but I’ll disagree IRT the RNZAF moving to Whangarei as I would move the Maritime Wing incl 6SQN to Kiatiaia Airport as a new greenfields RNZAF Base as it has a lot of room for expansion especially since the RNZAF are soon to replace the P3. Kiatiaia Airport was one of the WW2 expansion bases that was built during the war for the Maritime and Bomber aircraft and the fighters were base around the other airfields in Northland. The Airlift Wing moves to Ohakea, but this leave the problem of what to do with Group/ Chicken Stranglers at Papakura Army Camp could move them North as well?

        4. +1 on the Whangarei idea, not so much on the Kaitaia one though. Such a lot of great ideas on this forum, I hope at least someone from Govt reads it…

      2. Not enough berthing space at Northport for the navy, not without significant environmental changes. Local Iwi are already challenging NZ Refining in RMA oover additional dredging

        1. Longer term we need another port don’t we do perhaps the Navy could move then. Air Force from Whenuapai to Marsden probably quite a good idea though I like the idea of some local military presence in Auckland, also this runway is good for emergency landings and such when there is a problem at Auckland. Will be interesting how the Auckland port copes going forward if it can be modernised & made efficient, especially regarding space & use of rail as much as possible. Sure need the 3rd & 4th mains put in.

    3. You can’t put high density residential at Devonport, they’ll be more congestion on Lake Road…its better to put residential development out in Drury and Kumeu where the traffic effects are less. /sarc

    4. The density of the housing would be higher than that of the naval base, even with say half of the total naval land being developed, so Lake Road traffic might increase rather than decrease. The solution to Lake Road lies in providing proper public transport options so that private vehicle dependency is reduced.

      I can see some upside in having a naval presence in Whangarei, but to move all Auckland operations to Northland might be a huge task with perhaps little return on the high expense involved.

    5. That’s a great idea. Then the Navy ships could sit in port all year up there instead and we could open up our waterfront even more…

  6. Last time I asked NorthPort about this, they were getting on average 160 truck deliveries per day, mostly logs from Northland forests. No brainer to build the line. Should have been done 10 years ago. Next best time is now.

  7. I’m interested in the phrase ‘reopen’ the Marsden point branch line. Should be build the Marsden point branch line. Soon, please.

      1. No, there has never been a rail line to Marsden Point. Use of the word “reopen” in this context is in error. The only nearby closed rail line was to Onerahi.

  8. The North Auckland Line has considerable potential for moving a great deal more traffic if the Marsden Point line gets built.

    The line should actually be built as a new deviation for the North Auckland Line running onwards south from Marsden Point along a similar route to State Highway 1 along the Waipu plains and Finlayson Brook Road to rejoin the NAL at Mareretu just north of Maungaturoto. This would cut out all the tunnels and the steepest section of the line between Mareretu and Oakleigh, enabling a single DFT loco to go from only being able to haul 600 tonnes to 2000 tonnes.

    The Dargaville Branch line should be re-opened and upgraded with new track with heavier rail and the branch could incorporate the current section of NAL between Waiotira and Oakleigh, as well as relaying part of the former Donnelley’s Crossing Branch line from Dargaville as far as Kaihu where a new centrally located log loading yard could be established on the old station yard site on State Highway 12 to serve all the plantation forests in this area.

    At Otiria, a full railfreight terminal with container transfer facilities should be established along with reopening the log loading yard and relaying the short missing section of track between Otiria and Kawakawa and upgrading the line from there to Opua as part of the KiwiRail network again to enable passenger trains to operate from Auckland through to the Bay of Islands (the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway could instead just pay an access fee to use the line between Kawakawa and Opua).

    Consideration should also be made to relay the former Okaihau Branch line from Otiria right through to its former northernmost point at Rangiahua where a new northern log loading yard could be established here beside State Highway 1.

    With the amount of traffic the NAL can be expected to carry once a rail link is established to Marsden Point, particularly if the Ports of Auckland gets relocated to NorthPort, the line should be upgraded into an extension of the North Island Main Trunk line north from Auckland to Whangarei with tunnel widening / daylighting / realignments, including the already surveyed Makarau deviation to bypass the problem Makarau tunnel, along with extension of double tracking and electrification from Swanson to Kumeu (for Auckland EMU services), installation of signalling between Waitakere to Whangarei and relaying the track with 50kg rail along with curve and grade easement to get the line speed up to a minimum of 80-100km/hr.

    Planning should be made to also build the long proposed Avondale-Southdown line to provide a direct link from the north to the Southdown and Westfield rail terminals to avoid freight trains needing to run through Newmarket, and if heavy rail were to be built to the airport between Onehunga and Puhinui, this line would connect with the Wiri Inland Port rail terminal and the Wiri Oil Services terminal. With having a direct rail link between Marsden Point and Wiri, fuel from the oil refinery could potentially be railed between Marsden Point and Wiri should the fuel pipeline fail again.

    With a fully upgraded and faster line between Auckland and Northland, a new long distance tourist passenger service could be established on the line between Auckland and the Bay of Islands. This route could also be used by the proposed new luxury touring train ‘The Antipodean Explorer’ once it is up and running.

    1. Well given that all three parties in the coalition promised to build the Marsden Point link and reopen the Napier Gisborne line for that matter they better get on and do it. My view is that Marsden Point will never replace Auckland port however some containers would flow to and from it on rail from the south if it was built. I am not too sure if its worth the effort to upgrade the tunnels though. Small wheeled wagons could be provided to allow for high cube containers to be carted to and from Auckland and further south. The govt should buy these wagons plus logging wagons and chip containers so we don’t get kiwirail trying to blackmail potential customers into providing rolling stock.
      They should also pay for sidings to be built into Mainfreight the cement works and also the LVL mill at Marsden Point. The money should not be given to kiwirail as it will be spent elsewhere and we will still have an nonviable Northland rail system.
      I have posted about the tyres to the cement mill and also wood waste to burn in the kiln before. The tyres would probably be a greater tonnage than is carried on the line at present not to mention the cartage from all parts of the country on the rail network.The Govt should finance suitable containers for this traffic as well.

    2. All good ideas Robin.

      The Finlayson Brook Road alignment would be easy for rail (and easy to build today, with modern equipment).

      The old alignment to Rangiahua from Okaihau down the escarpment to the Waihou Valley was tortuous, but an alternative alignment forming a large horseshoe curve to the east of this old alignment could work, or an alternative route west from Lake Omapere to Rangiahua via the Utakura River could also work (but this would bypass Okaihau, which could be another useful intermediate loading point, due to having road access from many directions).

    3. They also could extend the electrification through to Helensville as AT have spent money upgrading the platforms there also.
      And relay the track to Kaikohe as this could bring big industry back to the town

  9. Well that’s all very nice and all but no one here mentions the cost of these ideas… the land under the designation is very soft and peaty… and I have heard somewhere that Kiwirail thinks the cost of the Marsden spur is in a few hundred million… which makes the economics pretty sick when you are only talking about hauling water and cellulose (a log)…

    So the question is not about can you build it, but can you AFFORD to build it. And who pays for this? Socialise the costs of your wet dream onto the taxpayers I would expect…

    So where does this rail boondoggle sit in the pantheon… hospitals, schools, housing, poor kids… where does it fit?

    Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should….

    1. Well, there was no expense spared when the decision was made to build an expressway through a bog at Meremere.

      Topography doesn’t seem to hold up the building of roads everywhere and anywhere so why should local geography be a deal breaker when it comes to building railways?

    2. In 2003 the line was estimated to cost $86.5M. Oct 2017 labour said it would spend $200M on the line.
      A better question is how could the rail line enable port expansion for logs, when there is very little space / land available? Similarly where could a car import terminal, container terminal, sugar refinery, naval yards, etc., be located? Its just not possible for the port to grow.
      So I think the line should be built as cheaply as possible, i.e. along the designated corridor only.

      1. This is a good observation. The land looks quite limited for all the ideas put forward. It looks somewhat limited for an increase in logs. It is hard to see where the massive area needed for car imports could be found.

        1. There is land about the size of the entire Auckland CBD behind the port. The port itself currently uses about 1/4 of the waterfrontage that could be used if fully developed.
          I’d say do cars and logs at Northport (along with oil) and add the Navy in too.

    3. We socialise the cost of bad driving causing death and dismemberment to the tune of $4b a year so a few hundred million for a system that reduces that seems like money well spent

    4. The engineering required to build a railway over soft ground is less than required for roads. This is because of the superior weight distribution characteristics of sleepers ballast and formation.

      If the track over time because of soft ground underneath slumps it is easy and quick to fix using a tamper.

    5. The Puhoi to Wellsford highway upgrade went ahead despite having a cost-benefit analysis of 0.8.
      Currently the transmission gully motorway is under construction. It’s cbr got controversially “revised” (the revision of which was critiqued) to something about 0.75 from and original analysis of worse than 0.5.

      Has anyone got the CBR of the Marsden point branch? Because I expect it to be better than 1.0.

  10. I wonder if the deck well principal used with twin stack container wagons on American railroads could be adapted to NZ wagons allowing single stack containers to be conveyed on restricted load gauge lines like the NAL?

    1. Can and has been done for 20 foot containers. A longer deck section would out such a wagon out of gauge on some corners due to wagon centre overhang (NZ rail loading gauge reduces in width below standard wagon deck height).

  11. The N.Z. first party and the greens have been pushing this one for years, and for good reasons as it definitely has real benefits. It should be a catalyst for sparking a railway revival in Northland that would lead to the upgrade of the NAL’s capacity and the reopening of mothballed feeder lines. So it would seem natural to assume that the new government would do something about getting it built but unfortunately while the Labour Party have talked about it, Labour have a history of being all talk but very different action when it comes to railways.

    One thing that should be noted is that if it got built and induced a fair amount of traffic; it would probably also necessitate the building of the Southdown-Avondale link to avoid too much railway congestion in central Auckland, which would also be expensive both time and money wise.

  12. Every now and again, yet-to-be-published articles show up in my rss feed for this site – is your publishing platform behaving how you want? (P.S. I’m looking forward to reading about “Improving Wellington’s Rail Network Part 2”)

    1. that was 1 of 3 that Harriet’s done that have disappeared into the ether and including today’s about Platform 2 at Newmarket

  13. Trains are amazing, they reduce congestion, road maintenance, carbon emissions and Northport wil remove those hideous motor vehicles from our waterfront. The downtown population of Auckland makes it ludicrous to occupy such good property with such worthless material. Bring on the downtown entertainment sector!

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