$100 million northern railway upgrade spurs controversy

MERRA committee member Stuart Windross says the railway upgrade is “just the ticket.”

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and Regional Development Minister Shane Jones last week announced a nearly $100 million investment to revive the railway between Auckland and Whangarei, but the response has been mixed.

The planned work will include replacing or upgrading almost a third of the line, maintenance work on 13 tunnels, replacing five aging bridges and improving numerous drains and culverts.

The 181km line runs from Auckland to Helensville, through Kaipara Flats, Wellsford, Topuni, Kaiwaka, Maungaturoto and up to Whangarei.

KiwiRail group chief executive Greg Miller said decades of decline had caused damage that would have closed the rail line for business within a year.

“Currently, 95 per cent of the freight in Northland is moved by road and the improvements to the North Auckland line (NAL) are the foundation for addressing that imbalance.”

Logistics industry magnates Don Braid, of Mainfreight, and former Whangarei Mayor Stan Semenoff, of Semenoff Transport, both came out in support of the upgrade, saying their companies would investigate using rail transport solutions.

But Northland MP Matt King says the announcement shows the government doesn’t have its transport investment priorities straight.

“Rail is not commercially viable, and to throw money at it when 99 per cent of freight movement in the north is by road shows a complete disregard for common sense. Rail cannot compete with trucks, and businesses demonstrate this by voting with their feet,” he says.

“It’s pretty telling that despite much-needed state highway improvements, road is still the first choice for transport in and out of Northland. Unlike the Government, National is prepared to invest in a four-lane highway from Warkworth to Whangarei.”

Rodney Local Board member Colin Smith, whose town of Wellsford sits directly on the line, also says investment in rail is not practical.

Mr Smith points to the fact that cargo transported on trains still has to be loaded and unloaded to be moved by trucks on either end, which is inefficient and not necessarily an improvement on the industry’s carbon footprint.

“If they had any brains they would pull the rail out and turn that corridor into a highway for trucking. It would take all the trucks off the road and, thanks to a flatter incline, could have goods transported to and from Auckland within two hours.

“We are talking about the 21st century, not the 18th century. That rail was put in 100 years ago during the war when we didn’t have decent roads.”

But the rail upgrade has been welcomed by the Mahurangi East Residents and Ratepayers Association (MERRA), which has been lobbying for rail solution for transporting waste to and from Waste Management’s proposed Dome Valley landfill.

MERRA committee member Stuart Windross says the railway upgrade is “just the ticket.”

“Given the upgrade, we expect Kiwirail and Waste Management to work together to help take 451 return trips worth of trucks off the road.”

Stuart says once an application for a resource consent for the landfill has been made, MERRA will advocate for rail in subsequent hearings.

“The fuel burn is 20,000 litres per day for the rubbish trucks on the road. It’s my understanding that rail could reduce that by 65 per cent.”

KiwiRail says it aims to complete the majority of the NAL work within the next year.


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