Wellsford new engine room for northern railway upgrade

The upgraded line will be capable of transporting larger hi-cube freight containers.The upgraded line will be capable of transporting larger hi-cube freight containers.

Protection planner Paul Andrews.Protection planner Paul Andrews.

Work started this month on the $204 million upgrade of the northern rail line and a temporary headquarters has been set up in Wellsford.

The project will see the replacement of 54km of track as well as works on 14 tunnels and replacement of five bridges.

It will allow bigger, heavier trains to carry more cargo at greater speed between Auckland and Northland.

KiwiRail says it wants a share of the 30,000 freight containers that travel through the Dome Valley via truck each year.

Such is the scale of the project, KiwiRail has established its Northern Coordination Centre in Wellsford, with a dedicated team headed by protection planner Paul Andrews.

Paul returns to the north after having worked for four years on a rebuild of the main line in Kaikoura, following the earthquake in 2016.

He says the current state of the northern line is “certainly not flash”.

“They don’t call the area the forgotten north for nothing,” he says.

Although KiwiRail has not made any commitment to a passenger service, Paul says the upgraded line would be capable of it.

“As a born Northlander, it’s great to see something in the area that could have wider benefits down the line.”

During the project’s peak there will be up to 400 workers on the track at any given time, and it’s Paul’s job to ensure they are able to work safely and efficiently.

KiwiRail has set a deadline of December to finish the project. Delays will be costly, as all freight transport on the line has had to be halted in the meantime.

Paul says working on the rail corridor has unique challenges, since equipment and crew are transported by the very track that is being worked on.

Train gangs are transported via a road vehicle adapted with steel flange wheels that make use of the track.

Similarly, diggers with specialised wheels are used to pull up track and replace rails and sleepers.

From his office, Paul ensures that different work groups don’t accidentally run into each other or pull up a segment of rail that is needed for travelling to a worksite.

Work has begun on replacing four bridges between Hoteo south and Maungaturoto.

The Maungaturoto train gang, which has overseen maintaining the line there, now gets to participate in the upgrade of their line.

Bridge 126 in Te Hana is being replaced with a more modern design called a trough bridge. The structure is essentially a trough filled with loose rock and the rails sit on top of them rather than being anchored down.

Paul says this design means that the rails are able to move slightly, which makes future maintenance and levelling works much easier.

“This line will be fit for use for generations,” he says.

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