The railway line from Auckland to Whangārei would have closed within a year without a $95 million injection announced on Friday, KiwiRail’s chief executive has revealed.
But the funding still falls well short of the $1.3 billion needed to make Northland’s rail fully functional for freight, including a connection to Northport, Whangārei’s growing port at Marsden Point.
At a glitzy event at Helensville Railway Station on Friday, Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones announced $94.8m through the Provincial Growth Fund for upgrades on the 181km line between Swanson and Whangārei.
Jones told media the funding was “incredibly important”.
“We need a viable rail connection for the current and future growth of the north, because we are not in a position to completely rebuild the roads with the new freight coming out of the north,” he said.
“If you want more economic activity, investment, expansion and further growth in Northland we have got to invest in infrastructure.”
The work includes replacing or upgrading almost a third of the 100-year-old line, maintenance work on 13 tunnels, replacing five ageing wooden bridges, plus improvements to drains, culverts and embankments.
The funding also includes $3.2m to improve the Whangārei Rail Yard, making it safer and more efficient.
The funding is part of the Government’s $1b funding commitment to KiwiRail.
A business case released by the Ministry of Transport back in May noted the poor state of the Auckland to Northland line meant without significant investment it could become unsafe and have to close.
It also noted the line could generate more freight if Northport, at Marsden Point, expanded significantly.
A preferred upgrade pitched in the business case covered the North Auckland line as far as Otiria, north of Whangārei, with a branch line called the Marsden Point Link out to Northport.
However, the work announced Friday stopped short of Otiria and carried no mention of a link to Northport.SharePlay VideoSTUFFUpgrading the Northland rail line would cost $1.3 billion.
“We took some advice from KiwiRail, despite my megaphone approach,” Jones said.
“They were adamant – spend your initial pūtea on rehabilitating the spine and then, once the Wayne Brown report has been worked through by ministers and officials, make your second decision in terms of the branch out to Marsden Point.”
Former Far North Mayor Brown is chairman of the Upper North Island Supply Chain working group, which was reviewing freight and logistics in the area.
State Owned Enterprises Minister Winston Peters pulled no punches about the investment, saying it was needed to keep the rail line open.
Without the investment, the line to Whangārei would have become unsafe and closed within five years, Peters said.
“That’s unacceptable and unfair to the people of Northland.”
However, KiwiRail Group Chief Executive Greg Miller indicated the line was in a worse state than that.
“This railway line would’ve closed inside 12 months, some of these tunnels are that old – 80 years with no funding whatsoever.”
KiwiRail had already had to start strengthening one of the tunnels, which could have closed the line within a year, Miller added.
“The north Auckland line has been in decline for decades.”
Miller added “quite a lot” needed to be done before commuters could use the link.
“The first thing you’ve got to do is establish a rescue plan, and until we build the infrastructure and set it up for freight transport we won’t be able to determine that,” he said.
Currently, KiwiRail runs just one service on the line each weekday. The freight train runs from Auckland to the Fonterra dairy factory at Kauri, north of Whangārei.
The rail journey takes seven hours each way, compared with three to four hours by road, according to a Ministry of Transport business case.
Miller said the line improvements would cut train travel times and make the line more resilient to weather events.
“It gives more certainty for our customers and will make rail an option for Northland businesses and exporters to get their goods to market,” he said.
“Transporting more freight on trains will reduce congestion on Northland roads, road maintenance costs and transport emissions for customers.”
Northland’s roads have the worst crash statistics in the country and more than 99 per cent of the region’s freight is moved by road.
Friday’s investment was welcomed by local transport operators, including former Whangārei mayor Stan Semenoff, who ran Northland’s largest transport company.
“It’s great to see a revival of rail taking place, following the long-term under-investment in the rail line.
“This will be significantly beneficial to the Northland local economy.”
Semenoff called the investment a “first great step forward”.