Shane Jones wore a conductor’s cap and blew a whistle three times to get everyone on board the party train.
But the hundreds of central and local government politicians and hopeful candidates, KiwiRail bosses, business people, Māori representatives and rail lobbyists were already well on board with the news the Auckland to Whangārei line will be upgraded to the tune of $94.8 million.
The upgrade will be complete and freight trains back on the line by next September.
Jones, the Minister of Regional Development and conductor of the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF), and KiwiRail chief executive Greg Miller made the announcement at the Helensville railway station yesterday.
Some of the 181km line between Swanson and Whangārei is more than 150 years old, and the “newest” sections are more than 100 years old.
The line could not stay financially viable with maintenance work alone, Miller said; it needed a total upgrade or nothing. He predicted that, without the nearly $95 million from the PGF, the line would close in a few years.
Miller said there was no doubt the line would be profitable and good for shifting Northland’s produce.
In 2001, before the line’s “managed decline”‘, 1 million tonnes of cargo was railed along it.
Miller described in woeful tones today’s “worn-down track, tunnels falling apart, culverts sinking…”
“The North Auckland Line [NAL] has been in decline for decades and without this investment would have had to close in the near term. KiwiRail has already had to start strengthening one of the tunnels which could have closed the line within a year,” he said.
That tunnel, north of Kaukapakapa, was the destination for yesterday’s party train.
Jones made his mark on a concrete slab at the northern end of the 600m-long bridge.
While his indelible hand mark and signature testify to the Government’s provincial support policy, its commitment to helping things get on track in the regions, no one could talk up the significance of taking “a train up the motu” quite like Jones.
While the Northland-based politician was keen to see the Marsden Point rail link come on track as soon as possible, this $95m was “stage one,” he told the Northern Advocate.
“We’d have loved to include it this time around but KiwiRail told us you can’t have that link unless the main line is working. You can’t build the ribs unless the spine is strong.”
Miller also said the Marsden Pt link was likely to be “back to the table” before Christmas, once the much-awaited Upper North Island Transport review committee’s report was in hand.
“But today’s down-payment is an awesome one, thanks.”
He also said if the Marsden Pt link became “stage two”, the next move would be to get up to the railhead at Otiria, near Moerewa, to get the logs on the rail.
Earlier, by the quaint old Helensville station, hundreds of people had revelled in the announcement, in a marquee where stays fought furiously for freedom, aided and abetted by a strong wind racing over the flats beside the Kaipara Harbour.
The song at the end of Jones’ and Miller’s speeches, sung by KiwiRail kaumatua, bosses and staff, was a version of Woody Guthrie’s train riding anthem, Spirit of New Orleans, with a new chorus: “Good morning Aotearoa, how are you? Don’t you know me I’m your native son. I’m the train they call The Northern Explorer, I’ll be gone five hundred miles when the day is done.”
And while the North Auckland freight train is unlikely to travel 500 miles or kilometres in a day, the line’s upgrade will enable trains to speed up from the 40km/h the current condition dictates to 60km/h, shaving 1.5 hours off the five-hour trip from Whangārei to Swanson.
The extensive upgrading will include replacing 56km on a bed of 50,000 new sleepers, repairing 13 tunnels and lowering the floor level of some so taller, modern rolling stock can get through. Five of the 88 old, mostly wooden, bridges will be replaced, along with about 237 of the 950 culverts, embankments bolstered and safety and efficiency improvements made at the Whangārei rail yard.
The majority of the large crowd had travelled south from Northland to hear the news many say will be a game-changer for the region. They could have filled a few train carriages, had there been such a thing — but the message from KiwiRail was not to get too excited yet about passenger trains, they would come further down the track.
Upper North Island Transport committee chairman Wayne Brown was all smiles, repeating the often heard “game-changer” tag.
Kaipara District Deputy Mayor Peter Wethey said he was excited about business growth and community development that would occur in places like Maungaturoto, where there already was already infrastructure, railyards and room for growth.
“Who knows what’s going to spring off this? We’re already looking at an east-west connection to the main line.
“If we can take trucks off that highway and provide and efficient passenger and freight service, well, the sooner it can happen the better.”
Tony Savage, chair of the Great Northern Railway Charitable Trust, said in the future Whangārei would become a satellite of Auckland, a northern city where people lived but travelled on fast commuter trains to work in Auckland. In the meantime, the rail line would play an important role in growing Northland’s economy and its people’s quality of life, he said.