While coming as no great surprise, the Government’s announcement that the Napier/Gisborne rail line could be mothballed or closed is a serious threat to the Hawke’s Bay economy and safety on our roads.

Together with three other provincial lines, Napier/Gisborne will be reviewed by KiwiRail in consultation with communities and customers. Its so-called “rail turn-around plan” flags that unless new anchor customers emerge, such lines will be closed or mothballed by 2012. The consequence would be almost total reliance on road transport for freight between Napier and Gisborne on State Highway 2 (SH2), which as we all know, is a secondary road at the very best. The third transport mode of coastal shipping is not viable for other than a very few types of bulk product.

Measured at Tangoio north of Napier, SH2 carries an average of 2,075 vehicles per day, significantly less than say Hastings to Waipukurau at 7,000 per day. But of the Wairoa traffic, over 17 per cent is heavy traffic, double the percentage south of Hastings. This is on a twisty, hilly route with few passing opportunities.

The immediate effect of two train movements per week being transferred to road would be an additional 30-50 truck movements per week.  Maybe not that significant in total vehicle movements, but materially adding to the heavy traffic concentration.

The future though, is of real concern. Freight movements in general are predicted to rise significantly and, in particular, the timber harvest from the Gisborne region is about to grow massively. Unless unprocessed logs are exported from the Port of Gisborne (which would be a lost opportunity in itself), containerised processed product destined for the Port of Napier will rely upon land transport and in the absence of rail, overwhelm the road system.

A specific example is Hikurangi Forest Farms, which is building a major wood processing plant in Gisborne. Its anticipated output on 200 container loads of processed timber per week can be shipped either from Tauranga, but preferably and most probably, from Napier, as long as rail transport is available. This is a great economic development opportunity for Gisborne and Hawke’s Bay and perhaps in itself the salvation of the rail line.

But we and KiwiRail cannot just rely upon one opportunity. In the two-year period of grace available, more freight business must be secured over and above the two present train movements each week (mainly Ravensdown fertiliser to Gisborne).

Formerly, there was a daily service carrying general freight, sawn timber, bulk wine, fresh produce and meat from the Wairoa AFFCO works.

What happened to that trade? Unfortunately there has been a contraction in production and processing of food products in the Gisborne region. Another reason is perhaps more insidious. It appears that under previous ownership, prior to the Crown re-purchase, Toll Holdings Limited promoted the use of their trucking division to secure business at all costs – including the cost of loss of rail traffic.  KiwiRail does not have this conflict as it is now solely a rail operator.

To its credit KiwiRail is not accepting defeat. I am advised that they are seriously investigating lowering the one tunnel on the line which prevents them from carrying hi-cube 40 foot containers. They can already carry 20 foot containers on their low loader wagons but the market is moving to the big hi-cubes. It is worth noting that the significant new Fonterra business (ex-Taranaki) gained by the Port of Napier was only made possible by the recent lowering or, alternatively, “day lighting” of tunnels in the Manawatu gorge area to carry the big containers.

I understand this single tunnel upgrade will cost less than $200,000 and the rest of the rail infrastructure is in pretty good condition. The line is one of the youngest in the country, being finally completed as late as 1936.

Little known also is that monthly passenger excursion train services have been running this year, capitalising on the scenery which is as good as, if not better, than the South Island tourist train services.

To conclude:

  • We must maintain choice in land transport modes;
  • We need rail to keep competitive pricing pressure on road operators and vice versa;
  • Economic development opportunities will be compromised without rail;
  • Safety on the Napier/Gisborne road will be more and more compromised with more and more trucks.

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