Mike Williams: Rail line should be on all candidates' wish list

By Mike Williams

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I'M DELIGHTED to see the fate of the Napier-to-Gisborne rail track become an issue in this year's general election.
I know something about this having served as a director of Ontrack between 2004 and 2008.
Ontrack owned and operated New Zealand's rail infrastructure before KiwiRail was formed.
In August 2005, the Ontrack board faced the issue of closing the Napier-Gisborne line after the Nuhaka rail bridge, crossing an estuary, collapsed under the weight of a 170-tonne crane.
This incident was fascinating in itself as it was thought that global warming had played a part by allowing timber-eating bugs called teredo worms and wood gribbles (I'm not making this up) to get established further south than normal sea temperatures had previously allowed.
The line was judged to be loss-making as the cost of maintaining a complex and difficult corridor and offering a service was not covered by the income from the freight the line carried.
I strongly supported the line staying open.
I believed (and still believe) that the calculation which said the line was "losing money" was incorrect in a broader context.
If the still substantial tonnage of freight that the line then carried were moved to trucks, as would be inevitable, then the maintenance, repair and renewal costs of the state highway between Napier and Gisborne would increase.
A truck does the damage of 5000 to 10,000 cars.
As this extra cost came from a different government budget, it was therefore not counted.
Apart from increasing the number of trucks rumbling through the streets of Napier, Wairoa, Gisborne and along an already difficult state highway, closure would have amounted to a vote of no confidence in the future of the region.
Even in 2005, there was talk of the looming "wall of wood" coming from the forests along the East Coast.

These logs would have to get to the ports at Gisborne and Napier and rail is clearly the best option.
I was also aware that there were marginal electorates at both ends of the line at that time.
The board voted to repair the bridge and keep the line open,
Napier National Party candidate Wayne Walford's suggestion that the line get converted into a cycle trail is so daft that I suspect that he has been maliciously set up, or as my dad would have said "he's been put crook".
Several Hawke's Bay Today correspondents have pointed out that the corridor is utterly unsuited for such a purpose.
There are five major viaducts just between Napier and Wairoa.
Mohaka at 97 metres above its river bed is the highest viaduct in New Zealand and those at Waikoau, Waikare, Matahoura, and Maungataranga, are over 60m high.
All are not much more than a metre wide.
Without massive expenditure on widening and fencing, anyone cycling across these engineering triumphs would invite a "whoops there goes granddad" moment.
Former councillor Alan Dick summarises the dangers of the route and the silliness of Walford's idea well, but doesn't mention the deadly history of the route.
The Ontrack board often met at rail nodes like Napier and Gisborne and we would try, where possible, to add in a rail journey.
One of these trips was between Wairoa and Gisborne.
This is one of the most exquisite rail journeys on earth.
It passes through virgin bush, so close you can touch it and hear the birds.
It scrambles along a cliff on huge, weathered concrete cubes formed by long-since rusted away wagons. There are tunnels and endless sea, bush, rural and mountain views.
Properly promoted by a united Hawke's Bay tourism organisation, a reopened line could generate good business for the shrinking and depressed-looking town of Wairoa.
Travellers could also learn about the human price we paid for the line.
Somewhere north of Opoutama in a bush-clad valley, the track passes a lonely obelisk.
This marks the Kopuawhara disaster.
On February 19, 1938, at 3am, a wall of water 5m high overwhelmed a rail construction camp.
The single men's huts, closest to the creek, were swept away and 21 workers were killed.
This remains the worst death toll for any flood in New Zealand history.
The cloudburst which led to this tragedy was apparently miles away from the campsite. There was, and could not have been, any warning.
This is where Wayne Walford wants to send cyclists.
The people of Hawke's Bay have paid heavily for this lethal treasure in money and blood.
The measly $5 million of government money it would take to restore the link as a railway should be a demand by all political candidates this year.
If Wayne's National Government can find $30 million to subsidise Southland's smelter it can find $5 million to fix our railway line.
#Mike Williams, who grew up in Hawke's Bay, is a former Labour Party president. He is a director of Auckland Transport and CEO of the NZ Howard League.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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