Editorial: Time to fight for our rail

By Andrew Austin

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Public pressure is a powerful force that can sometimes overturn even the most steadfast position.

KiwiRail's decision not to re-open the Napier-Gisborne railway line after parts of it were washed away in bad weather last year, was not popular in certain quarters from the get-go. KiwiRail said it was simply uneconomical to get the line up and running. But since the last train ran many months ago, opposition, led by mayors and councillors in the region, has grown.

With the authoritative Business Economic and Research Limited (BERL) releasing its independent review of the closure, demand for the line to be re-opened is reaching fever-pitch.

One thing John Key's National Government has shown is that it does keep its finger on the pulse of public opinion and is often prepared to reverse a decision rather than turn the public - potential voters - against it. The most notable recent example of this was when the government backed down on increasing the size of classrooms in the face of parent anger.

Even though the rail link is a regional political issue and, therefore, not as much of a potential vote-loser, you can rest assured that Mr Key and the relevant ministers are keeping an eye on the public mood.

BERL is well-regarded and would have done a thorough job on the review, which was paid for by donations from the public. The report found that KiwiRail's analysis that it would take 1.5 million to 2.2 million tonnes of freight on the line per year to make the operation commercially viable was flawed.

The report said wood and wood products initially on the Mohaka to Napier route could attract 750,000 tonnes per year and eventually lead to the rail line becoming economically viable and potentially profitable "in a few years".

Moving 750,000 tonnes from Mohaka to Napier would be equivalent to taking 83 trucks a day off the highway, each of 344 tonnes gross, carrying about 20 tonnes of logs.

KiwiRail has predictably rejected suggestions the rail line could be turned around into an economically viable freight operation.

Chief executive Jim Quinn said: "What needs to be understood is whether rail provides the right answer to those producers in many different locations in a competitive market."

He said that because of geographical hurdles, if rail was not able to meet the timings and pricings of other transport operators, "the volumes will not come to us and our pricing must be on a commercial basis."

That is all well and good, but one gets the sense that if the heat is turned up even more the final decision will not be made by KiwiRail management, but the government that owns it.

This is why the mayors of the region are so keen to meet Minister of Transport Gerry Brownlee - they know that there is a good chance the final decision will be a political one rather than a strictly economic one.

The first task is for Mr Brownlee and Stephen Joyce - his counterpart in the Economic Development Ministry - to agree to a meeting. It is then up to the local leaders to show why they were elected to their offices by fighting for the future of this region.

If this rail link is not re-opened now, chances are it will never be re-opened. Not only will it cut off an option for transporting goods, but it will also put pressure on the Napier-Gisborne road with truck traffic increasing significantly.

If the Hawke's Bay-Gisborne region wants the link re-opened, the people need to fight for it.

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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