Roads rather than rail will continue to receive a lion's share of taxpayer funding on infrastructure in Northland because that is the preferred mode of transportation for freight, tourism and the passenger industries, Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce says.
He made the comments after speaking on the recently released Tai Tokerau Northland Economic Action Plan and the government's Regional Growth Programme at a New Zealand Chambers of Commerce Northland lunch in Whangarei yesterday.
On why there was no mention of rail in the action plan, Mr Joyce said the plan was created by locals with input from the local government, iwi and the business sector and the general consensus was a focus on roads.
"The trouble with the rail network, particularly the link north of here is there's no customers. Nobody wants to use it, nobody wants to pay a commercial price and so not surprisingly KiwiRail doesn't want to invest in it."
He said lobby groups like Save the Rail Northland may be saying publicly that businesses were prepared to utilise rail to transport their goods if it was cheap enough but all they wanted to do was to save money by getting taxpayer subsidy.
The minister said there was talk of a drop in wood supply in future which would not equate to a growth in the number of logging trucks in Northland.
"I think what we do need to do is improve the roads for the volume of traffic we've already got and if you look at what the plan says it was very much focused on the road firstly from Whangarei to Auckland and secondly on the roading around Northland including the bridges and the roads for tourism and so on."
He said even Northport was not focusing on rail. However, he said Northport would keep growing and the biggest opportunity was for the company to get more container freight from Northland going out through Marsden which would take the pressure off roads and off trucks trying to get to Auckland.
"It's about volume but it's also about what's the best way to get your goods to the market and I think the approach that Northport's taken to developing feeder services to the bigger export ports that the local manufacturers and exporters can use, means they get to bypass Auckland whether it's rail or road," Mr Joyce said.
An upgraded rail link to Northland and link to Northport Rail, he said, could happen in Northland one day but it was important money was spent where it was going to make the most difference.
"The thing that makes rail work is if you have a really big customer who ships a lot of stuff by rail and that's difficult as you look around Northland there's nobody stepping up."