Rail enthusiasts in Northland have accused Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce of playing "pork barrel politics"* during a fleeting visit to the region last week with the message that the Government would continue investing in roads rather than rail.
Grow Northland Rail said the minister should stop thinking he could sweet talk his way through this electorate by making empty promises.
Group spokesman Alby Barr said the National Government needed to start taking rail seriously.
More than 460 people filled up the Capitaine Bougainville Theatre and the exhibition hall at Forum North earlier this month during a public forum on the future of rail in Northland. The meeting was organised by Grow Northland Rail after KiwiRail announced last month Northland's sole surviving railway line was to be mothballed north of Kauri because it was no longer viable.
"Steven Joyce might not realise that after the '10 bridges' nonsense in the Northland by-election, the region needs more than empty promises this time around. He needs to deliver some long overdue respect to the people of Whangarei and listen to the clear public support for growing rail," Mr Barr said.
Mr Joyce spoke about the recently-released Tai Tokerau Northland Economic Action Plan at a New Zealand Chamber of Commerce Northland lunch in Whangarei last week. He said roads rather than rail would continue to receive a lion's share of taxpayer funding on infrastructure in Northland, because that was the preferred mode of transportation for freight, tourism and the passenger industries.
The minister said KiwiRail was not prepared to invest in rail in Northland because nobody wanted to pay a commercial price for its use. Northland MP Winston Peters said, by saying rail needed a big customer, Mr Joyce has confessed that the region's economy had been run down under National's watch.
In yet another attempt to defend his unconvincing "action plan for Northland" which had no mention of rail, Mr Peters said Mr Joyce had come out saying government money will go on roads not rail. Mr Peters said New Zealand First backed the experts over Mr Joyce.
"They see prosperity for Northland, Auckland and New Zealand in the big picture approach, with a mix of road, rail and sea transportation, which seems to elude Mr Joyce," he said.
Grow Northland Rail is planning a petition to be submitted to the Government, similar to one organised in 2012 which attracted 13,000 signatures. Grow Northland Rail also hopes to host public forums on the issue in Portland shortly and in Auckland with the super-city's mayoral candidates.
* "Pork barrel" is a metaphor for the appropriation of government spending for localised projects secured solely or primarily to bring money to a representative's district.