Moves are afoot to create a Gisborne consortium to run a short-haul rail line to Wairoa, as the future of the 90km northern portion of the mothballed Gisborne-Napier line looks like being the main issue East Coast candidates will be fighting over in next year's general election.

There are already proposals in place to reopen the Wairoa-Napier section of the line.

Speaking at a Tairawhiti Rail Forum in Gisborne, Maori Party co-leader Marama Fox, New Zealand First leader Winston Peters and Labour Party transport spokeswoman Sue Moroney all backed restoration of the line as being good for the economy, environment and population.

All three party speakers agreed the line should reopen as part of an integrated transport policy - a belief also previously stated by the Green Party, leaving National as the only party not in favour of reopening the line.

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Mr Peters said the only way to get the rail line back was to vote for it, while Ms Fox said she would be "right behind" local people demanding its return. Ms Moroney said a better Government "buy- in" for rail was needed nationally.

The forum heard a restored link would help productivity from Maori land, improve road safety and reduce the financial burden on maintaining the region's poor roads. It would also help tourism.

Rail consultant Stu Dow told the forum that a US-style shortline operation was achievable financially and practically.

"I believe a shortline railway operation is the key to restoring a general rail freight service to the Napier-Gisborne line, provided the figures stack up. Personally, I believe they do.

"A general rail freight service is different from the proposed Napier-Wairoa log trains, as it would be aimed at containers, aggregates, wool, fertiliser and the like."

"A shortline is not a threat to Gisborne's port and its export log traffic, and would help alleviate the truck gridlock by operating a log shuttle from Matawhero to the port.

"I see a log shuttle as the anchor customer for a successful shortline."

Mr Dow said the shortline operation would also relieve KiwiRail of its mothballing costs, plus pay them a yearly lease fee.

"In addition, a track access fee would be payable to KiwiRail for accessing their network from Wairoa to Napier to drop off wagons for the port, Ravensdown at Awatoto and any other Napier/Hastings customers that are rail-connected.

"Hopefully, reopening of the line would also attract freight from other parts of New Zealand via the KiwiRail network for final delivery on the shortline, which would also be a win for KiwiRail - provided their rates were realistic.

To get the ball rolling, a consortium needed to be formed of all interested local parties, be they businesses, iwi, and/or investors to open a dialogue with KiwiRail/Government with a view to obtaining a long-term licence to occupy the line to the Napier Port/KiwiRail agreement boundary, Mr Dow said.

Mr Dow estimated it would cost between $75,000 and $125,000 a year for basic line maintenance and, once repaired and operating, around $200,000 to $300,000 for annual maintenance of the line from Gisborne to Wairoa.

The cost to repair the washouts, and clean up and repair culverts, drains and sleepers was estimated to be $6.5m.

Gisborne Rail Action Group chairwoman Nikki Searancke said the forum was well attended, with more than 55 people registered and additional people attending in the afternoon. It ended with an agreement to form a steering group to discuss forming a consortium.

"The view was overwhelmingly to reopen the Gisborne to Wairoa rail line.

"There was a very real enthusiasm and a determination to form a steering group."

The Gisborne Herald