THE future of the historic railway line from Stratford to Taumarunui is up in the air at present, with KiwiRail balking at spending a large sum on repairs after a derailment on Monday night.
The derailment damaged eight kilometres of railway sleepers, and KiwiRail’s assessment of the scene indicates they would need to spend up to $400,000 to repair the damage.
Maintenance on the line has been suspended at present while a decision is being made on the future of the line, which will be announced early next year.
East Taranaki historian and ex-chairman of Taranaki Regional Council (TRC), David Walter, said the line has been run down for years through lack of maintenance.
“One can only hope we don’t follow the path of other countries and close the line, to later regret it with changing demographic trends.
“If someone had sufficient courage and capital it would be a great scenic rail venture, like many others round the world,” he said.
Rob Phillips, Director of Operations at Taranaki Regional Council, is part of a working party lobbying for the upkeep of the line.
“We will be urging for the line to be repaired and maintained,” he said.
“The importance of the line is threefold - it’s an important alternate route to the main truck line; it’s important for Taranaki as a way to take goods out and it could have a future as a tourist railway.”
The line, which runs alongside the Forgotten World Highway, has a colourful and historic past.
The creation of the track took 49 years, from the start of survey work in 1883, the turning of the first sod in Stratford in 1901, through to the completion of the link in 1932.
It cost three million pounds to build.
Passenger trains were a regular sight on the line and railcars made the journey from 1956 to 1975. The last regular passenger train made the trip in 1983.
In 2007 however, it was decided the line was too dangerous for passenger trains.
KiwiRail said this week investment in the line has been minimal for many years and even maintenance has been kept to a minimum.
The 86-kilometre line has 24 tunnels and over the years many groups have considered returning passenger trains to the scenic route, some even looking at returning steam engines to the line.
An idea has even been suggested to turn the line into a scenic cycle track.
At present KiwiRail will move Taranaki rail freight through Marton and the North Island Main Trunk Line until it determines what to do about the track damage, Chief Executive Jim Quinn said on Monday.
The derailment was at the other end of the line, near Taumaunui.
Currently, one return train a day uses the line to move dairy products, empty containers and general goods between New Plymouth and the northern section of the North Island Main Trunk.
Over the past year, on the basis of traffic volumes, the line has been the most derailment-prone railway line in the country.
“We’ve had staff working on the derailment scene,” said Mr Quinn. “Their assessment is that track and sleeper damage is considerably greater than we had originally envisaged.
“We have to make a decision on when we complete repairs and how much work we do to bring the line back into good working order.
Mr Quinn said spending of $750,000 had already been allocated for this year to improve the condition of one of the 24 tunnels and significant spending has been forecast for the next 10 years to bring the line up to standard.
“The amount of traffic using it at the moment doesn’t justify continuing with repair work without a considered look at likely future freight volumes.
“That doesn’t mean we have decided to close the line. It simply means that we need to be sure that investing more than $1 million in the line within the next 12 months and more money in future years to bring it up to standard, is justified on commercial grounds.”
Mr Quinn said a decision on the line is likely to be made early next year.
Network and freight staff currently working the line would be re-allocated to other tasks.
KiwiRail has recently carried out a review of its business and is due to deliver a strategic plan for the future of the business to the Government later this month.
The TRC has convened the working party of councillors from Taranaki territorial authorities as well as Ruapahu District - to advocate for the upgrading of the line.
Cr Roger Maxwell chairs the working party.
The item will be discussed at the next meeting of the Regional Transport Committee on November 26.