"Milly, ya poser!" joshes a bloke loading containers onto a train as KiwiRail chief executive Greg Miller mugs for our cameraman.
A big man with a big vision for the state-owned railway, Miller worked with a lot of these guys. Came through the ranks. Started with Mainfreight, where he was a golden boy.
In and out of the railways and trucking — sorry, "multi-modal transport", think shipping and air freight too — all his working life, including top jobs in New Zealand for Toll Holdings. That was the Australian outfit that bought the railway a decade after it was privatised by a National Government — then sold it back to the Labour Government in 2008 for $665 million. By some estimates, that was twice what it was worth.
Paul Little, Toll's chief executive at the time, crowed: "You only get one Helen Clark in your life."
The Labour ministers in today's Labour-led coalition Government remember that and it still rankles.
Finance Minister Grant Robertson, one of two shareholding ministers in today's KiwiRail, was working for Clark at the time.
So when the name of Greg Miller — son of Think Big architect Rob Muldoon's press secretary, Lesley Miller, and stepson to late Listener editor and Bolger-era press secretary David Beatson — came up, the Labour instinct was to block his appointment as KiwiRail chairman last November. But Miller had NZ First's backing and rail is a NZ First coalition agreement priority.
Miller got the gig.
Just how well that sat with the KiwiRail chief executive at the time, Peter Reidy, is a matter for speculation.
Reidy had butted heads commercially with Miller — managing director at Toll in New Zealand until taking the KiwiRail chairmanship. In the industry, there was talk of "a fox in the henhouse".
New kennels for Kaitaia, Ngāwhā pound plan on ice
Cutting off rail to Northland? Madness ... We've got to look through the data and then past it to what are our opportunities.
Before Miller even arrived, Reidy had gone, taking the reins at Fletcher Construction.
Then, after an international search for his replacement, the KiwiRail board decided Miller was the best man for the job. Miller resigned as chair and became CEO.
To his critics, it was all just a bit unseemly. It's fair to say Miller has been a polarising appointment for the wider sector. His supporters are deeply loyal; his detractors deeply critical.
"Greg hasn't achieved anything yet apart from getting the Government to give him some money, and the money was coming anyway," says one long-time close observer. "He will last until the end of New Zealand First's involvement in the Government."
Given Miller's wide industry experience, that judgment seems harsh, but politics and rail have been inextricably linked since politician Julius Vogel pioneered the national railway in the late 19th century.
Reidy had played the political game. His greatest achievement was to convince a National-led Government not only that rail was worth investing in, but that it was unfair, even ridiculous, to lump the cost of the rail network onto the business that runs on the tracks.
He gained political acceptance for the concept of "above rail" — the freight, ferry and passenger services that run on the tracks — whereas the "below rail" costs of the tracks themselves should be treated like the cost of roads.
When "below rail" costs are included on KiwiRail's books, the railway loses money hand over fist. Shorn of those costs, it can be profitable. And, the argument goes, no trucking company ever had to pay for the whole road.
With that argument won, a new, pro-rail Government was elected and the stage was set for a new era for KiwiRail. Greg Miller emerged as the commercially wily, politically astute individual to take the reins.
In a sense, it was back to the future.
Back in 1999, he'd told one of his Mainfreight mentors, Howard Smith, that he was leaving the firm for the railway because it was a chance to "fix the worst company in the country".
Now, after a 20-year hiatus and at the age of 54, he's back to give it a crack.
New Zealand on the move
"I used to drive one of those," says Miller, gesturing at the outsized forklift that's taking shipping containers two at a time to one of the seven, 110-wagon trains that are assembled daily at KiwiRail's Metroport facility, bound for the Port of Tauranga.
He's chuffed to have container terminal manager Mark Birtwistle guiding us around this strip of anonymous industrial land between Ōtāhuhu and Ōnehunga on a recent damp Friday.
Back in the day, Birtwistle played lock for the Manu Samoa side that rewrote history by beating Wales in their 1991 Rugby World Cup opener. Today, he's the king of this labyrinth of railway tracks, stacked containers, power lines and enormous sheds.
Bounded by mangroves on one side, this is where Maori once dragged waka from one harbour to the other at the thinnest part of the Auckland isthmus.
Yet the Westfield and Southdown marshalling yards are places most Aucklanders have never seen.
Beside this site on the Ōtāhuhu side is a huge Mainfreight depot. On the Ōnehunga side are the Toll offices where Miller used to work.
In the middle are the marshalling yards, where a train pulling empty wagons belonging to freight management group Coda — serving Fonterra — is pulling in with empty wagons from the wharves at Tauranga.
Over the warehouses you can see Mt Smart Stadium. Miller was heading there that evening to watch the Warriors. You can't fault his optimism and it's clear that this site, where it feels as if much of the NZ economy is passing by, is where he feels at home.
"The great thing about this business is the people," he says, and it seems the KiwiRail workforce has a spring in its step. Although its operating earnings were a fairly ordinary $55m in the past financial year, there was a huge leap in staff engagement, as measured by the net promoter score.
A year ago, that score sat at a paltry 1 on the scale. Today it's at 23. That doesn't happen by accident.
Whether that's because of the High Performance High Engagement strategy Reidy pioneered, which Miller describes as "magic" for industrial relations, or a new Government's enthusiasm for rail, or that workers like the fact that one of their own has taken the top spot, is hard to know.
It may be a combination of all three, but the Government's attention certainly helps. The fact that the National Land Transport Fund will treat road and rail funding bids as equal for the first time is a huge boost.
"Whether it's for social, economic or commercial outcomes, the sheer number of Cabinet ministers that are keen for different scenarios that benefit New Zealand is large," says Miller. "That's a great thing because we haven't had that as a business or an industry for about 50 years."
If you took rail away, what would the nation look like? This business would release two-and-a-half to three million truck hauls a year to the roads of New Zealand. We would regret it.
Having worked for, with and against the railway for his entire career, Miller reckons "now is the perfect opportunity to learn from the tough stuff that was pretty visible during those three decades".
Although he believes years of annual $200m-$400m capital injections will be needed to restore rail's competitiveness against trucking, he is convinced such enormous commitment of taxpayer funds is commercially justified and socially welcomed.
"You wouldn't ask Mainfreight to compete with a Commer van against a Scania," he says. "But we have 1962 locomotives on their fifth rebuild trying to operate a business and they're well past their use-by date."
Miller is investing in a new "technical nervous system" to connect the dots between different divisions of a capital-starved business that struggles to understand its commercial potential.
"I want to see the term, the earn, the burn, the churn of every asset so that I know the capex commercially stacks up because we've exhausted the current fleet that we have."
And he wants to take back pricing power from customers, all of whom say they want more rail capacity but some of whom aren't using the current service well.
One big user was surprised to discover it was using only a bit over 60 per cent of the wagons KiwiRail was laying on. Railways can't make money if customers won't pay for wagons they've ordered but don't use.
With capital, Miller's team gets choices. "Not being a price taker means you actually — not being rude to the customers because I rate them and respect them — but you actually have the ability to say 'these are the terms on which we want to engage'."
The North of Plenty
Restoring the national rail service is a commercial challenge for Miller, but for New Zealand First it is a political totem, not least because leader Winston Peters and wannabe leader Shane Jones see rail as a key to rejuvenating their Northland electoral heartland.
NZ First has a history of being punished for joining coalition governments. If its party vote falls below the 5 per cent threshold, it may yet need to win an electorate seat to remain in Parliament past next year's election.
That's a big part of why NZ First is pushing the idea of moving Auckland's port to Whangārei's Northport and upgrading the railway to the north because it's an electoral down payment.
A final report on that and other port removal options is just weeks away, and Jones was on hand last week to announce $98.5m from the Provincial Growth Fund to revive the almost defunct rail connection between Auckland and Whangārei. The fund has contributed another $429m to other rail projects, on top of a $1 billion package of central government funding.
So Miller cannot entirely escape the charge that he is NZ First's man. He's offended by the tag, but there's alignment in their aspirations.
NZ First sees rail delivering for regional New Zealand and for Māori workers. So does Miller, whose Waikato whakapapa saw him once serve as an adviser to the Māori King Tuheitia. NZ First sees rail unlocking regional economic opportunity. He agrees.
NZ First is not too hung up on a Treasury boffin's view of what makes sense for the economy. Nor is Miller.
"The BCRs [business cases] are important, but there has also has to be a chunk of commonsense in this," he says. Northland reminds him of the Bay of Plenty in the 1970s, ripe with economic potential about to take off. He calls the region the "North of Plenty".
"Cutting off rail to Northland? Madness," he says. "We've got to look through the data and then past it to what are our opportunities."
If you think this sounds like a man more than happy to splash unaccountable government capital, don't get him started on the cost of light rail for Auckland. A member of the project's oversight committee, he's a sceptic about the massive cost. "I'm not sure who the customer is," he says.
Where he and Labour see eye to eye is on the value of rail in cutting carbon emissions, upskilling the New Zealand workforce, improving road safety by reducing truck movements, and an unshakeable belief that if rail isn't saved, the roading cost will be far greater.
"If you took rail away, what would the nation look like?" Miller says. "This business would release two-and-a-half to three million truck hauls a year to the roads of New Zealand. We would regret it."
Greg Miller on:
• Electrification of the North Island main trunk line: "Electrification Auckland to Hamilton? Absolutely. Does it need to be looked at for the Bay of Plenty? Quite probably. Does it need to go past Palmerston North when that's the largest freight centre outside Auckland, or should we say electrification from Auckland to Palmerston North? Most likely."
• Hydrogen: Diesel replaced steam, and now "we've got to say what's next?" Hydrogen is unproven for long haul routes with steep inclines, but it could work for shunting and short journeys.
• The new Cook Strait ferries. Buy or lease? "We haven't decided yet. [Leasing] is commonplace in the shipping sector and the capability is there."
• Economically marginal tourism routes: "Without a government shareholder that's a very tough business to run because of the high cost of capital, but ... what's outside the windows is as good as any international rail route and better than most. Capital will unlock value." New first-class tourist carriages will be a gourmet experience for travellers, he says.
• Building a skilled workforce: Miller doesn't think New Zealand can compete with China in train-building, but rail can help train the next generation of electrical and mechanical engineers. "What you'll see is prudent use of taxpayers' money because we're building the competency."