To get a practical sense of why the Gisborne-Napier railway link is unlikely ever to reopen, hop on one of Gisborne Rail Bike Adventure's strange tandem contraptions and ride up to the Beach Loop.
That's one of the six places where the railway was cut during torrential rain storms in 2012, spelling the most recent occasion on which this tenuous link to one of the country's hardest-to-get-to cities was broken.
Dangling in mid-air above a stunning clifftop vista, the rails resemble a short and particularly hair-raising rollercoaster ride. There are similar washouts along this otherwise inaccessible part of the track, which runs along a spectacular, unstable piece of coastline from the northern end of the Mahia Peninsula to just south of Gisborne. Most of the Gisborne-to-Napier line's 21 tunnels are in this stretch.
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Budgets at the time of construction show the clifftop section comprised nearly 45 per cent of the total cost of the whole length of the line.
A 1961 history notes that "the gradients of this railway are very severe," noted AC Bentley, even by the standards of New Zealand's very challenging topography for railways.
Steaming to the Sunrise, a history of the line published in the mid-1990s, singled out the clifftop route when it observed that "some sections of the line were known to be troublesome even as the line was being built".
"The large area above the sea around Beach Loop is constantly on the move."
The 2012 washout there was not the first, and a washout during construction in February 1938 at nearby Kopuawhera claimed 22 lives, delaying completion of a line that had already been under construction for nearly a decade and, by 1941, was still 10 kilometres short of Gisborne.
The Depression, flooding at the completed Napier end of the line, the onset of World War II and faint-hearted central government support for the line had all played their part in the protracted construction of Gisborne's first rail connection to the country at large.
Such a connection was proposed by local private interests in 1896, and it was four years later that Prime Minister Joseph Ward turned the first sod on a line that was to connect Gisborne not to Napier, but to Auckland via Ōpōtiki and Rotorua.
It was never completed. While hope sprang eternal in Gisborne, records in the Gisborne public library show that by 1955 "Auckland had lost all interest" in the proposal.
In 1958 the Gisborne-to-Tāneatua Rail Promotion League — one of many such local infrastructure booster bodies with lookalikes still to this day — went to Wellington to demand central government commitment to an Auckland route and got a flat "No", according to On Track, by Gisborne City Vintage Railway Inc.
By then, Gisborne had been connected by rail to Napier and the lower North Island hub at Palmerston North since 1942. However, there were regular periods of shutdown over the years caused by slips and marginal economics.
The service had become as infrequent as one train a week by the time of the 2012 washouts.
The route is often seen as having tourist potential, and the ill-fated luxury rail experiment, the Silver Fern railcar, made it to Gisborne once, in 1992. A railcar took passengers from Gisborne to Napier for many years, under regular threat of closure until its final run in 1998.
By 2001, the future of the line was once more in doubt, with Jim Anderton — then the Alliance Party leader and Deputy Prime Minister in the Clark Government — emerging as its new champion.
As always, it looked and felt like a service that ought to exist. It's just that no one could make it pay.
Anderton's only new element in a century of argument over whether and how to invest in road, rail or shipping to improve connections to Gisborne was the so-called "wall of wood" forecast to come out of the East Cape by the second and third decades of the 21st Century — i.e., now.
So, fast-forward to today.
In the main streets of Gisborne, the rattling din of semi-trailers carting load after load of unprocessed logs to Eastland Port is continuous.
On the roads into Gisborne, the volume of logging trucks, either laden or empty, is staggering and, to a city dweller's eyes, dangerous. The Gisborne Herald features regular reports of trucks flipping, side-swiping cars parked on the roadside, and speeding to meet tight delivery schedules.
State Highway 35 north to Hicks Bay and beyond lacks regular overtaking lanes, but is otherwise far better maintained than the SH2 link between Auckland and Tauranga, presumably reflecting the heavy wear and tear of logging traffic.
Meanwhile, many locals strongly support rail as an alternative to road transport for the growing freight load coming out of the region. They suspect the Gisborne port owners of trying to block that outcome because it might make Port of Napier a stronger rival, and have been convinced by a government-funded report last year that putting the Gisborne-to-Wairoa section of the line back to work is a low-cost no-brainer.
So when KiwiRail chief executive Greg Miller told Gisborne-ites this week that the track was not a priority, there was a new outpouring of that now 120-years-plus local sentiment that the region is being deliberately starved of connection to the rest of the economy.
However compelling that argument might be, and the sympathy it might evoke for a region that expects to be hit less than others by the Covid-19 recession only because it already had higher unemployment, there are good reasons for KiwiRail's reluctance.
The first is how little used the section of the line between Napier and Wairoa has been since it was opened at a cost of $6.2 million last year. Only available as a weekend service, the first train to run on the line that had taken four years to upgrade was in January. There were two more trains in February, and none since. That section of line, seen as a test case for the restoration for the Gisborne link, is effectively closed again now.
The second problem is that the connection between logging trucks, road safety, and rail connections for Gisborne appears unsound.
There is no rail connection to the north of Gisborne, where much of the current 3 million tonnes or so a year of logs are being brought from. Those logging trucks will still be on the road, whether the railway opens or not.
There is also little logging traffic between Napier and Gisborne. Rather, the main opportunity for rail to replace road haulage on that route is for horticultural and meat and dairy products out of the region. It is a fraction of the logging traffic observable around Gisborne.
One argument suggests a new freight-handling yard at Matawhero, outside Gisborne, to reduce heavy traffic in the central city. But KiwiRail, which is admittedly keen to find reasons not to support the proposal, believes this would add double-handling and other costs that would kill it as a commercial proposition.
While the state-owned rail operator is happy to spend large sums on NZ First's pet project to restore the Auckland-to-Northland rail link and move the Auckland port north, it has no spare change or appetite for the Gisborne rail link.
Miller said it had "other priorities" and its minister, Shane Jones, has said he will not overrule KiwiRail's expert view that the line is uneconomic to restore.
A BERL report published late last year, which put the cost of restoring the line at between $20m and $23m, rising to $30m over 10 years, is a fourth problem.
Hailed by supporters of the rail route, the report was extremely careful to say it was only a "feasibility study", "not a business case" and did not use a "narrow" cost-benefit model to assess the worth of the proposal.
Rather, it used the government's "wellbeing" criteria to allow a range of social and environmental factors to be included in its assessment that reopening could be justified.
Even then, it was cautious about its commercial assumptions.
KiwiRail's response has been that BERL undercosts the restoration of the fast-deteriorating and visibly dilapidated rail link by a factor of four or five. If even half-correct, that destroys even BERL's wellbeing economics-based case for the link.
Unfortunately, the first city to see the dawn each day is also now facing the writing on the wall.
This is the most rail-friendly Government in at least a generation and it doesn't want to invest in this line.
After more than a century, it looks like time to let the Gisborne railway dream go.
Pattrick Smellie spent the last week in Gisborne and fears that after this column, he may not be welcomed back.