It seemed everything was on track for an announcement that the rail spur to Marsden Point was a done deal and construction would start any day.

That didn't happen — but there was still more of a promise than a maybe when the Government and KiwiRail got together on an overgrown siding at Oakleigh to ceremoniously drill the last geotech probe on the proposed 20km Marsden Point route.

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters and Regional Development Minister Shane Jones, KiwiRail chairman Greg Miller and acting chief executive Todd Moyle were the big engines shunted up beside a real locomotive brought in to add ambience to the occasion yesterday afternoon.

The Oakleigh rail sign where the Marsden Pt spur is likely to start.
The Oakleigh rail sign where the Marsden Pt spur is likely to start.

Expectation was high among the gathered rail workers and officials that a green-for-go announcement would be part of the schedule.

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Instead, the politicians and KiwiRail bosses stressed that while everything was on line for it to go ahead, the final reports were not yet in.

Until that happened, the numbers could not be crunched.

Jones admitted a degree of frustration that it was not yet time, nor was there a start date, to ''bring out the picks and axes''.

But he said the Government would be neither surprised nor discouraged at a cost of over $100 million for the job.

That $100m was, he suggested, not an unrealistic figure for what would be an historic piece of infrastructure — the building of New Zealand's first new significant branch line in more than 50 years.

Short speeches by Peters and Jones included bagging the last government for not considering rail as a way to support Northland's economic growth.

They reiterated the current coalition's commitment to getting the region on track, not just on the Oakleigh to Northport link but eventually, if the work was possible, via upgraded and reopened links to Dargaville, Kauri, Otiria and Opua.

KiwiRail's Miller and Moyle said the geotech investigations had not turned up anything to rule out the Marsden Pt line's viability. The work had confirmed variable ground conditions but supported the original concept design.

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"This is not an easy job but it is a real signal of the Government's commitment to boosting regional economies through rail,'' Moyle said.

"Our investigations have focused on areas where the most significant engineering works would be needed. Over coming months, we will be carrying out further work along the route to advance the design of the line and prepare for the next phases of the project.''

Miller said an efficient supply chain was critical to handle the significant agricultural and horticultural investment going into Northland.

"What we are seeing now through the Provincial Growth Fund is a renewal of regional rail and an acceptance of the wider benefits rail brings to regions such as taking trucks off the road, reducing road maintenance costs, improving road safety and producing fewer carbon emissions,'' he said.

"There is a long way to go in Northland but we are heartened by what we have found so far.''

Jones said a report likely to strengthen the case is due soon from the Upper North Island Supply Chain Study (UNISCS), a working party tasked with looking at whether the existing network of ports and transport was fit-for-purpose.