The Government decision to fund a 19km spur line to Marsden Point is another big step towards creating an efficient and seamless network to carry more freight in, out and around Northland by rail.
Currently the vast majority of freight in Northland is carried by truck but it wasn't always that way.
Before the port moved from Whangārei, KiwiRail carried about a million tonnes of freight in Northland each year.
Following the port move this dropped to around 100,000 tonnes. It's time to rebalance how freight is moved in the region and building a spur line from Oakleigh to Northport will open up more options.
This project builds on recent significant Government investment to improve Northland's rail connections.
Earlier this year, KiwiRail reopened the Northland line between Auckland and Whangārei after lowering the tracks in 13 tunnels and replacing five bridges.
Now hi-cube shipping containers can travel on the line for the first time.
KiwiRail has also received funding to reopen the mothballed line between Whangārei and Otiria, extending rail further into Northland and the growing horticulture areas in the Far North
As it stands, the spur to Northport is really the missing piece to create a truly rail connected Northland. With all of these improvements, the Ministry of Transport's 2019 Northland Rail Business Case found that rail volumes in the region could grow to 2.2 million tonnes a year.
These rail improvements are a game changer – for rail and the region as a whole.
A rail connected Northport offers mid and Far North producers an efficient option to get their goods overseas and around New Zealand. But it's not about entirely replacing road with rail. The Marsden Spur line creates options and reduces reliance on State Highway 1. It will help to build resilience into the wider North Island supply chain. Once the spur line is built, KiwiRail can quickly get ships loaded and unloaded at Northport and get imports delivered around the country. This is essential when peak season or other factors like we've seen during the Covid pandemic means ports reach capacity and face congestion issues.
A mode shift to rail for Northland freight also means lower road maintenance costs and fewer heavy trucks on highways into Auckland.
Investment in the railway is investment in the Northland economy and its people. We are here to help local businesses to grow.
Our work to upgrade the line between Auckland and Whangārei in 2020 saw more than 600 people working on the project at its peak. We committed to hiring locally, creating employment for new trainees and skilled professionals. Local companies stepped up providing concrete, steel and labour. We will bring the same commitment to create employment in Northland for the construction of the spur line and upgrade to Otiria.
The revitalisation of Northland's rail has also enabled KiwiRail to run the Kakano Mo Āpōpō – Seeds for Tomorrow programme which is providing training and support for the reintegration of Māori prisoners back into Northland's community. There is great potential for this programme to be involved in the work to build the spur, expanding opportunities for prisoners nearing the end of their release to secure full-time work through KiwiRail.
KiwiRail has ambitious goals for Northland. It is an exciting time to see plans created for the first significant new rail line in New Zealand since the 1950s.
Our next move is to undertake a delivery case to determine the exact scope of works required for the spur line, the cost and when it will begin.
Greg Miller is KiwiRail Group Chief Executive