Up to 54 hi-cube shipping containers are being moved at a time from Whangārei to Auckland on the revamped rail line for the first time and KiwiRail is promising more freight movement after recent successful trials.
The first lot of containers left the KiwiRail yard on Porowini Rd in Whangārei about 4pm yesterday for Helensville from where another crew took over for the second leg of the trip down to the Auckland port.
Tianjin Bridge arrived at Northport with about 919 containers on board on Friday morning and some of them were transported to Whangārei by trucks to be put on rail carriages yesterday while the rest were to be taken to Auckland by road.
The revamped line between Whangārei and Swanson in West Auckland opened on January 11 following funding from the Government's Provincial Growth Fund.
KiwiRail ran a test train last Thursday, carrying hi-cube export size containers from Whangārei along the length of the line.
Trains have the capacity to carry 1350 tonnes of freight, equivalent to 54 full 20 foot (6m) containers.
The train journey to Auckland usually takes six hours but may take more time with new tracks and speed restrictions as more work are being undertaken along the route.
Graeme Brown of ANL and CMA CGM which are the shipping agents for Tianjin Bridge said it was good to have the option of delivering freight by rail as it would free up trucks on the road.
"It would be a lot easier if there's a rail line to Northport because it provides a really good option for our customers. Northport is now being considered by a lot of shipping lines as an option."
The company was also the agent for Constantinos P, the biggest container ship to call into Northport, in December and Brown said everyone was better prepared to handle logistics this time round.
Northland Chamber of Commerce chief executive Stephen Smith said the transportation of containers by rail from Whangārei showed the region had the potential to handle logistically-challenging tasks even while lacking key infrastructure.
"Logistically, getting the containers from Northport to Whangārei is a bit of a farce but it's manageable. The midterm expectation is for rail to be extended to the port."
Smith said the unloading of containers from the ships Constantinos P at Northport in December and from the Tianjin Bridge over the weekend was additional activity for Northland and was key to unlocking the region's potential.
"A further extension of that rail network makes full sense and what it can do to make freight cheaper and take the load off our roads. So it's tick, tick, tick— just the beginning of a fantastic step forward," he said.
KiwiRail group chief executive Greg Miller said the re-opened rail line signalled the state-owned enterprise was open for business, ready to support importers, and also building resilience and sustainability into its transport network.
"It also ties in with our ongoing efforts to address the freight backlog. Freight is core to KiwiRail's business and moving more freight by rail is a key objective."
He said fewer trucks on roads also means less congestion, lower road maintenance costs, greater road safety, and fewer emissions as every tonne of freight carried by rail produced 70 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the equivalent carried by road.
Miller said in the tunnels, KiwiRail built on the experience and relationships forged in the Kaikōura recovery and included tested construction firms and key individuals from the outset.
"In addition to lowering the tunnels, we undertook essential repair works. As we progressed, it became apparent that had this major investment not been made, the line would have closed."
All the new and rehabilitated structures have clearance through the tunnels for electrification to be added later, which helps to further improve the network's resilience over time.
"Throughout the project we created employment in Northland for everyone from new trainees to skilled professionals. For example, local firm Busck supplied sleepers and prefabricated bridge sections, and United Civil was the lead contractor on some bridges and some tunnel works.
"While we are delighted that this section of the line is up and running, there's some more intricate work to the tunnel linings required. Additionally, to allow greater train speed and axle weight, over time we will be replacing another 10km of rail and laying more than 100,000 sleepers," Miller said.
He said KiwiRail did not yet have a spur directly to Northport but the PGF funding has allowed it to begin buying land along the route.
"With freight volumes in the region expected to increase from 18 million tonnes a year currently to 23 million tonnes by 2042, rail is a crucial part of developing an efficient, integrated transport system for Northland."