Rail was an integral part of our transport system when I was growing up. I recall my father driving a mob of sheep along the 4km stretch of metal road to the rail head at
Maungaturoto, so they could be railed to the freezing works in Auckland.
In the 60s, we used to catch the railcar back from weekend leave to Carruth House at Whangārei Boys' High School on Sunday night along with a bunch of other boys. My first, and subsequent trips, to Massey University were overnight to Palmerston North along the main trunk line.
As a business you weren't allowed to cart freight against the rail. In the early 80s, I needed a permit to cart a load of urgently needed promotional swimming pools from Hamilton to Whangārei. The company truck was sent off and the permit arrived as we were setting up the pools for display.
But, in the 80s, rail was deregulated and had to compete. The state owned enterprise was sold in 1993 to an international consortium for $328 million. This business was subsequently floated as a public company for almost $2 billion.
Six years later, after years of underinvestment and lack of performance, the business was bought by Toll in 2003 for around $100 million. The Government nationalised the company again in 2008, buying it from Toll for $665 million.
The story of Kiwirail is of a national strategic asset being sold into private enterprise, being plundered for profit, stripped of assets, underinvested in infrastructure and rolling stock and finally being taken back into public ownership to save it from being closed down completely and sold for scrap.
Northland politicians have long recognised the strategic value of rail, as the wall of wood emerged from the 80s and 90s planted forests, and needed to be transported to the port. There was no rail line direct to Marsden Pt but the land for a rail link has been designated and progressively purchased over the years.
Rail had significant advantages relating to long-haul, point-to-point, cost-efficient and relatively emission-free transport. The notion of also taking a good number of single truck and trailer units off the State Highway has been a compelling thought.
But the commercial reality of just building a branch line, without upgrading the rail to Auckland to take full advantage of the Northport capability, needed to be confronted.
Kiwirail has done an amazing job over the past year or so in upgrading the Auckland line; lowering 13 tunnels, replacing five bridges, laying 30,000 sleepers and 63,000m3 of ballast to make the line workable is remarkable. There is still some work to be done but the whole job is funded through the Provincial Growth Fund, and the line to Marsden Pt is still to happen.
At its peak, New Zealand had 5656km of railway line. That is now down to 4128km and that's compared to 11,000km of State Highway. There hasn't been a new railway line developed in donkey's years so, bring on the new Marsden Pt line, as a new commitment to an integrated transport system, which opens Northport to the wider NZ transport market.
But, in rejuvenating rail, this has to be seen as a national interest shift that is separately funded, and not take away from the established roading funding. The announcement last week of the Government's 10-year plan for rail investment, indicating Kiwirail would now get funding from the National Transport Fund is alarming.
The money largely comes from road user charges and fuel excise from all road users.
There is no track user charge from rail users to pay into this fund, which provides for road maintenance, road policing, public transport, walking and cycling.
Road users should be rightly angered that the fund, that is already oversubscribed and sorely needed for road maintenance, will have another non-paying mode dipping into it.
Northland roads are crying out for enhanced maintenance after years of being battered by carting the wall of wood.
Those road user charges need to be put back into our roads now, rather than being deflected into rail.
• John Williamson is chairman of Roadsafe Northland and Northland Road Safety Trust, a former national councillor for NZ Automobile Association and former Whangārei District Council member.