Trains on the line from Auckland to Whangārei have stopped, signalling the start of work on the $204.5 million Provincial Growth Fund project to revitalise Northland rail.
The start of major work replacing bridges, improving tunnels and upgrading the rail line to Whangārei will result in more reliable train services and enable more freight to be carried by rail, KiwiRail group chief executive Greg Miller said.
KiwiRail is upgrading the Northland Line to improve journey times, resilience and reliability and, from last Sunday, no more train services will run between Swanson and Whangarei to allow substantial upgrade work to begin.
The work includes replacing five aging bridges and lowering tracks in the 13 tunnels, so when completed, trains will be able to pull hi-cube containers on the Northland Line.
"While our teams were able to continue design and planning work during the lockdown, Covid-19 halted most work on the ground. We've also been waiting on the arrival of specialist track-laying equipment which has been held up by pandemic disruptions," Miller said.
"The work will be completed in stages, with the first objective being able to carry hi-cube containers through the tunnels between Whangarei and Auckland by Christmas."
Being able to carry hi-cube containers would also allow freight that can currently only come in and out of Northland by road to instead go by rail. That additional transport option could help cut transport emissions and reduce the number of trucks on the roads.
Miller said KiwiRail was committed to ensuring Northland benefited from the upgrade project, with a focus on using local contractors and suppliers where possible.
Local firm United Civil Construction has the contract to replace two of the bridges, all the ballast materials for the track upgrades are being supplied by Clements in Whangarei, and Busck, also in Whangarei, is supplying thousands of concrete sleepers.
Next year KiwiRail will continue to make improvements to the Northland Line, including reopening the mothballed section of line between Kauri and Otiria and building a container exchange at Otiria.
State-Owned Enterprises Minister Winston Peters said at least 200 contractors and staff would be needed to undertake the upgrade work and KiwiRail would be using Northland people and businesses wherever possible.
"That will see tens of millions of dollars going into the regional economy, creating jobs and spending that will help Northland recover from the lockdown and impacts of Covid-19," Peters said.
"We're making sure that Northland has access to the same rail services that other export regions have had for decades but this substantial government investment will also help boost Northland's economy right now."