The rail line from Whangārei to Auckland is to be upgraded to help get more freight off the roads with a $94.8 million investment into the neglected line announced by the Government today.
At Helensville Railway Station today, Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones and Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters announced the money through the Provincial Growth Fund for much needed work on the 181km line between Whangārei and Swanson.
The planned work will include replacing or upgrading almost a third of the line, maintenance work on 13 tunnels, replacing five aging bridges, improving numerous drains and culverts, strengthening embankments and making safety and efficiency improvements at the Whangārei rail yard.
While there was no announcement today on a rail spur from the line to Northport, the deep water port at Marsden Pt, that decision could be made by the end of the year. Totally upgrading Northland's rail line to Auckland and building a spur to Marsden Pt would cost around $1.3 billion over the next 40 years.
Today's investment to maintain and upgrade the rail line to Whangārei will help get more freight onto trains and open up Northland's economy, KiwiRail Group Chief Executive Greg Miller said.
Miller said the line improvements will cut down train travel times and make the line more resilient to weather events.
"This work will make our freight train services faster, more reliable and much less prone to disruption. It gives more certainty for our customers and will make rail an option for Northland businesses and exporters to get their goods to market,'' he said.
"Transporting more freight on trains will reduce congestion on Northland roads, road maintenance costs and transport emissions for customers. Wherever possible we will be looking to use local contractors and materials so that Northland sees direct benefits from this work. Right now 95 per cent of the freight in Northland is moved by road. The improvements to the (line) are the foundation for addressing that imbalance."
State Owned Enterprises Minister Winston Peters said the investment was needed.
"Without our investment, this rail line to Whangārei will become unsafe and have to close within five years – leaving Northland cut off from rail services most other regions have," Peters said.
"That's unacceptable and unfair to the people of Northland. That's why the Government is addressing decades of under-investment and neglect in the rail line, to support the future growth of rail in Northland.''
Jones said the funding will also help improve freight services on the line and have direct benefits for Northland's economy.
"The maintenance work will make the line more resilient to weather events and freight services more timely and reliable. Not only does it set the right conditions for KiwiRail to grow its freight business, wherever possible KiwiRail will be using Northland based contractors to carry out work. It will look to Northland first if they recruit more track staff, as well as sourcing materials in Northland,'' he said.
"This initiative will see many millions of dollars being injected into Northland, helping stimulate the region's economic growth. I'm proud that PGF funding has been able to make this happen.''
Don Braid, Group Managing Director Mainfreight, was delighted at the investment in the line.
"It's long overdue and Mainfreight looks forward to working with KiwiRail to establish a new set of freight services in and out of the Northland region."
Stan Semenoff, former Mayor of Whangārei and head of Northland's largest transport company also welcomed the Government investment.
"It's great to see a revival of rail taking place, following the long-term underinvestment in the rail line. This will be significantly beneficial to the Northland local economy. In particular, we're looking forward to working with KiwiRail on transport solutions. More widely, we're looking forward to a future that combines road and rail for the greater benefit of New Zealand. This is the first great step forward," Semenoff said.
Miller said much of the line was at least 100 years old but, for the last 50 years, had gone without the level of maintenance needed to keep it up to standard.
"The North Auckland Line (NAL) has been in decline for decades and without this investment would have had to close in the near term. KiwiRail has already had to start strengthening one of the tunnels which could have closed the line within a year,'' he said.
"It's crucial that Northland stays rail connected and I'm incredibly grateful for this Government support which will not only ensure the NAL remains operational but becomes more efficient."
The planned work includes:
■ Track, sleepers and ballast ($53.1M)
■ Replacing five of the 88 bridges on the line ($16.2M)
■ Clearing drains and culverts ($9.5M)
■ Repairs to 13 tunnels ($7.3M)
■ Work stabilising the slopes on nine embankments ($4.7M)
■ Review and make improvements to the Whangarei Rail Yard ($3.2M):
■ Vegetation control along the rail line ($0.8M)