Following a six-year delay, the first work train yesterday returned to the Napier-Wairoa rail line, heralding the dawn of a new "springtime" for KiwiRail, Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones said.
Earlier this year, the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) committed $5 million to KiwiRail to reopen the mothballed line for logging trains and Minister Jones said that would help take about 6000 trucks off the road each year.
Speaking at an official opening ceremony at KiwiRail Ahuriri operations depot to see off a train carrying ballast to form a bed for sleepers, he said the day marked a "significant milestone" not only for the project but also for KiwiRail nationally.
"Our government, particularly the part I represent, New Zealand First, is 100 per cent behind KiwiRail. KiwiRail, for you this is springtime."
Jones said while he would not give up on reopening the line all the way to Gisborne, it was up to KiwiRail to decide the feasibility of that.
The Grovernment was however "more than up for the task" of supporting the East Coast with a wharf-barging facility.
So far, the Government had ploughed through about a tenth of the PGF's $1 billion allocation for this year, so the money was still there should a good case be put forward.
KiwiRail chief executive Peter Reidy said it was "a great day" for rail.
"Rail is a critical enabler of infrastructure in regions, and today's story, enhanced by the PGF, has ignited an opportunity to grow value in the regions."
Not only would the line's reopening make roads safer and lower maintenance costs, it would also get rid of 1500 tonnes of carbon emissions from trucks.
Speaking to Hawke's Bay Today, Reidy said so far $3m had been spent upgrading the line, including $1.2m to repair unexpected flood damage in March.
Despite that, completing the upgrade on budget would not be an issue.
"The PGF has allocated $5m and we're very confident - even today, we've even hit the (planned) day, even though we had to spend $1.2m to repair flood damage. We have great people here and we're very confident we will get the first logs running about November - and then it's full on steam for Napier."
He expected to have two to three trains a week running on the line within 12 months.
"We're going to set up a forestry marshalling yard in Wairoa, set that up, work with the forestry owners."
Reidy confirmed there would be more jobs for Wairoa.
"We ae talking to the Ministry of Social Development, there will be some jobs we're looking at, and we're talking to MSD right across New Zealand as job opportunities open up because this is just the start."
Wairoa Mayor Craig Little said it was a positive step for Wairoa.
"We've been living in mourning for probably the past six or seven years, waiting for this day to happen, and the Government has made it happen so it's good news."
Aside from extra jobs, the project would also make Wairoa's roads safer.
A statement from Associate Minister for Forestry and Ikaroa-Rawhiti MP Meka Whaitiri said the rail line would play an essential part in seeing the Government's 1 billion trees initiative come to fruition.
"The opportunity for rail to enhance our environment and evolve our regional forestry industry has been left abandoned for the last six years.
"Thanks to this Government's promise to drive the growth of regional New Zealand, that's no longer the case.
"Following on from the One Billion Trees initiative, the Government's Provincial Growth Fund is investing in the overdue restoration of this KiwiRail link for logging trains. This link is essential to the future of forestry in Ikaroa-Rāwhiti."
The Hawke's Bay Region Council will also contribute $1.5m towards the project.
"With central government behind the project our focus now is to support the establishment of a commercial operation on the line," HBRC group manager strategic development Tom Skerman said.
The last train on the line reached Napier at 4.37pm on December 4, 2012, and was marked by a small protest on the tracks, with staff holding signs that said 'You'll be back'.
That is a day train driver Wayne Kempton, the man who drove that "last train", remembers well.
Back in the driving seat, after driving the work train into Napier yesterday, he said he was always "bloody sure we'll be back".
It was also a proud day for rail advocates Ken and Janet Crispin who have advocated for the line's reopening "since the turn of the century".
"It's a good start but we need to push on and reopen the line through to Gisborne", Mr Crispin said.
Yesterday, he hand-presented the minister with a business case for just that, supported by at least 10 companies.
However, not everybody is convinced that the project has its merits.
"KiwiRail could have reopened this line with their own money, but decided it wasn't worth the risk," Taxpayers' Union executive director Jordan Williams believes.
"In fact, Treasury has done extensive work on rail. The cost-benefit modelling of investing in these marginal lines is negative. That's economic speak for lighting piles of cash on fire."