All the talk about getting ne'er-do-well nephews off the couch and hammering spikes for the new Marsden Point rail spur makes me nostalgic.

Given nostalgia isn't what it used to be, but it brings to mind one of EnZed's few claims to world engineering fame — the wondrous Raurimu Spiral.

One of the Raurimu Spiral's main indirect benefits has been to junior school teachers, who were enabled to consume many a classroom hour extolling bewildered captive students on how the Spiral elegantly overcame an unacceptably steep rail gradient.

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The students were bewildered because they could never really figure out why all the fuss about a railway line that simply looped a loop before returning to its original route — albeit at a higher level. After all, ring roads, railway loops and helter-skelters had been around for forever, hadn't they, and wasn't it a pretty obvious thing to do?

Nevertheless, teachers couldn't get enough of the Raurimu wonder for filling in curriculum blank spots, a handy time-filler possibly only rivalled by the tragic tale of Captain Scott and his gallant sledge-pulling men being robbed by caddish dog-driving Norwegians of their god-given right to stick the first flag on the planet's nether point.
In a simulacrum of the Spiral's elegant swoop back on itself, we thus return to the original point: namely, how all this talk about new railway lines and re-establishing railway schools is itself also a nostalgic loop back to a buoyant pre-Prebblarian era of rail primacy.

It all seems such a long time ago now, but you may recall Richard Prebble was minister responsible for railways during the Lange Government experiment.

Spookily, this government was another exercise in turning back on oneself, only in this case — with remarkable gymnastic dexterity — the Labour Government's ideological head and torso bent over backwards and started to consume itself from the feet up.
The main architect of this diverting little trick was Finance Minister Roger Douglas, who'd recently read some books written by people purporting to know the price of everything, but — in Mr Wilde's pithy observation — knew the value of nothing.

Richard Prebble may not have bothered to read the same books, but "Mad Dog" voraciously lapped up Roger's every word, and was now set to savage the wastrel world of rail with a rabid vengeance.

Frank Greenall
Frank Greenall

Unfortunately, though, in Mad Dog's closed circuit school of accounting, he'd failed to factor in rail's many indirect benefits such as reducing road heavy-traffic usage, serving as tourism and mercantile catalysts, and facilitating employment and trade training.
In Mad Dog's kennel, places like the Sydenham and Otahuhu railway workshops were dens of profligacy, whereas in reality they were invaluable nurseries for all manner of trade training that significantly percolated through to the wider community.

Their closure, together with the erosion of apprenticeship standards, meant that battalions of youth, whose preferred career choices were in trade vocations, were left high and dry, and why we're now having to import tradespeople when we've many tens of thousands of disengaged youth.

This is not to say NZ Rail wasn't due for ongoing reform (major institutions always are), but to flog off monopolist vital public infrastructure at fire-sale prices is another matter — especially when it's been built up by a tax-paying public over several generations. And when the sale is to asset-stripping private companies, baby is always going to get ditched along with the bath water.


It was said that the back road to Keith Holyoake's Pahiatua farm was sealed — coincidentally — only as far as his farm gate. As Minister of Regional Development, the Oracle of Awanui Shane Jones should go one better and extend the northern railway from its former railhead at Ohaeawai to his home town just north of Kaitaia.

For forestry, trade, tourism, employment and training, it would be an economic aorta into the heart of the long neglected Far North.