Sorry, rail is dead in the water

COLUMN

I agree with many of the points you have made in recent editorials on the Gisborne to Napier railway. Both SH2 and the rail line pass through our property and I’ve observed many changes since steam trains and the days when I boarded the railcar at Nuhaka Station, bound for Gisborne Boys’ High Rectory.

The arguments for and against rail service restoration interest me, and I would like to comment on a few issues.

The Waikokopu to Wairoa section was built before the line to either Gisborne or Napier, to transport generating equipment to Waikaremoana and steel to Mohaka. All the bridges are on untreated wooden piles that have been in-ground and underwater for close to a century.

Peter Blunden, a professional diver, was asked by KiwiRail to check the condition of piles along this stretch of line. One set on the Tahaenui Bridge was replaced at a cost of a million dollars and Peter’s comment was that he personally would not risk his life on a train over any East Coast bridge. He was proved right when in 2005 a set of Nuhaka bridge piles collapsed under the weight of a train.

For years NZ Rail used to run an empty wagon behind the engine to reduce the weight, but the fact is that the remaining piles are past their use-by date. The cost of their replacement, let alone the many rotten sleepers along this rail corridor, would far exceed the wildly optimistic $4 million Wharerata washout repair, plus a couple of hundred thousand per year in ongoing maintenance.

As for a future revenue stream, that was doomed when Fay Richwhite & Co stripped out the many small sidings, goods sheds, stockyards and signals that made wool and stock freight viable. The demise of carting metal and aggregate by rail was guaranteed as soon as the 40 mile/hour limit for truck movements was lifted. Coal is no longer supplied to the gasworks by rail and regular shipping of bulk commodities like fuel and fertilizer has also been discontinued. No fertilizer leaves Awatoto by rail today, despite the fact the line runs into the works. Juken has declared a no-freight-by-rail policy and if I were a Poverty Bay produce grower, I’d rather truck my produce on an overnighter to the big markets in Auckland than risk a two-day rail trip via Palmerston North.

When the line went out it meant there were six to eight more truck movements on SH2 per day. At this point fertiliser was still rail freight — in fact, pretty much the only rail freight being shipped to Gisborne.

In response to Stuart Dow’s opinion piece (December 1, 2016) on short-line rail haul, I too would like to see logs carted by rail from Matawhero to the port, but I understand that the curvature of the rail bridge over the Turanganui is too tight to accommodate the double-bogey wagons that would be necessary.

Interestingly, the NZ Labour Party says it will consider re-opening the line if it’s “sustainable” and while I personally don’t feel it needs to make a profit, the tens of millions required to re-open the Gisborne section would perhaps be better spent on SH2, eg the Esk Valley diversion, to benefit all road users. Alternatively, rail freight could be trucked from Gisborne to Wairoa for on-going shipment south, though this may decrease the tonnage across Eastland Port.

In the absence of anywhere near enough bulk freight customers, a decision on the line’s future could free up the corridor for a combination of tourist ventures. Surely such developments would be better than the sadly abandoned infrastructure that exists currently.

I agree with many of the points you have made in recent editorials on the Gisborne to Napier railway. Both SH2 and the rail line pass through our property and I’ve observed many changes since steam trains and the days when I boarded the railcar at Nuhaka Station, bound for Gisborne Boys’ High Rectory.

The arguments for and against rail service restoration interest me, and I would like to comment on a few issues.

The Waikokopu to Wairoa section was built before the line to either Gisborne or Napier, to transport generating equipment to Waikaremoana and steel to Mohaka. All the bridges are on untreated wooden piles that have been in-ground and underwater for close to a century.

Peter Blunden, a professional diver, was asked by KiwiRail to check the condition of piles along this stretch of line. One set on the Tahaenui Bridge was replaced at a cost of a million dollars and Peter’s comment was that he personally would not risk his life on a train over any East Coast bridge. He was proved right when in 2005 a set of Nuhaka bridge piles collapsed under the weight of a train.

For years NZ Rail used to run an empty wagon behind the engine to reduce the weight, but the fact is that the remaining piles are past their use-by date. The cost of their replacement, let alone the many rotten sleepers along this rail corridor, would far exceed the wildly optimistic $4 million Wharerata washout repair, plus a couple of hundred thousand per year in ongoing maintenance.

As for a future revenue stream, that was doomed when Fay Richwhite & Co stripped out the many small sidings, goods sheds, stockyards and signals that made wool and stock freight viable. The demise of carting metal and aggregate by rail was guaranteed as soon as the 40 mile/hour limit for truck movements was lifted. Coal is no longer supplied to the gasworks by rail and regular shipping of bulk commodities like fuel and fertilizer has also been discontinued. No fertilizer leaves Awatoto by rail today, despite the fact the line runs into the works. Juken has declared a no-freight-by-rail policy and if I were a Poverty Bay produce grower, I’d rather truck my produce on an overnighter to the big markets in Auckland than risk a two-day rail trip via Palmerston North.

When the line went out it meant there were six to eight more truck movements on SH2 per day. At this point fertiliser was still rail freight — in fact, pretty much the only rail freight being shipped to Gisborne.

In response to Stuart Dow’s opinion piece (December 1, 2016) on short-line rail haul, I too would like to see logs carted by rail from Matawhero to the port, but I understand that the curvature of the rail bridge over the Turanganui is too tight to accommodate the double-bogey wagons that would be necessary.

Interestingly, the NZ Labour Party says it will consider re-opening the line if it’s “sustainable” and while I personally don’t feel it needs to make a profit, the tens of millions required to re-open the Gisborne section would perhaps be better spent on SH2, eg the Esk Valley diversion, to benefit all road users. Alternatively, rail freight could be trucked from Gisborne to Wairoa for on-going shipment south, though this may decrease the tonnage across Eastland Port.

In the absence of anywhere near enough bulk freight customers, a decision on the line’s future could free up the corridor for a combination of tourist ventures. Surely such developments would be better than the sadly abandoned infrastructure that exists currently.

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J.S. ( Stuart) Dow - 10 days ago
Re Terry's comment on the Turanganui River Rail bridge into Eastland Port.
This rail bridge can and did take almost any Bogie wagon that was used on the NZ rail network up until the time of the line closure in 2012, including log and container wagons. I would not be wasting my time advocating for reopening of the line and log shuttles if the infrastructure was not up to it.
This belief that the bridge is not up to the task is an urban myth perpetuated by those who wish to see Gisborne gridlocked by logging trucks and has NO factual basis.

Julian Michael Tilley - 10 days ago
If you talk to Glenn Sutton (Economic Development Manager) in Kawerau about rail - he will tell you that rail was a major factor in the new proposed Particle Board Mill establishing its presence. The locos will be electric and the rolling stock purpose-built along with a new multimodal container terminal onsite. The export containers will be railed to the Port of Tauranga. This mill will be hungry for resource and if the line was complete from Wairoa to Murupara then pulpwood from East Coast forests would have another destination as well. One of the key issues from the past was that the curtain side JP wagons used by Juken were past their use-by date but a bigger issue was the turnaround time was too slow and that is why they were not upgraded. The WPI traffic from Ohakune to Wellington Port has the very best equipment. The unloading of ZH wagons is given priority over all other activities on the port. Asset utilisation is a key component in making rail work economically and relies on the port companies to commit to giving priority to the unloading of rail rolling stock. The highly successful and sought after USL log wagons were diverted to the BOP when Tranz Rail made a commercial decision not to place these wagons into Gisborne due to continued issues with log wagons left for long periods while trucks were attended to. Disputes broke out over demurrage charges and CR Taylor were employed on more than one occasion to lift empty log wagons out of the Gisborne port after obstructions of some kind prevented them being recovered by a shunt loco for reloading. In terms of the line - yes, it will cost to maintain it but from a social and environmental perspective it is a no-brainer and the health and safety of people and the environment should be taken into account. Economically, if the numbers were run in depth, they well may show that road transport is not actually covering the cost of maintaining the roads they use for commercial gain, so why not fund rail on the same basis? Wood processing will be a strong factor in the economic development of this region but multimillion-dollar manufacturing sites want secure supply lines in and out, and currently we can't offer that. It's time to be brave on this issue and seek commitment from all the stakeholders. The Gisborne Rail Co-operative have written a strong, sensible 18-page business case. Contact them for a copy. It shows the line is viable.

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