Is Shane Jones’ long term plan to see some or all of the Ports of Auckland’s business operations shifted to Whangarei’s Northport one step closer, or is it a distant dream?
On Friday the Regional Economic Development Minister announced the Government would invest $98.4 million from the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF) in upgrading the North Auckland Line between Swanson and Whangarei. Jones made the announcement alongside State Owned Enterprises Minister and NZ First leader Winston Peters.
It will see 54 kilometres of the 181 kilometre track replaced or upgraded, including the replacement of sleepers and ageing bridges, maintenance work on tunnels and stabilising embankments alongside the rail lines, as well as improvements to the Whangarei Rail Yard.
Peters says the works are needed to make sure the rail link to Northland isn’t lost.
“Without our investment, this rail line to Whangarei will become unsafe and have to close within five years – leaving Northland cut off from rail services most other regions have,” he says. “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.
“We are investing more than a billion dollars to get New Zealand’s rail system back on track, so rail can play its proper role in reducing road congestion and emissions across our transport system.”
Benefits for Northland
While Jones says the investment 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. 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.”
The works are central to any plans to see freight and logistics upgraded between Auckland and Whangarei. But the true costs of Jones’ potential longer-term plans will be a lot higher.
Last year the Government established the Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy working group to look at the development and delivery of a freight and logistics in the country’s Upper North Island. It has also been tasked with investigating the feasibility of relocating the Ports of Auckland to Northport in Whangarei. But before that can happen the rail network north of Auckland would need to be upgraded to handle the massive amounts of freight that would be involved.
The working group released an interim report in April and is now expected to present its final findings to the Government next month.
A report released in May by consultants AECOM New Zealand and Deloitte looked at the feasibility of upgrading Northland’s rail network and highlighted some of the potential issues involved in moving the Ports of Auckland north. The business case was produced for the Ministry of Transport and paid for by the PGF and said upgrading the Northland rail network and building a new rail spur from the main line to Northport would cost $1.3 billion alone.
And while the report outlined some of the potential benefits to the Northland region, it also raised some flags over who is going to pay for the rail upgrades and what the exact benefits would be.
“There is currently no committed funding identified to deliver the preferred Northland rail project option. There are a number of sources of potential funding, including the Provincial Growth Fund, which initial conversations have highlighted as a potential source for at least some of the required funding. At this stage of the project funding and financing of the project has not been determined.”
Jones is hoping the AECOM and Deloitte paper, coupled with the working group’s findings, will help him convince his cabinet colleagues of the viability of shifting the Ports of Auckland to Whangarei.