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A Case For Reopening Napier Gisborne Railway

Gisborne is rallying to save its Rail link. Good on them!
This was always going to be a tough case for everyone concerned to deal with.  Few times have Rail links been successfully saved from closure in New Zealand in the past. The storm damage has now presented another major “chasm to bridge” in order to save this scenic line.
Observers of Rail will note that closures of Rail links in New Zealand have nearly always been strongly opposed by the regions directly affected by closures. There are numerous examples - perhaps the Nelson line closure in 1954 to 1955 being the most famous.
However other regions also reacted strongly when their line closed. Southland when the Waimea Plains line closed in 1971. Otago when the Roxburgh line closed in 1968. Canterbury when the Farlie Line closed in 1968. Most comparably was in Otago when the Tapanui (Heriot) line closed in 1978 as a result of flood damage (see link here). Many supporters lobbied their MP's. Rail Unions put on Black Bans on track removal. Some legal injunctions were even successful for a time in stalling the inevitable.  None, however succeeded in saving their Rail links.
However the Gisborne line might be different. It does appear to present a different case to some extent from these earlier cases. Before the “disaster” things were definitely starting to look up in a material way and a major “sea change” appeared to be taking place.
I was surprised, but not totally, at how dismissive Minister Joyce was on Campbell Live on TV3 earlier this week on a case for reopening the Gisborne rail link. This came across as arrogant and plainly pre-judiced against this railway. Yes the damage is extensive. Yes it would be expensive to repair. However my initial view that it may be a lost cause has been somewhat tempered in the last few days by seeing how strong the support for the link is in the Poverty Bay/ Hawke Bay regions. And most importantly by what they have achieved to date.
It is a long Rail route at 212 Km from Napier to Gisborne. It is also now a heavy haul route. It can now take fully laden Hi-Cube 40 foot export containers. The alternative by Road and Sea are not totally viable in a efficient way for the freight on offer compared to Rail due to load / weight restrictions and would require extra double handling or major new port facilities investment to cope.
One peculiar advantage Rail has in this case is that double handling may actually work in Rails favour on this route. Rail can generally take heavier loads than Road in export Hi-Cube containers, the export standard these days. This means that there is actually more double handling by Road than by Rail.  If Rail is used then the freight is packed in export containers at production packing site. These Hi-Cube containers can be loaded to maximum weight and the trucker can get a special permit for heavy truck haulage  for the short Road haul from packing facility at Gisborne to Rail loading site at Gisborne.  If it has to go by Road all the way to Napier then the Hi-Cube container would have to be lightly packed for the Road journey (if they use Hi-Cube containers at all) then repacked into its export weight Hi-Cube container at Napier Port. This is because there is no way the Road to Napier can take trucks carrying these full laden heavy Hi-Cube containers presently. The Road is severly weight restricted compared to the Rail route. It is likely that the road would need spending of many $10’s of millions to be heavy load compliant. So Rail, with its heavier load capacity, saves the containers having to be packed to a lighter load at original packing site and then repacked to maximum weight for export at Napier Port. A major double handling/packing requirement if Road by itself is used.
This is truly an about turn for the normal situation where doubling handling is often used as an excuse for not using Rail. It also helps demonstrate that heavy trucks over limited routes, like the packing facility in Gisborne to the Gisborne Rail loading site actually helps Rails viability.
No double handing by Road - Yeah Right – not in this case.
The tourism potential of the line is good but not a line saver. But this can be promoted more and with South Island tourist routes currently suffering may offer a alternative Rail experience for tourists and also a welcome boost to the region.This could help a little at the margin. After all the West Coast Rail line was saved from obliteration in 1988 in part by the launch of the Tranz Alpine and new markets for export coal.  But it will be freight that saves the line.
Kiwi Rail has obviously worked hard in building transport relationships in Gisborne over the last two years.  New relationships have been formed or are in the process of being formed.  Weatherell Transport of Gisborne have come out strongly as being the retailer for Rail services in the Gisborne area and has certainly to date been surprisingly successful. Squash by Rail. Other horticulture produce by Rail such as fruit and wine. More fertiliser by Rail.   New timber by Rail. Maybe in future fuel by Rail. It was the beginning of potentially quite a Kiwi Rail success story. Surely this is why the Government bought the business back. It was just starting to maybe recover on this line.
The local business community and local body politicians have rallied behind the Rail link. They have risen to the challenge that Kiwi Rail has put in front of them. The have been dealt a cruel blow - but given their commitment to date the Government should listen.
Kiwi Rails decision making on Minor Lines has effectively been castrated by signing up to the Turnaround Plan and their hands would appear to be tied for now. Minister Joyce says it is Kiwi Rails decision. It is not. He made that perfectly clear on Thursday night on TV3.  It is the Governments decision. That is what Governments are for at times like this. This example proves my point on this Blog a few weeks ago that it is indeed Time for a Change in how Rail is seen and funded in New Zealand. See my blog link here.
If Gisborne businesses are right and they have the tonnage that they say about to go to Rail then there must be a way Government can justify underwriting the lines repairs. The big question is - How much? I would say looking at it - the cost to repair could be as much as $5 Million for a sustainable repair and may be much more.
Kiwi Rail is right. They need to do the sums to see how much it will cost and then the Government need to step up and weigh up all the alternatives given what the region says it will commit to Rail. Then they need to be challenged and their numbers independently checked. 
(Update - cost now estimated to reopen is $3.5 to $4.5 Million -  not as high as originally feared)
Kiwi Rail would need to do its bit as well. The way they operate the line currently with crewing, locomotive allocation etc is hardly a model of modern Rail operating cost efficiency for a marginal route. One crew should be able to take a train up and back from Napier to Gisborne in a day. A truck driver would so why shouldn't the Rail operater? Maybe they could have new contract arrangements for employees operating this line in the way that Air NZ does on trans tasman routes. The point is, even if this presents challenges, that they too need to think outside the square!
The following articles from recent editions of the Gisborne Herald attest to the depth of feeling that Gisborne now has for its Railway. This has been a success story for Kiwi Rail where there was largely apathy three of four years ago. They have ignited a passion that now may come back to haunt them.
Gisborne has risen to the challenge from Kiwi Rail and it was only just beginning  to bear fruit.
 Good luck Gisborne – Keep up the Good Fight!!!
Fightback begins
Saturday, March 31, 2012 • Sophie Rishworth
IT is a travesty that the Government is not supporting a rail link into Gisborne while the rest of the world tries to reduce its carbon footprint, angry rail users say.
Disappointment that the Government is not stepping forward to help to fix the broken Gisborne-Napier railway line is growing.
A rain storm last week caused three dropouts on the line, one 100 metres wide and 100 metres deep.
The Government and KiwiRail have indicated it will not be fixed.
The debate has become one of road versus rail, with users of the line agreeing on the benefits rail offers economically, environmentally and socially.
• A locomotive can pull 10 to 16 containers and a truck can carry only one.
• Recent road closures highlighted the need for Gisborne to have another transport option.
• There is also the issue of weight. Bridges north and south have weight restrictions that mean trucks cannot carry anywhere near as much as rail.
• There is also double-handling, as trucks have to reload into containers at the port.
Combining these factors with the need for a reliable route for freight, users of the line hope the Government has not made any final decision on whether money can be spent to resurrect the line between Gisborne and Wairoa.
Coxco owner Mark Cox, whose company used the line to export squash to Napier Port this year and planned to use it in earnest next year, said rail ticked all the boxes — including public safety and the environment.
“Now we will be running trucks. Why can’t we get the rail going? It’s good for the district. Losing it will shut us off even more and we’re an isolated part of the country. I totally support fixing it.
“Around the world everyone is trying to reduce carbon emissions.
“Why are we going the other way, with a Government that can’t support putting a train into an isolated area that would reduce emissions? People are pretty short-sighted in transport in NZ — it is absolutely ridiculous.”
The remoteness of the region is also the strongest case voiced for Gisborne needing another infrastructure choice.
LeaderBrand general manager Richard Burke said the biggest barrier to investment in Gisborne was the locality and, therefore, infrastructure was required to get product to market.
“If you want to take Gisborne forward, let’s look at our infrastructure. It’s quite an important issue for us,” he said.
“To me you’ve got to look at not only what you spend on rail but what are you going to spend on the roads.
“In our taxes, we pay for the Auckland system — it’s kind of on the nose when we have one of our roads closed for a month. We need some reliability here.
“We rely on two roads, north and south. Look at the impact of the gorge closure. Then we had the highway south out for half a day — we actually need that third option.”
Mr Burke said he did not believe all of the facts had been discussed.
“Steven Joyce (Minister of Economic Development) spoke about an underutilised railway line. What was not clear was that until January this year, that line had not been able to carry 40 foot-high cube containers because of height restrictions in the tunnel.”
This was the first year the line could carry them, plus producers had planned rail contracts going forward.
“We have not had this opportunity before in rail and we can’t do it on the road because you can’t load to the weight.
“Any product, like squash, wine, apples, kiwifruit, timber — you name it — that is exported by container can now be loaded in Gisborne on the railway and shipped direct straight to the ship
“That’s a whole new way of doing business for Gisborne. So, to turn around and say we have underutilised the line — well, we’ve only just been able to utilise it.
“It impacts on employment and productivity and that has a social impact.”
Mr Burke said Gisborne produced bulkier primary produce that required a lot of freight.
“That creates a lot of employment in this district. I agree with the guy on Campbell Live who said, ‘either I pay them or the Government pays them’.
Four Seasons is a harvesting and packing operation that exports between 9000 and 12,000 tonnes of squash a year and employs up to 150 people a season.
General manager Elliot Callender is very disappointed with the Government’s response.
“It shows an attitude that is out of touch to our requirements here in Gisborne.”
The Gisborne port, rail and road network might be underutilised but it was important to realise that exporters in Gisborne could not rely on one transport scenario, he said.
“It is important to note that Gisborne port cannot handle shipping containers. Up to 40 percent of Four Seasons’ cargo uses shipping containers — with the potential to increase.”
This season was their first supporting the rail.
“It has been a great success and very cost-effective for our growers. In my opinion, we should use the rail network further, decrease the amount of trucks on the road and I can guarantee that this will provide a better return to our growers.
“We can possibly reduce the stigma of Gisborne being so isolated.
“Gisborne growers will find it difficult to compete with the international community without the rail network. Economic growth will be affected.”
Mayor Meng Foon said he was working “damn hard” to get the Government to fix the railway.
“I have been told not to leave the doors of Parliament till I have a ‘yes’ answer.
“The Government is all about economic prosperity in its agenda, and we are a major player in the prosperity of our nation. We deserve to be looked after.
“I will continue to lobby. This is my role to ensure that we get the best for our region.
“Minister Joyce is right that he doesn’t have the budget. The Minister of Transport has the budget and that is Gerry Brownlee.
“This line is our future.”
Gisborne City Vintage Railway Society wants the line to stay open. President Geoff Joyce said the main impact on them had been the loss of their Beach Loop service — their signature trip with the Wa 165 locomotive.
The line between Gisborne and Muriwai remained intact and Mr Joyce hoped trips planned for May and June would go ahead.
“If we do, it will be under the same arrangements we have with KiwiRail at the moment. Longer term . . . I really don’t know.”
Axe is hanging over our railway
Friday, March 30, 2012 • Debbie Gregory
IT looks like the end of the rail line between Gisborne and Wairoa with Government and KiwiRail leaders indicating no support to reopen the line.
Minister of Economic Development Steven Joyce has confirmed the Government is not prepared to subsidise the line.
“The Government can’t go around subsidising rail lines — that is not economic development,” he said on TV3 last night.
KiwiRail chief executive Jim Quinn said this morning KiwiRail had a mandate to be commercial and would need Government support to fix the line.
He hoped to have a clear view of the costs involved and the time to repair the line next week.
Then he would sit down with affected people in Gisborne, Wairoa, Hawke’s Bay and Government officials to make a decision on the line.
In reality, while there were positive signs of growth of business on the line, three trains a week was not “a terrific use of a very expensive asset”. The spend so far on making the under-productive line had been minimal and there were some major structures on the line, including between Wairoa and Napier, that needed work and that would be part of the discussion next week.
To fix the line “was going to take millions and months, not days, to fix”, Mr Quinn said.
The line through the Wharerata ranges just south of Beach loop was hit hard last week, with a deluge causing three major washouts along a four-kilometre stretch.
Mr Quinn said the scale of damage, particularly at the largest washout, meant there was considerable work to be done to understand repair options.
“We know there are a lot of people anxious to know what we plan to do, but it is critical that we make an informed decision. Our approach will be to ensure that we have that complete understanding of what it will take to repair the line and how much it would cost, before we make any decisions or any comments.”
Meanwhile, the line was open and operating between Napier and Wairoa, and KiwiRail would continue to liaise with customers in the Gisborne-Hawke’s Bay region about what services it could continue to offer in the interim, Mr Quinn said.
The closure of the Gisborne to Napier railway would result in the immediate loss of 20 jobs in Wairoa, Mayor Meng Foon told councillors at their meeting yesterday.
That was how many were involved in the operation of railing 100 tonnes of timber from Wairoa to Ohinewai each week — this would no longer be possible, Mr Foon said.
A loss of the many jobs would make a big impact on a community the size of Wairoa.
He had been in touch with all the mayors in the eastern region, as well as the politicians involved in the Gisborne-Hawke’s Bay districts.
From five wagonloads of fertiliser a week, an initiative by Weatherell Transport had increased traffic on the line more than tenfold and LeaderBrand had also made a commitment that would add another 60 wagons, mainly squash.
Hawke’s Bay Regional Council chairman Fenton Wilson, of Wairoa, said he was deeply concerned about the effect the line damage was having on activities at the Port of Napier and freight movements in Northern Hawke’s Bay.
He supported Gisborne Mayor Meng Foon’s plea to KiwiRail and the Government to consider all the options before permanently closing the line, and urged Hawke’s Bay’s mayors and leaders to do the same.
“Rail plays an important role in servicing Northern Hawke’s Bay and HBRC certainly supports the repair and reinstatement of the line,” said Mr Wilson.
On TV3 last night, Mr Joyce said there were other options for the district including the port “which is under-utilised and marginally-costed.”
Eastland Group chief executive Matt Todd denied this.
“But that doesn’t mean we could not provide additional services if there was customer demand.
“I believe a coastal shipping service is a viable and cost-effective alternative to both road and rail if there are sufficient container volumes going to Napier.”
Gisborne transporter Steve Weatherell and the exporters that had been using the line are calling for the Government to support the district and fix the line to help economic growth here.
East Coast-based Labour MP Moana Mackey said the washouts were devastating for businesses that relied on this crucial link to the Hawke’s Bay.
“For the Minister to dismiss the concerns of these Gisborne businesses as irrelevant shows a level of arrogance that is unacceptable.
“Our district was given a ridiculously-short timeframe to prove the economic viability of the line and an incredible amount of work has gone into increasing freight. It’s clear the Government never expected that our community would be able to rally the business support to save the line — now they’ve been given an excuse to close it they’ll grab it with both hands.”
On TV 3 last night, Mr Joyce had not mentioned the billions that went into roads every year.
“His comment that we should be grateful for all the transport funding going into roading rings hollow, given that the lion’s share of that funding has gone into Government’s “Roads of National Significance” — none of which are anywhere near our district.”
She called on Gisborne MP Anne Tolley to step up and represent the strong views of her electorate on this issue.
“This Government’s approach to the future of our rail line is predictably short-sighted and they are fooling themselves if they think they can railroad over our community without a fight,” Ms Mackey said.
Pushing urgent rail repairs
Wednesday, March 28, 2012 • Debbie Gregory
THE Gisborne to Napier railway line needs to be repaired urgently say produce growers, transport companies and Gisborne’s Mayor Meng Foon.
There is major damage to the line between Gisborne and Wairoa, with three dropouts, including one 100-metres wide, following a weather bomb that hit the district last week.
“Our businesses are suffering due to a number of slips . . . we need urgent action on all fronts,” said Mr Foon.
He will meet with Anne Tolley in Wellington tomorrow.
“We need the full support of Anne Tolley our local MP along with the Minister of Transport; I have requested an urgent meeting with them.
“We need to know when they are going to repair the railway line as it is urgent to the success of our businesses. A number of produce growers are using the railway line now, but the slip has been a blow to that huge effort by Weatherells Transport.”
Weatherells was behind a co-ordination of Gisborne exporters that lifted the use of the track from once to three times a week. Weatherells had the potential to provide freight for five or six trains a week.
“Winter is coming and the work programme of urgent repairs needs to happen now. I appreciate the huge concern of our businesspeople who use the rail,” said Mr Foon.
He does not want the decision on rail repairs to take too long.
“Rail is the transport of the future and we need to keep this important asset for the betterment of our district,” he said.
One of the main companies that has been using the line is LeaderBrand.
Spokesman Andrew Vette said he was disappointed to hear that the service had been halted.
“The rail programme has been an excellent development for the region and one that has our full support.”
Napier Rail Action Group co-ordinator Richard Sceats said the group was “devastated” with the news of the damage, as things were really progressing well with big increases in tonnage being moved both ways on the line.
“We certainly hope that urgent repairs can be made on this strategic asset.
“After all, if money can be spent on both the Manawatu and Waioeka gorges, surely money is available to reopen this railway line.
“If not does it not mean that every road/railway line will be closed when a slip falls,” he said.
Mrs Tolley said KiwiRail was still assessing the damage.
“It looks pretty major damage. They have had difficulty getting people to the sites to assess it and until then they are saying nothing.”
There was no timeframe for a decision on the future of the line, she said.
The Minister of Transport Gerry Brownlee was unable to meet with Mrs Tolley and Mr Foon tomorrow but Mrs Tolley said she was pressuring for a decision to be made as soon as possible.

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