The government announced a key step towards fulfilment of one of its coalition agreement promises, committing $500,000 for a study into the potential to upgrade and expand rail services north of Auckland, including a new spur line to connect Whangarei's Northport to the rail system.
However, while NZ First leader Winston Peters has long campaigned to bring rail to Northport and move Auckland's main port out of the city's central business district to Northland, today's rail announcement does not explicitly mention moving the port.
The coalition agreement between Labour and NZ First stipulated "commissioning a feasibility study on the options for moving the Ports of Auckland, including giving Northport serious consideration".
Transport Minister Phil Twyford and Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones announced the study as part of a visit to the Far North led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, in which a string of local investments were announced, including $6.2 million for a package of business cases examining upgrades to the 'Twin Coast Discovery' tourist highway route covering the east and west coasts of Northland.
However, there was no announcement regarding the potential to upgrade State Highway 1 between Wellsford and Whangarei, with increasing speculation that if there is a rail upgrade to the north, Whangarei's long-sought upgrade to the main highway north will not go ahead. Jones recently described the highway upgrade as a "pipe-dream".
Key to the business case for extending rail to Northport is likely to be the question of two-way freight movements.
"Almost all of Northland’s freight leaves the region by road," today's joint statement said. "Around 1,185 heavy vehicles a day travel on State Highway 1 between Northland and Auckland, and truck numbers are increasing."
If the Auckland port operations shifted north and were supported by rail, freight volumes travelling from Northland would explode, but freight in the opposite direction would be light unless there were significant new industry in Northland or unless other major activity, such as the Devonport naval base, were to shift north too.
Among other considerations is the likely conclusion that if imported cars were to be landed at Northport, they would not be suited to transport by rail and would have to be trucked south. The presence of imported cars on the Auckland wharves, where they are regarded as an eyesore and an inefficient waste of valuable inner-city space, makes them an iconic element of opposition to Ports of Auckland's continued presence on its current Waitemata Harbour waterfront site.
Twyford said the government "believes that rejuvenating and expanding the North Auckland rail line could help unlock the region’s export potential. The business case will test this and determine the appetite for rail as a viable option for transporting freight in and out of the region. It will also investigate whether the upgrade could include a new spur line to Marsden Point to support Northport’s growth.
“The existing sections of the line are in poor condition or not in use. The business case will weigh the costs and benefits of upgrading them to modern freight standards," he said.
The cost of both upgrades and a new spur line are unofficially estimated to come at a cost well above $300 million.
The cost of the business case will be met from the Provincial Growth Fund, which has $1 billion a year for three years to commit to regional growth investments, with activity expected to ramp up over the second two years.