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Mothballing Under-Used Rail Lines A Bad Move - Unions

Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

Wellington, March 5 NZPA - A railway workers union is concerned that if the Government does mothball under-used rail lines it will be very hard to ever reopen them.

State-owned KiwiRail has been considering closing down, mothballing or improving a number of under-used lines for some time.

Among them is the Napier to Gisborne route, which has one train a week, the northern Wairarapa line - virtually no traffic, the northern Taranaki line - one return train a day until a derailment damaged the track and has since not been repaired, and the Northland rail line beyond Whangarei - rarely used and in such poor shape trains have to travel at a walking pace.

In the case of the Gisborne route it is possible with some improvements it could be used for more forestry work as the road access is difficult and a tourism operator has expressed an interest in running a train there as well.

KiwiRail has also been looking at extending the Northland line to the port at Marsden Point, but this has always proven to be too expensive in the past.

Transport Minister Steven Joyce said that as part of a review some lines could be suspended until there was enough demand to reopen them and the Government would have to make some decisions by the time the budget was delivered in May.

Rail and Maritime Transport Union general secretary Wayne Butson said mothballing lines put emergency routes at risk and once a line was mothballed it was very hard to reopen it.

"The Rotorua branch is a case in point. The line has been mothballed so long that the cost of reinstatement will be prohibitive as kilometres of rail are missing through it disappearing," Mr Butson said.

"Many railway lines are needed as backup alternative routes in emergencies, such as the North Wairarapa line in respect of the Manawatu gorge. But once a line is mothballed it becomes too dangerous for rail staff to operate on it when it is needed for use at short notice. I would expect our members to decline to use a mothballed line until it was checked inch by inch by track inspectors."

KiwiRail chief executive Jim Quinn said closure of minor lines was just an option.

"The cost of maintaining minor lines individually may not seem high, but collectively it is a significant amount and doesn't include what are very considerable costs on some lines to improve them to a level that enables them to be competitive in the freight market," Mr Quinn said.

"At this stage, the only minor line where work has advanced to community engagement in detail has been the Stratford-Okahukura Line in the Taranaki-King country area. We've been looking at that line because of major track damage in November of last year. We have scarce resources for investment and we have to be satisfied before we do invest that spending the money is justified on commercial grounds.

"When individual lines are singled out, communities often come forward with ideas for business that would improve viability. In almost all cases, these ideas have been advanced and considered in the past, without the business materialising. Our advice to communities who advocate for keeping lines in their region open is to work on these ideas and turn them into reality."

This week KiwiRail announced it was behind its revenue and profit targets for the half year to December but said it was making good progress towards a sustainable future.

KiwiRail is budgeting a profit of $348.3m for the 2010 financial year, but without a government grant of $500m for new Auckland trains it will be a loss of $151.7m.

KiwiRail chairman Jim Bolger said KiwiRail signed an agreement with Fonterra to move greater volumes of dairy produce by rail and it was upgrading the Auckland and Wellington urban rail networks, the biggest upgrades since the networks were first established.

The Government paid Australia's Toll Holdings for $690m in July 2008 for the rail company. The price was widely criticised and less than a year later the rail assets were valued at just $349 million.

KiwiRail receives $90m a year from the Government.

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