Michael Lee: North Island Main Trunk Centenary
Michael Lee, Auckland Regional Council chairman
North Island Main Trunk Centenary – 100th anniversary of the Parliamentary Special train trip to meet the Great White Fleet
NZ Maritime Museum, the Maritime Room
Friday 8 August 2008, 6pm-8pm
E nga mana, e nga reo, e nga rangatira maha,
Tena koutou tena koutou tena koutou katoa.
Haere i nga mate, haere, haere, haere
Ngati Whatua, nga mate i runga i a koutou tenei ka mihi ka tangi ka poroporoaki nga rangatira o Ngati Whatua, Cyril Talbot, Whero Nahi
Moe mai, moe mai, moe mai
Te hunga ora tena koutou katoa.
E te rangatira Heeni, te Kahui Ariki, nga Kaumatua o Tainui Nau mai, Hoki mai,
Haere mai i runga i te mana o te Kingi Tuheitia.
Tena koutou Tena koutou Tena koutou katoa.
It is a great privilege to be in public service at a time in which rail in New Zealand is undergoing such an historic renaissance.
Today is an auspicious day in the history of our country - for we celebrate centennial of the first Wellington to Auckland passenger train – the parliamentary special and therefore the effective completion of the North Island Main Trunk Line.
We also celebrate the centenary of the visit of the United States Great White fleet and therefore I want to especially acknowledge the Consul General of the United States of America John Desrocher.
This evening’s function is hosted by the ARC – so I welcome you tonight on behalf of my fellow councillors who are here Michael Barnett, Christine Rose, Clive Carter, Jan Sinclair and Brent Morrissey. And our chief Executive Peter Winder. I also want to thank our sponsors Abernathy Civic.
Here in Auckland we are at the threshold of a major expansion and electrification of our rail network and services. A project not without difficulties and challenges.
But the challenges we face today, though unquestionably difficult and very expensive, pale into insignificance compared to what our ancestors achieved over 100 years ago in building the NIMT over nearly 700 kilometers through of some of the most rugged terrain in the world.
Today we pay homage to, and recall the great achievements of that truly inspiring generation of New Zealanders whose hard labour and ingenuity built this railway and thereby transformed New Zealand from a scatter of colonial settlements it into a modern nation.
We acknowledge also the memory of the 2nd Maori King, King Tawhiao because it was Tawhiao whilst still in exile in the King Country who gave permission for the railway to go through. Therefore I acknowledge again his great, great, great granddaughter Princess Heeni Katipa who is with us this evening, representing her brother the Maori King.
As the Prime Minister Rt. Hon Helen Clark and the chairman of OnTrack Cam Moore reminded us earlier this evening the North Island Main Trunk Line provided the catalyst for economic development of this country. It was the steel ties that bound this country together.
The railway together with the new technology of refrigerated shipping were to give New Zealand a tremendous advance in productivity. So much so that by the middle of the 20th century New Zealand had achieved one the highest standards of living in the world.
Based on that infrastructure, and a hard-working resourceful people New Zealand enjoyed full employment and one of the world’s most advanced welfare states. So much so that in World War 2 New Zealand not only was a net donor of economic aid to Great Britain – believe it or not - it also was a net donor of aid to the United States of America.
And it was the railways in World War in 1940 (just as in the Great war before it) that took the troops of the NZ division to the embarkation ports with all the materiel of war – and five years later it was the railways that brought the soldiers – sadly not all - home again.
Those historical events are deeply embedded in the collective memory of this nation.
It was in the 1950s that rail reached its zenith – but the availability of abundant cheap oil meant that around this time, new development of rail came to an end and indeed in subsequent years through policies of neglect, rail went into sharp decline. Here in Auckland by the middle of the 50s both local and central government agreed to abandon ambitious plans to expand and electrify the Auckland rail network. Across the country branch rails and services were progressively retrenched. The trajectory of decline reached its lowest point in the 1990s. But then the wheel of history turned - and by the turn of the century or perhaps some five years ago rail began its historic renaissance.
That renaissance is occurring across the country but nowhere as dramatically as in Auckland – with major investment from central and regional government Auckland has seen patronage increase from around 2 million trips five years ago to nearly 7 million trips this year, and still rising fast.
Last month we restored passenger services to Helensville after an interregnum of nearly 30 years, next year with our friends in Ontrack we will recommission the Onehunga Branch line and resume passenger services. We are closer than anyone has been ever before to electrifying Auckland’s rail network. Today I wrote to the Minister of Transport formally applying for fuel tax support the purchase of a brand new fleet of electric multiple units and a raft of other capital improvements to public transport. And in my letter I formally advised the Minister of our determination to get on with building the CBD tunnel loop linking Britomart to the western line at Mt Eden and also our determination to push ahead with extending rail to Auckland international airport as quickly as possible,
So today as we celebrate 100 years of rail services between Auckland and Wellington and all the cities, towns and settlements in between, it is worthwhile recalling that two years ago – 2 years short of this centenary passenger rail services – in the form of the Overlander - were under threat – in fact they were scheduled to be terminated on 30 September 2006.
At the time there was a remarkable outpouring of support from members of the public to save the Overlander service. To be fair not all of this was from would be passengers – a lot of it to be frank was because many New Zealanders saw that service as part of a national legacy handed down by earlier generations of New Zealanders and therefore needed to be safeguarded.
I want to thank all those people who rallied around and gave so much support to keep the Overlander going. I want to especially acknowledge David Jackson chief executive of Toll NZ who made the decision to keep the Overlander going. My colleagues – the chairs of the North Island regional councils, Waikato, Horizons and Wellington campaigned to keep the Overlander and I with Garrick Murfitt Chairman of Horizons had a number of meetings with David. David is a pretty tough hard nose guy, his decision to overrule the previous Toll decisions was a generous one but based on the realization there were enough people out there, given the right promotion who would to use the train to keep it commercially viable.
That proved to be the case.
As we know Toll NZ has now been bought back into New Zealand ownership by the government and the Toll people will soon be departing the scene – but David thank you because you have left us with the legacy of the Overlander.
Finally I want to thank the government, in particular the Prime Minister Rt. Helen Clark and Deputy Prime Minister Michael Cullen for their historic, courageous and visionary decision to buy back Toll NZ – combining it with Ontrack to form a KiwiRail. And furthermore committing to the major ongoing investment in rail that is needed. Rail is not a business in itself but we are learning belatedly again what our ancestors understood implicitly. That rail it is an absolutely vital element in the economic infrastructure of a modern, prosperous and sustainable nation.
I want to finish by quoting from an email I received two years ago at the height of the Overlander campaign two years ago – it was from a new Chinese immigrant to New Zealand - one James Chuang who worked as a tradesman in the Hillside Rail workshops in Dunedin. Mr Chuang sent me a number of beautiful scenic photos of the Overlander he had taken in various locations in the central North Island and which he thought could help promote the service – his message was simple “please save this train – this train is precious to me”. I have to say of all the messages I received during that time this was probably the most touching. This new immigrant to New Zealand understood and empathised with something that is very near the heart of this country’s special identity and pride and he was committed to it. A good New Zealander.
Our railway and its legacy are precious to all good New Zealanders and will remain so.
I want to thank everyone that made this historic event possible. OnTrack, KiwiRail, Ian Welch and Mainline Steam and all the volunteer rail enthusiast groups who were involved,
How auspicious it is then ladies and gentlemen – that in this most important centennial year – we are witnessing the renaissance of New Zealand rail. Surely that is the best way to remember those heroic New Zealanders who built the Main Trunk Line 100 years ago.
We look to the past with pride and to the future with great optimism.
Na reira tena koutou, tena koutou, tena tatou katoa.