By Pattrick Smellie
Sept. 9 (BusinessDesk) - KiwiRail could run "platoons" of freight trains from West Auckland to the south of the city between 9pm and 3am to stave off the estimated $1.5 billion cost of unblocking current under-capacity through the Auckland isthmus, chief executive Greg Miller says.
An upgraded rail service between Northport and Auckland does not require new track capacity through the central city in the short- to medium-term, he told BusinessDesk.
"There are more hours in the day than the congestion is," Miller said. "Between 9pm and 3am you could stage trains out west and run them through as a platoon and not affect anything. There's capacity in the metro rail for a twilight shift in the train network."
KiwiRail was already operating similar services out of its Metroport facility, on the isthmus between Onehunga and Otahuhu, where it despatches freight to Port of Tauranga and other destinations to the south of the country's largest city.
The government on Friday's announced that $98.5 million from the Provincial Growth Fund will go to restoring track, bridges and tunnels on the rail link between Whangarei and Auckland.
Miller conceded that greater track capacity through Auckland would eventually be required, but that should not stop the state-owned operator finding creative ways to avoid both the bottleneck and the estimated $1.5 billion cost of an expanded rail corridor from the north. That expansion would be vital if Auckland's waterfront port were relocated to Northport, as the New Zealand First party is advocating.
A final report from the Upper North Island Supply Chain Study, which looks at alternative locations for the Auckland port, is expected to favour moving at least some of Auckland's shipping traffic to the northern port. Cargoes would need a strong rail connection if the road links to Northland were not to be congested by additional truck traffic.
Miller also took issue with the widely held view that Northport could not be made to work as a port for Auckland.
"The protagonists say it's too far away and you can't afford it and the transit extension time is too great. But in this supply chain, where are you measuring from?"
An upgraded Northland to Auckland train line would cut the current seven-hour journey to three because trains would no longer be travelling at very low speeds to deal with the line's current, decrepit condition.
For shipping deliveries to export markets of products not required on a 'just-in-time' basis, a few hours' wait on a siding in West Auckland to get through Auckland overnight was not the end of the world.
"Metroport has proven that you can have a 200-kilometre rail and be economic and saturate your fixed costs ... and have a timeline that works for the importer and exporter," said Miller. "When we look at Northland, it's the same distance. There's just no corridor yet."
Meanwhile, the 50 percent owner of Northport, Marsden Maritime Holdings, says it's time for a collaborative effort to find ways to use the port as the landing point for imported cars that currently take up valuable waterfront land in Auckland's central city.
The Northland-Auckland rail upgrade "is really great but it can't just stop there," said MMH chairman Murray Jagger. MMH is 19.9 percent owned by Ports of Auckland and 53.6 percent by the Northland Regional Council, with public shareholders comprising the rest of the register. The other half of Northport is owned by Port of Tauranga.
"We've got to say: 'how can we make the most use of it and leverage more value from it. We have no ambition to compete with Auckland," said Jagger. "This is a solution approach."
Miller said the Northland line, much of it 100 years old, had been under-funded for the past 50 years and faced closure near-term.
As a result, about 95 percent of Northland’s freight is currently moved by road. Upgrading the North Auckland Line provides the foundation for addressing that imbalance, he said.
“Transporting more freight on trains will reduce congestion on Northland roads, road maintenance costs and transport emissions for customers.
Meanwhile, KiwiRail's shareholding ministers, Grant Robertson and Winston Peters, announced the appointment of Labour Party stalwart Brian Corban to the permanent chairmanship of the railway company. He had been in an acting role since Miller resigned as chair to become chief executive in May this year.