NEW ZEALAND: The government has approved the first NZ$94·8m tranche of an expected NZ$300m from the Provincial Growth Fund to fund renovation and upgrading works on KiwiRail’s 181 km North Auckland Line between Swanson and Whangarei.

Speaking in Helensville on September 5, Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones said the government was looking to stimulate economic development and encourage modal shift from road to rail. At present rail only has 5% of the Northland freight market, and the line had been maintained to a regime of ‘managed decline’.

According to KiwiRail Group Chief Executive Greg Miller, ‘the line has been in decline for decades and without this investment would have had to close in the near term. It’s crucial that Northland stays rail connected and I’m incredibly grateful for this government support which will not only ensure the NAL remains operational but becomes more efficient.’

More than half of the funding will go on track renewals, with rail, sleepers and ballast to be replaced on around 54 route-km. Another NZ$16m will go on replacing five deteriorating wooden bridges by new concrete structures, and NZ$7m on repairs to 13 tunnels, including the longest Tunnel 2, north of Helensville, where KiwiRail has already started installing steel ribs to strengthen the deformed tunnel lining. KiwiRail will also investigate the ground conditions as a prelude to future work to lower the track through the tunnels to accommodate larger containers.

Other elements include a major programme of drainage remediation and work to stabilise nine embankments, along with extensive vegetation clearance. Remodelling of the yard at Whangarei is envisaged to make freight handling and storage more efficient, as well as improving safety.

Due for completion by September 2021, the initial tranche of work will allow average speeds to be increased from 40 to 80 km/h, making rail transit times more competitive with road. It will also make the line more resilient to severe weather events.