Future of historic eastern rail link still hanging
1st July 2010
IN November last year, a de-railed carriage was dragged some 8 km on the Stratford-Okahukura Line (SOL), causing damage to thousands of rail sleepers, before the train was bought to a halt.
To date the resultant damage has not been repaired and the line remains closed eight months later.
At the time of the derailment it was only being used by one train a day which carried mainly products for the Hawera based dairy company Fonterra .
During the period of closure Fonterra's products have been transported on the Marton line as an alternative route, something that doesn't bother Fonterra.
Meanwhile, the owner of the SOL , KiwiRail, has been considering the options for the future of the line. KiwiRail estimates the cost of repair to be about $1m but says a total of $10m is needed to bring the line up to the required standard for future freight use.
Part of Kiwirail's dilemma is deciding whether this money would be better spent on further improvements to the more user friendly, alternative Marton route.
Over recent months KiwiRail have completed a consultation period with interest groups, including the Taranaki based SOL working party, and received submissions from the public.
Those wanting the SOL re-opened have presented their supporting arguments.
But in reality, the big question remains unchanged. Do these arguments build a sufficiently strong commercial case to justify future expenditure to re-open the line ? KiwiRail says, without a major active user, this is doubtful.
The government budget in May included announcements on KiwiRail that have added to the discussion. The Minister of Transport, Steven Joyce, identified four short haul lines that were under close scrutiny and could face possible closure by 2012. The SOL was one of those identified. If the four identified lines failed to stack up commercially, they would be mothballed.
At the same time he announced a cash injection of $750m, over the next three years was available to KiwiRail for capital expenditure. But this would only be accessible if KiwiRail put forward satisfactory business cases that met the government performance measures and contributed to KiwiRail's future profitability.
Recently a delegation led by Ruapehu Mayor, Sue Morris, and myself went to Wellington and met with senior management of KiwiRail and also with Minister of Transport Steven Joyce.
Our intention was to seek clarification on recent statements by KiwiRail and the announcements in the budget. We also needed to follow up on a letter the mayors of Taranaki had jointly sent to the Minister earlier this year.
The delegation was well received by KiwiRail who briefed us on the present position. Essentially, they are still investigating and developing a business case to justify the retention of the line. They are well aware of its strategic value and future potential, as the SOL supporters have provided solid information on this aspect.
As reported previously, what would add considerable weight to the business case, would be identifying a major long term, bulk freight user as an anchor customer, moving for example: dairy, coal or forestry products. At present that customer is not there.
Whether there is a strong enough business case to prove the line commercially viable without a major user and still satisfy the decision makers, is uncertain.
I asked what the term "mothballed" meant in practical terms. KiwiRail said this would mean not using the line and doing only essential maintenance such as spraying weeds, maintaining road crossings and attending to any health and safety issues.
To me, that sounded awfully like the existing situation.
If the line does become officially mothballed, KiwiRail indicated this designation would not be left in place for an indefinite period into the future.
In February the Taranaki mayoral forum had written to Minister of Transport Steven Joyce noting the arguments for the retention of the line, but also expressing a broader view by seeking some assurances, should the line be closed permanently.
We didn't want to send mixed messages to the Minister but we thought it important to have a Plan B as well.
It is always much more beneficial to have your views considered during the decision making discussion, rather than after the decision is made.
Assurances about future ownership, its designation and potential future uses for the rail corridor were some of the issues raised. There have been some great ideas put forward for future use, should the rail become redundant.
We also sought a commitment to further spending on improving Taranaki's other road/rail infrastructure.
Minister Joyce was very understanding of the issues affecting the future of the SOL. He re-iterated the KiwiRail standpoint, saying that they are a commercial organisation and are required to make sound commercial decisions. No surprises there.
Overall, the Ministers comments were encouraging and I remain optimistic that whether the SOL is re-opened or closed permanently, there will be some salvageable long term options and benefits for our region.
It is not known when any formal decision will be announced.
SO what's happening re the future of the historic rail line from Stratford through Eastern Taranaki? Stratford District Mayor Neil Volzke has been involved in the process of trying to keep the line open and he submitted the following.