Gisborne needn't be end of the line
The original column is shown below.
The section of the Gisborne-Wairoa railway needing to be repaired. The whole railway has since been mothballed.
Gisborne and the Eastern Bay of Plenty will be at the forefront of the recently announced regional development, forestry, housing and rail initiatives of the Labour-NZ First-Green government. In many ways, the area will no longer be at the end of the line.
This year’s election campaign wasn’t the first time that isolation and neglect of the regions has been a focus. Access to education, health, jobs, housing and network infrastructure has been topical since before Apirana Ngata.
Transport connections to the rest of the country is a psychological as well as a geographical barrier. Being part of a cohesive network provides more options and opportunity than being a cul-de-sac.
Considering the current and proposed expansion of forestry, processing and manufacturing in the region, aiming to just repair a small section of the existing Gisborne-Wairoa railway lacks ambition. In Northland, branches to Northport and Okaihau are a priority. Labour has even supported rapid regional rail services connecting Auckland to Hamilton, Te Kuiti, Cambridge, Rotorua, and Te Puke.
The East Coast Main Trunk Railway was meant to link Opotiki to Gisborne but construction of the connecting route between Taneatua and Moutohora was stopped in 1928. Resources were instead diverted towards the abandoned Rotorua-Taupo Branch.
The Taneatua branch was mothballed in 2003 and the Moutohora Branch in 1959. Most of the railway cuttings remain. Some sections of track are used for tourism ventures.
Rail has been essential to the success of the Port of Tauranga. Kiwirail runs several trains from Murupara daily. Even if the Gisborne region gains a fraction of the new government’s proposed billion trees, the port and roads will be stretched.
Trade starts with tourism, which leads to investment, migration, and growth. Processing, manufacturing, and marketing what is grown in a region adds value and provides a more diversified and robust economy.
The completion of the eastern main trunk would create a rail loop for tourism, an alternative route for freight to and from the Port of Tauranga and open up many opportunities for the region.
If the pick-and-shovel cuttings remain, you’d think that half the job has been done. In an age of advanced technology, one would expect that roads and rail would be easier and cheaper to build. Instead, it’s resulted in too many overpaid consultants formulating excuses to not build them.
Linking Opotiki with Gisborne, however, makes the Gisborne to Wairoa railway feasibility look very different on paper. Instead of trains returning empty to Gisborne, freight could continue to and from Tauranga and Auckland, benefiting the entire east coast of the North Island.
A North Island rail loop could provide greater benefits than the rail loop being built in Auckland.
But our culture has always been a dollar short, day late. We’ll plant another billion trees in the next decade but start building the infrastructure to transport it after those trees mature. Then we’ll pay a much higher price in the sudden rush to build that infrastructure.
We’re seeing the price this country has paid for catching up with our infrastructure. Pork barrel politicians have been happy to dish out billions on motorways in Auckland, Bay of Plenty, and Wellington first proposed in the 1940s.
It takes a crisis, however, like landslips on the Kaikoura Coast and Manawatu Gorge, to see the value of connections to the regions. Comparing the economics and geography of some of the mega projects currently being undertaken, the distance between Taneatua and Moutohora seems surmountable.
Gisborne has an opportunity with the new government. It’s better to be on route to capitalise rather than overlooked at the end of the line.