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  • Writer's pictureGrant McLachlan - New Zealand Herald - Column

Rail a saga of missed opportunities

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Rail has to pay for itself and it can.

Over the parliamentary recess parties in the new Government have time to think about how to deliver their election promises. Combining their talents, ministers from each party can create some synergies to solve century-old problems.

Regional Development Minister Shane Jones will be thinking about where to plant one billion trees sustainably. Associate Transport Minister Julie Anne Genter should be thinking about how to transport it sustainably. Revenue Minister Stuart Nash will be thinking about how to pay for it sustainably.

Nash, who is an expert in forestry and strategic management, should see how he could fix all three problems with one integrated industry and infrastructure programme.

New Zealand's infrastructure network isn't as integrated with industry as it should be, leaving some regions poorly serviced and vulnerable to social and economic isolation.

Look at our rail network. It is a short-sighted, fork-like muddle ending at often mothballed factories. There was no Plan B should needs change for tourism, commuter, dairy or other new industries.

Look again at the geography and demographics between those rail terminuses. Often the land is perfect for sustainable forests but instead they are areas of high unemployment.

Take, for instance, the East Coast main trunk line. It was never completed. Instead of connecting Gisborne with Tauranga, they have since ripped up the tracks back to Gisborne and Taneatua. One slip along the Wairoa-to-Gisborne line mothballed the entire line since 2012.

Along the old rail cuttings is land that could accommodate hundreds of millions of trees. In 25 years, the harvest could pay for the completion of the railway and provide hundreds of jobs.

In the meantime, tourism and freight would have an alternative route between Wellington and Auckland. Rail tourism would loop the North Island, which would be popular with high-paying wine tourists.

But the Government is instead looking at a fast rail commuter programme, realigning existing rail branches. For the same amount of effort, they could lay new track linking Hamilton to Rotorua via Cambridge and Tirau, which would create rail loops linking with Tauranga.

Many are frustrated by the missed opportunities this country has had by the running down of its rail network. Kurow, Cromwell, Roxburgh, Kingston, Nelson, Methven, the Far North and Gisborne are booming and many now want tracks relaid.

One recently announced rail venture proposed a luxury service between Auckland and Queenstown. Problem is, there's no train to Queenstown. The Cromwell-to-Frankton line was never built, the Central Otago rail is now a cycle trail, and the Kingston Flyer sits rusting with no track to Invercargill.

Rail has to pay for itself and it can. Routes must have multiple uses where, if there is a downturn from one use, another use can maintain its feasibility.

The Wairarapa and Helensville lines have become popular commuter routes. Outside commuter times, freight trains run. In the Far North and Waikato, there is similar potential.

There is also potential for inland port facilities. Whangarei and Nelson, whose ports don't have rail connections, suffer from truck-congested roads. A rail connection to North Port would also ease port congestion at Auckland and Tauranga.

Lobbyists "railroading" for bespoke transport modes carries risks. We've seen it with the trucking lobby, then the cycling lobby, and now we are seeing it with the tram lobby.

The Southwestern Motorway between Onehunga and the Waterview Tunnel followed the western rail loop corridor to Mt Eden that was never laid. Instead of squeezing in the proposed wider standard gauge tram between the airport and downtown via Dominion Rd, there is already land available for a cape gauge light rail loop linking Onehunga with Mt Albert, servicing a wider area.

A heavy rail loop from Puhinui could also service freight, light and conventional passenger rail in the growing airport precinct. A cape gauge light rail could later be extended to Mangere and link with Onehunga, looping the city.

Many of the decisions from over a century ago are still useful to this day. Paper roads, unused rail corridors and designations can save billions of dollars in project costs. The alternative is expensive tunnels, bridges, coastal reclamations and land acquisitions.

Infrastructure shouldn't be treated like a fad. Over the past century, methods haven't changed significantly. We need to do the best with what we've got. In the end, seeing the wood for the trees will involve integrating uses with methods.

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