Northland Line

Upgrades begin to allow more freight on Northland Line

Major works on New Zealand’s Northland Line have begun to enable more freight to be carried by train and faster passenger services.

The $204.5 million worth of works include replacing bridges, improving tunnels, and upgrading the rail line to Whangarei. Once complete, hi-cube containers will be able to be pulled on the Northland Line, enabling more freight to be carried by rail.

Services have been halted between Swanson, west of Auckland and Whangarei to allow for track occupancy and major civil works. Over the route, five bridges will be replaced and tracks will be lowered in 13 tunnels.

KiwiRail chief executive Greg Miller said that works are hoped to be completed by the end of the year.

“The work will be completed in stages, with the first objective being able to carry hi-cube containers through the tunnels between Whangarei and Auckland by Christmas.”

“Being able to carry hi-cube containers will also allow freight that can currently only come in and out of Northland by road, to instead go by rail. That additional transport option could help cut transport emissions and reduce the number of trucks on the roads,” said Miller.

Miller said that the delayed start was due to restrictions imposed by coronavirus (COVID-19).

“While our teams were able to continue design and planning work during the lockdown, COVID-19 halted most work on the ground. We’ve also been waiting on the arrival of specialist track laying equipment which has been held up by pandemic disruptions,” he said.

“This type of work can only be done while the line is shut. I regret the inconvenience for our freight customers and thank them for their patience. Once the line is upgraded, we will be able to offer more reliable train services to better meet their needs.”

Local businesses will be involved in the upgrade works, with Northland subcontractors tapped to provide supplies and carry out works.

“Local firm United Civil Construction has the contract to replace two of the bridges, all the ballast materials for the track upgrades are being supplied by Clements in Whangarei, and Busck, also in Whangarei, are supplying thousands of concrete sleepers,” said Miller.

In 2021, works on the Northland Line will continue, including the reopening of the line between Kauri and Otiria and the construction of a container exchange at Otiria.

Freight routes key to Northland Rail expansion

A business case for the Northland Rail project in New Zealand has stated that it will provide value if freight links are built between Auckland and Marsden Point at Northport.

The report said that without “increased and ongoing investment” rail services on the North Auckland Rail line could cease within the next five years.

The current plans for the 40-year, $1.3 billion North Island project include upgrading the main line from Auckland to Whangarei; reopening lines from Whangarei to Moerewa in the north and Whangarei to Dargaville in the west; and constructing an easterly spur to the deep-water port of Northport.

The report also said there was a “strong strategic case” for renewal and upgrade of the North Auckland Rail line, including the construction of a spur link to Marsden Point based on potential changes to freight flow within the upper North Island.

Over 55 per cent of New Zealand’s freight moves through the Northland, Auckland, Waikato and Bay of Plenty regions, and the business case estimated that freight demand in the North Island will grow significantly over the next 30 years. As such, the creation of a high-quality rail connection to Northport would be “a critical pre-condition” to facilitate the increased movement of containers in future.

“The development of a rail connection to Northport, and the potential development of substantial container handling capability at the port will also provide significant resilience value for this important trade,” the report said.

The business case also showed that investment would return $1.19 for every dollar spent, with over half of the benefits related to the ensuing decongestion of Auckland’s road freight.

Only 1.4 per cent of Northland freight is delivered by rail, compared with 7 per cent nationally.

NZ Associate Minister for Transport Shane Jones welcomed the findings of the report, stating that it helped present “a bold vision for investment in how freight moves around the upper North Island”.

“This business case will play a major role in government decision-making about major investments in Northland rail after the final report from the Upper North Island Supply Chain Study is completed in September,” Jones added.