I agree with the sentiments expressed by so many writers to The Gisborne Herald supporting the retention of the rail link to Napier. This is a vital transport route that is going to become increasingly important as the cost of fuel and road maintenance increase over the next couple of decades.
The proposal to convert the railway to a cycleway for tourists has serious limitations. For a start, the cost-benefit assessment is impossible to quantify with any accuracy and the gamble in losing the railway is too big to risk on dodgy sums. Secondly, the route to Opoutama contains a number of tunnels, including the 5th and 10th longest ones in the country, 3km and 1.4km long respectively, and a third over 900m long. The 3km one starts uphill going south, then downhill a bit, and then uphill again, so you won’t be able to see through the tunnel from either end. None of these would be safe for foot or cycle traffic without lighting, which would cost a heap to install. For most users I think a 3km tunnel would be daunting even with lighting.
Like many such lines in the past, the railway will stand or fall on the levels of traffic on it. Hopefully the NZTA funded report on the viability of a shipping link to Napier will include realistic estimates of freight that might otherwise be carried on the railway.
The Port has serious space constraints and increases in traffic would be best moved to Napier by rail once the Port reaches capacity. In recent years the line has been kept open in the expectation of significant timber or log traffic arising from the forests in our region. So far, not much of this has come the railway’s way and while there are perennial promises of two new mills starting to produce timber product, a spade of dirt is yet to be turned.
KiwiRail is very interested in reviving the fortunes of the line. It has identified that clearances in tunnels on the line can be improved relatively simply and cheaply, to permit movement of 9ft 6ins high containers. That would open up a number of export markets for rail, which KiwiRail is actively pursuing.
In this country the price of diesel is unsubsidised and essentially untaxed. Rail and road pay the same price, with some margins according to their respective bargaining power. Trucks pay for roads through Road User Charges. These are set nationally, and are averaged across the country. They take no account of local conditions. In areas with difficult roading conditions, like the whole region north of Napier, the charges are likely to be less than the costs trucking incurs. The only practical way that regional variations might be introduced is for electronic charging for roads to be introduced. The technology for this exists, and indeed the basic equipment is installed in many trucks already, recent decisions to allow heavier trucks on our roads might prompt pricing changes to take into account the damage they do to publicly funded roads.
Of course RUCs do not contain any element for externalities like the contribution of fossil fuels to climate change, air pollution, safety and the like. Nor does petrol tax for cars. Climate change is being addressed by the government through the Emissions Trading Scheme, and rail will quickly become more competitive as it has lower fuel consumption than trucks moving the same volume of freight.
One of the most potent tools to help the line would be local attitudes, conveyed to local and national politicians, and backed up by action to support the line. That can only come from local people, so I am heartened that so many locals are prepared to advocate on this critical issue.