New Zealand to benefit from improved Northland line

19 January, 2021

The re-opening of the rail line between Whangārei and Swanson in West Auckland is a significant achievement and has immediately boosted KiwiRail’s ability to deliver freight services for New Zealanders.

 The track opened last week and today KiwiRail will begin receiving some of the containers unloaded from the ANL vessel Tianjin Bridge which berthed at Northport on Friday. These will be trucked to the rail line in Whangārei and taken to Auckland by train, while the rest of the containers will be moved south by road to their destination.

 “Completing the work to re-open the line is a big achievement and a significant milestone for KiwiRail,” says KiwiRail Group Chief Executive Greg Miller. “The re-opening signals that we’re open for business, ready to support importers and also building resilience and sustainability into our transport network.

 “It also ties in with our ongoing efforts to address the freight backlog. Freight is core to KiwiRail’s business and moving more freight by rail is a key objective.”

 Fewer trucks on roads also means less congestion, lower road maintenance costs, and greater road safety.

It also means fewer emissions. Every tonne of freight carried by rail produces 70 per cent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the equivalent freight carried by road.

 The project to improve the North Auckland line, which was in a poor state after years of under-investment, began only a year ago. Funded by the Government’s Provincial Growth Fund, the work included replacing five bridges and lowering tracks in 13 tunnels in just seven months, to allow the passage of hi-cube shipping containers in and out of Northland by rail. These hi-cube containers are standard in international shipping.

“In the tunnels, KiwiRail built on the experience and relationships forged in the Kaikōura recovery and included tested construction firms and key individuals from the outset,” Mr Miller says. 

“All the bridges have the same modular design which gave us economies of scale, and speed in construction.

 “In addition to lowering the tunnels, we undertook essential repair works. As we progressed, it became apparent that had this major investment not been made, the line would have closed.”

 All the new and rehabilitated structures have clearance through the tunnels for electrification to be added later, which helps to further improve the network’s resilience over time.

“We procured, designed, and delivered the project in a year, which is an extremely short timeframe for such a large-scale, complex project,” Mr Miller says.

 “At its peak, more than 600 people were working on the project at one time. In addition to the new bridges and improved tunnels, the team laid 30,000 new sleepers and nearly 63,000m3 of ballast to provide a more secure base for the track.

“Throughout the project we created employment in Northland for everyone from new trainees to skilled professionals.  For example, local firm Busck supplied sleepers and prefabricated bridge sections, and United Civil was the lead contractor on some bridges and some tunnel works.  

Delivering the re-opened line on schedule is a major achievement and I acknowledge the project team, crews and contractors who’ve worked incredibly hard to make this happen.”

More than 400,000 hours went into the construction phase of the project, which marked its completion with the running of a test train last week carrying trial hi-cube export size containers. The train ran successfully along the length of the line, following an early morning blessing in Whangarei and by late last week, freight trains were again running.

 “While we are delighted that this section of the line is up and running, there’s some more intricate work to the tunnel linings required. Additionally, to allow greater train speed and axle weight, over time we will be replacing another 10km of rail and laying more than 100,000 sleepers.

 “The re-opening is an opportunity to remind people to take care around the railway line and to always look for trains before crossing the tracks. This week road users between Marsden Point and Whangārei should expect extra trucks on the roads as containers are moved from the port to their destinations, and to KiwiRail’s depot. The good news is that every container carried by train avoids the need for a round trip by truck, thereby reducing the number of trucks that would otherwise be needed on busy highways during the school holidays.”

 KiwiRail does not yet have a spur directly to Northport but the PGF funding has allowed us to begin buying land along the route. In the meantime, freight is trucked from the port to the rail line in Whangārei, then carried by rail, south to Auckland and other destinations.

 With freight volumes in the region expected to increase from 18 million tonnes a year currently to 23 million tonnes by 2042, rail is a crucial part of developing an efficient, integrated transport system for Northland. Across New Zealand, KiwiRail is working hard to support importers and exporters, and to increase its share of the freight market.