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Northland rail rejuvenation

Work is underway to rejuvenate rail in Northland, following significant investment from the Government’s Provincial Growth Fund (PGF).

In January 2020 the Government announced a $109.7 million investment in Northland rail. This builds on a $94.8 million investment announced in September 2019 and $2.2 million to undertake geotechnical assessments along the route of a proposed spur line to Northport/Marsden Point, which was completed in early 2019.

This significant Government investment is being used to:

  • Upgrade the Northland Line between Swanson and Whangarei, including replacing five bridges on the line;
  • Lowering the tracks in 13 tunnels to allow hi-cube shipping containers to be carried on the Northland Line;
  • Reopening the currently mothballed northern part of the Northland Line between Kauri and Otiria and building a container terminal at Otiria;
  • Purchase land along the rail designated route between Oakleigh and Northport/Marsden Point.

Rail has a number of benefits – including helping to reduce road congestion and road maintenance costs through fewer truck journeys. Rail also helps reduce overall transport emissions, given each tonne of freight carried by rail has 66 per cent fewer emissions than that carried by road.

Rejuvenating Northland rail offers another reliable transport option for Northland’s producers and manufacturers.

With freight volumes in Northland 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 road-rail transport system in the region. 

The work we are doing in Northland is one of a number of projects underway to ensure KiwiRail delivers stronger connections for a better New Zealand.

Taking a closer look

Northland’s railway lines are underused at the moment because of their condition. The Northland Line is around 100-years old, is currently mothballed north of Kauri (above Whangarei) and the whole line has been in a state of ‘managed decline’ until its future was determined.

As a result, rail freight services are too easily disrupted, with at least 70 line outages on the Northland Line since 2010 – mostly due to slope stability, flooding issues and derailments. Two significant derailments in the last 18 months each closed the line for more than a week and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair.

Currently we run one week-day return service to Auckland on the line, predominantly carrying dairy and forestry freight.

The line has lower speeds than the rest of the network. It also has lower weight limits, and, because of its very old tunnels, it cannot carry the same containers carried elsewhere on the network.

Tunnel investigations

Drilling rigs take soil samples in the Makarau Tunnel on the North Auckland Line in late 2018.

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Northland Line investment

The Government’s investment enables the line from Swanson, near Auckland, all the way to Otiria, in Northland, to be upgraded and properly maintained, returning it to a standard similar to the rest of New Zealand’s rail network.

It ensures the Northland Line will remain in operation long-term and also sets a solid foundation for KiwiRail to grow our freight services in and out of Northland, helping taking heavy trucks off the region’s roads.

Ensuring rail services can operate efficiently is also necessary to support any further rail investment – such as a spur line to Northport/Marsden Point.

The work KiwiRail is undertaking on the NAL is summarised in the two graphics below:

Northland rail 94.8M investment summary
New format 109.7M investment summary

 This work will:

—Allow some of the speed restrictions to be lifted, reducing the rail freight journey time to Auckland by approximately 1.5 hours.

—Make rail services more resilient and reliable, reducing the number of line outages.

—Lowering track in the 13 tunnels allows hi-cube shipping containers to be carried on the line. For context around 30,000 containers leave Northland each year, so rail will now be able to tap into this market.

 — There is significant agriculture and horticulture development in the far north and reopening the line to and building a container terminal at Otiria will allow rail access to containerised horticulture, meat and wood products for export out of Auckland or Tauranga.

—Where possible, KiwiRail is using Northland-based contractors and sourcing materials from Northland. This will see millions of dollars going into Northland’s economy, creating local jobs and helping boost the region.

—KiwiRail is taking on 12 permanent staff in Northland, for ongoing maintenance of the Northland Line.

The work is underway. The Northland Line is expected to be able to carry hi-cube containers between Whangarei and Auckland by the end of September 2020, with all work on the line expected to be completed in 2021. 


Marsden Point Line

The Government has indicated its strong support for the value rail delivers in the regions and the benefits it brings our communities by taking trucks off the road, improving road safety and reducing carbon emissions.

Northport is one of the few ports in New Zealand that is not rail connected, so is unable to share the benefits rail brings to other major ports – including Ports of Auckland and Port of Tauranga. 

KiwiRail has held the designation  and consents for the construction, operation and maintenance of a rail link from Oakleigh to Marsden Point since 2012.

The location of the designation is shown in the Operative Whangarei District Plan (WDP).  You can see the plan here:


We have begun work on preliminary design and  investigating potential construction methods for the link, as well as costs and timeframes.

This included the $2.2 PGF funded geotechnical studies into the designated route, which was completed at the end of January 2019.

The Ministry of Transport’s Northland Rail Business Case and the independent Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy, which focuses on the respective roles, opportunities and options for Northport, Ports of Auckland and Port of Tauranga, have both been completed and submitted for Government consideration.

Both studies found that building a spur line to Northport/Marsden Point offered significant regional economic benefit and considerable opportunity to shift freight volumes in Northland from road to rail.

The $40 million PGF investment announced in January 2020 enables KiwiRail to purchase land along the designated route of the Marsden Point Line. Some of the land is owned by Northland Regional Council, and other parts by private landowners.  

Proposed route

This map shows the proposed route for a Marsden Point branch line.

Marsden Point Spur Line 960x540