Wairoa to Gisborne Rail Line: Can the line be re-opened economically?

The ongoing saga of the Gisborne Line has occupied many column centimetres in Gisborne and elsewhere over a lengthy period. The problem is that the Gisborne Line, particularly in the section over the Whareratas near Gisborne, has been very difficult and extremely expensive to maintain. The reopening of the line has been the subject of a prolonged campaign from Green and NZ First parties along with a local rail action group and other parties from around NZ. There has even been a proposal to establish NZ’s first “shortline” commercial railway on the line.

Apart from the official response from Kiwirail, there have now been two reports commissioned by BERL to try to establish an independent business case for the line. The first was quite a lowball, and whilst we don’t have it to hand, recollection is that it coattailed on Kiwirail’s original repair estimate of about $4 million, but also rubbished KRL’s pessimistic outlook on freight volume. The main problem with the $4 million estimate is that it did not imply any certainty that the line would not need further expensive repairs in subsequent months, or that it could be kept open for reliable service without the frequent disruptions from weather related closures that have been a feature of the line’s operation throughout its entire 77 year history. But the fact that the line supposedly could be put in order for a relatively modest sum was used by all and sundry in campaigning, apparently without any knowledge of the background issues. It was even inspected at some length by independent contractors, who we understand to be from DBM, well known in the NZ rail industry, whom we believed backed up the claims it could be repaired at relatively small cost. This was used as the basis of sustained campaigning by a “shortline” company that has campaigned (with its own website) but so far has not been able to persuade Kiwirail. At the same time, Gisborne City Vintage Railway, operating on the short section between Gisborne and Muriwai that remains open, has also been lobbying, but has also discovered just how expensive it can be to keep just their small portion of a railway in good working order, with hundreds of thousands spent in maintenance in recent years.

More recently Kiwirail has backtracked on the 2012 cost repairs estimate and upped the numbers to around $100 million. BERL, we suspect after looking deeper into the line’s history and consulting with people closer to the action, commissioned a new report using some of the available information such as aerial photography of the route to produce their most credible repair estimate yet, around $36 million, as well as updating the freight forecasts. We believe Kiwirail’s estimates are closer to the mark, because BERL leaves out some key issues they have no insight into, such as the state of the Waipaoa River bridge near Gisborne, which we understand has to close down to all trains in times of heavy river flow, due to extensive scour around the original 1942 foundations. Kiwirail have stated they base their estimates on the assumption that deviation and realignment of the route in some areas would be necessary, and the financials of recently re-opening the Main North Line (work on which is currently ongoing) after the Rotherham Earthquake come into play here. KRL also remain skeptical about the optimistic freight case BERL have continued to promote.

The local action group is still trying to persuade the Gisborne District Council, and others, that the line should be prioritised as a shovel ready project for COVID-19 recovery funding, and have attempted to downplay Kiwirail CEO Greg Miller’s case for the rebuilding of the line, by suggesting it only needs a short section repaired. However, the line is currently subject to eight years of neglect, and the substantial expense incurred by GCVR on the short section they continue to operate, show that it is highly likely a full inspection of the entire route would flag a substantial backlog of basic track maintenance throughout.

We believe Kiwirail’s view will prevail, inasmuch as PGF Minister Shane Jones has said as such following the release of KRL’s assessment of the proposition, and notwithstanding a recent visit to Gisborne by Greg Miller , recent talking up of BERL’s lower estimates, and campaigning for the reopening of the line to be assessed as a shovel-ready regional recovery project, we do not expect to see the line re-opened in the foreseeable future.