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Repair needed . . . not a rebuild

Freight trains like the one shown in the photo above were operating here in 2012 and can run again in 2021. Gillian Ward, chair of Gisborne Rail Action Group (GRAG), maintains the Gisborne to Wairoa railway line does not need to be rebuilt as KiwiRail claims. ‘It needs to be repaired . . . and there’s a lot of catch-up work to be done to make up for years of neglected maintenance, on the existing rail formation’.

“A snapshot of the Gisborne to Wairoa railway line (images from Gisborne Rail Action Group and Gisborne City Vintage Railway) shows that most of the line remains in good condition with only some sleeper replacements, culvert clearing, basic bridge maintenance, and other maintenance work needed,” says Ms Ward.

“The railway line should be repaired and brought back into commercial use as soon as possible. Whether the line is upgraded is a consideration for the new government sometime later. Any funds spent on the line now are an investment for the future.”

Gisborne City Vintage Railway (GCVR) has invested heavily into track and bridge maintenance on the line between Gisborne and Muriwai over the last few years.

Geoff Joyce, chair of GCVR, says: “We like to think that the historic steam train punches well above its weight in terms of tourism visibility and contribution to our region. However, we are not able to sustain these expenses.

“Everyone involved with resurrecting and running this iconic tourist attraction, literally starting from the scrap heap — those who have dedicated tens of thousands of hours of labour, the community, and generous private benefactors and grant funders — have all invested too much enthusiasm and effort to surrender this now,” says Mr Joyce.

“For GCVR the reality is that if the railway line is not reinstated and reopened for commercial use, and the maintenance of the line is not undertaken by the government or a commercial freight operator, we will not be able to continue to run the steam train.”

The expanding horticultural and agricultural production from the Gisborne region, mostly destined for export — apples, persimmons, sweetcorn, squash, kiwifruit, and lamb — is the primary driver for reinstating the railway line, with current demand estimated as a 24-wagon train carrying containerised freight, supplemented by logs, five days a week, throughout the year, with increases expected year on year.

In addition to commercial use, excursion trains would bring many rail-oriented tourists to Gisborne, and Wa165 could continue to run local trips. One feature which attracts rail enthusiasts is that Gisborne Airport is one of the few airports in the world that has a railway line crossing the main runway.

The advice from the experienced rail engineers (the same ones who advise KiwiRail), after detailed work on the ground, is that the rail formation and structures are sound.

The largest cost area of the PGF-funded BERL Turanga (Gisborne) ki Wairoa Rail Feasibility Study, was the detailed track and engineering assessment, including detailed design and costs. KiwiRail engineering and freight operations staff were involved in this feasibility study and provided the KiwiRail Review of Structure Assets (including bridges and tunnels) report that is one of the attachments to the main report. [https://berl.co.nz/research/reconnecting-gisborne]

The line between Waikokopu and Gisborne was built in the 1930s by the Public Works Department at a time when they had extensive experience of railway line construction. Constructed through the rugged and challenging Wharerata hill country, it was well-designed and built to last (given basic maintenance). It is one of the youngest lines in the country and the steel rail does not show a lot of wear.

The line was carrying a lot of freight, and this was increasing, at the time the storm damage occurred in 2012.

In 2011, in response to years of requests from local produce growers, KiwiRail upgraded the railway line to make it compatible for hi-cube containers. Then, from December 2011 to March 2012 there were three fully-loaded trains per week, each carrying 16x40ft chilled containers of fresh produce from Gisborne packhouses, and several general freight wagons as well, running directly to Napier's export container port.

Ms Ward says “Unfortunately, the line did not have time to prove its potential before five dropouts occurred in March 2012 — at the embankments at Wharekakaho Stream, Beach Loop southern end, Waiherere Stream, and the Tikiwhata Stream tributary, and of the track formation just south of the Railway Road crossing.

“A sixth dropout occurred in heavy rain in May 2015 at the embankment just north of tunnel no. 16, a reminder of the risks from delays in getting basic maintenance work done,” she says.

“Since 2012 a lot of emphasis has been focused on the damaged parts of the line. But, while one of the dropouts, the Tikiwhata stream tributary embankment washout, is particularly dramatic, each is repairable. Engineering designs for their repair are shown in an attachment to the BERL report, by Fraser Geologics Ltd.”

Critical track statistics:

Railway line Wairoa to Gisborne: 94km

• Track damaged by washouts: 350m, less than 0.5 percent of the line's length

• Other minor track damage, slips etc: 2.5km, 2.6 percent of the line's length

(Neil Buchanan, Rail Engineer)

“There is a discrepancy between the estimated costs of reopening the line stated by the BERL study and the recently-reported comments by KiwiRail CEO Greg Miller.”

According to the Gisborne Rail Action Group, the reason for this is that while the BERL study recommends the rail line be reinstated — repaired and maintained on the existing formation based on the current 16 tonne axle loading — KiwiRail CEO Greg Miller has said he would prefer the project, if it goes ahead, to be a complete rebuild based on an 18 tonne axle loading.

The total cost to reinstate the railway line for train operations including allowing for additional resilience work, a new transport hub at Matawhero, and contingencies has been put at $36 million with the work to be undertaken by local contractors. This is the “shovel-ready” regional Covid-19 Recovery project that Gisborne District Council and Hawke's Bay Regional Council have requested to be funded by the government, says Ms Ward.

“Also, in Tairawhiti we are very aware of the lives that were lost during the construction of the last section of this railway line. There is a monument near Waiau Stream to commemorate these lives lost.

“The Gisborne Rail Action Group (GRAG) believes the railway line to Gisborne through the Wharerata hills is exceptional in its engineering design and construction.

“It is really extraordinary that we still have this infrastructure and it is in such good condition — it is a gift from an earlier generation, that we need to value and use as it was intended to be used.

“To have the railway line repaired would enable horticultural development, enhance social wellbeing, improve safety on SH2, guarantee Wa165's survival as an iconic tourist attraction, and would reduce the region's use of fossil fuels and our CO2 emissions,” Ms Ward says.

North-bound freight train at Black's Beach, Nuhaka in March 2012. Picture by Bob Hepburn
A plane unloads at Gisborne Airport while WA165 crosses the runway. Picture by Geoff Joyce
The rail bridge over the Nuhaka River. Picture by Gillian Ward
Kopuawhara viaduct No. 1. Picture by Mike Costello
The Kopuawhara monument. Picture by Gillian Ward
Kopuawhara viaduct No. 2. Picture by Gillian Ward
Looking through tunnel No. 22 (right) to the northern entrance to tunnel No. 21. Picture by Gillian Ward
The Beach Loop embankment dropout. Picture by Barry Foster
Tunnel No. 25 at the northern end of Beach Loop. Picture by Kay Bayley
The Silver Fern rail car passing WA165 at beach loop in April 2010. Picture by Peter Wooding

  1. James Ruru says:

    Give it up! They said that about the meat works in a small town I know. They demolished the entire complex. People are still saying let’s get it re opened . . . It doesn’t even exist any more! It’s gone and ain’t coming back! Move on with it!

  2. Ken Ovenden says:

    Dream on,to re-instate the rail line from Gizzy to Wairoa, start at in excess of $200 million, all tunnels, all bridges replaced to 2020 Health and Safety Specs, all line, culverts, track, sleepers, bedding to the same specs. Now to the unbelievers, hire yourselves a helicopter and go and actually look at the Paritu dropouts and then come back and tell the rest of us how you would go about repairing that amount of damage . . . do not respond until you have been and looked.

    1. Derek Barthow says:

      I’ve been and looked. It’s easily doable. Personally I would build over the washouts creating small viaducts. Naysayers are doing this region so much damage with their lack of vision. Here we have a regional asset that in today’s dollars cost billions and there are people without vision letting it go to ruin. Next they will be demanding four-laning of the highway at far greater cost than fixing our rail. See the future man!

      1. Dave says:

        Derek, at least if we had a four-lane highway people would use it. How much use will a slow train to Napier get?

        1. Bruce says:

          Heaps friend. It is iconic, and thanks to the toilers of the past. Can we not achieve this with the benefit of modern technology, or is it easier to put it in the too-hard basket? The unique experiences this line gives should be encouraged.

  3. Clive E Rivers, Whanganui says:

    The naysayers who constantly deride the reopening of the line are absolutely without any vision for the future whatsoever.
    Every country in the world is expanding their rail systems, yet NZ seems to be obsessed with closing lines and cutting back services.
    This original quote when the line was isolated due to the storm was $4m, yet now we have quotes of over $26m and even $200m. The whole line had tunnels adjusted to cater for the new container sizes just before closure, and it is well known that KiwiRail did not actively market its freight business for this line.
    This whole situation should be an election issue, with CEO Greg Miller made to declare the reason why KiwiRail is so against reopening the line on the basis of its new declaration of “excessive costings” to do so.

  4. NIALL M ROBERTSON, Auckland says:

    This section of line is easily fixed through the repairs that Gillian Ward has spoken about and would be very viable when compared with the cost of completing the freight task on the adjacent road. The line also has fantastic potential for rail tourism in the future, especially as part of a national rail tour which could bring a lot of earnings to the local communities en route. Greg Miller’s push for an expensive rebuild may be more a political push-back to the politicians who said he had to do it from his KiwiRail budget. This is something that the government has to take responsibility for and should be paid for through the NLTF as all the roads are. It is also a good case to justify the separation of the below-wheel infrastructure from the above-rail KiwiRail business and bring the railway into the national land transport network, owned by New Zealanders for their wellbeing and for the good of the environment and future climate change imperatives.
    To all the naysayers, discuss this with the transport companies based in Gisborne. They would prefer to freight forward tonnage by rail, offer their customers a cheaper and more efficient service and concentrate their drivers, who they have trouble recruiting, to doing the necessary road-based tasks.

  5. Richard says:

    Firstly I firmly believe the line has a sustainable future regardless of the plethora of Luddite voices. I cannot comment on the freight potential as I do not have any experience in that market.

    However, the line does have a future not only in periodic tourist passenger operations but more-so in regular daily passenger train operations. In this domain my own research indicates that given modern rolling stock, fuel efficient motive power and market focused operational schedules, fare structures, and an entrepreneurial leadership all communities from Gisborne to Wellington (and those from further afield) will combine to deliver sustainable traffic volumes.

    The line must be brought back into operation – not to do so is to wilfully destroy a national asset.

  6. Dave Johnston, Paraparaumu Beach, Kapiti says:

    As a steam rail film/photographer you have in this line an untapped tourist asset better than the Tranz Alpine that attracted tourists from all around the world when both Mainline Steam and Steam Inc ran steam excursions. I was on them. It has steep grades of 1-in-40 where a steam engine really has to work and show its power, coastal panorama, five high viaducts higher than anything I experienced (other than the Huey long bridge across the Mississippi) on an Amtrak trip I did right around the USA and 28 states in 2011 with 30 Kiwis. Link that to Maori cultural experiences and you have a prime tourism asset. Furthermore, everybody forgets that when the Fiat rail cars ran the scheduled services Wellington to Gisborne, they were one-hour faster than today’s buses. The trip by bus I experienced last January showed the appalling state of the road to Napier has not improved in 50 years, whilst the rail used tunnels and viaducts to deal with the hills.