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Last chance for beleaguered rail line, but time’s running out

Opinion Piece

News that the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council proposal to reopen the Napier to Gisborne rail line could be in with a chance probably represents the last faint hope to save the threatened link.

The Hawke’s Bay council certainly deserves credit for its tenacity. It included more than $5 million in its last annual plan to potentially invest in reopening the line after years spent unsuccessfully negotiating with KiwiRail.

Now the council has learned that its plan to re-establish freight service on the line has made it through the next stage of a KiwiRail evaluation process. The council’s plan was submitted after alternative proposals were called for by KiwiRail.

The council’s interim chief executive Liz Lambert has advised a final outcome is expected by the end of February.

The Hawke’s Bay council’s proposal would initially reopen the line between Napier and Wairoa for a service that would be carrying logs to the Napier port.

Eventually, if the service proved viable, the council would have the option to retain the network and manage the freight options.

Some cynics might see this as a win/win situation for KiwiRail which they believe has been eager to drop the loss-making line for some time. There is no question that the line, closed after major flooding in 2012, faces huge financial and geographical challenges.

Throughout its 67-year history it has been at the mercy of nature which has been far from kind. There is a belief that a considerable amount of deferred maintenance needs to be done while the upkeep of its major features like the Mohaka Viaduct will be a challenge.

There is a question as to whether the Gisborne District Council might be asked to make a financial contribution, especially if the line is to open as far as here.

None of that will deter the diehards who are enamoured by the glamour of rail. For some there is something about the sound of a train whistle that touches the poet in them. But time is running out.