The South Island West Coast has had a problem keeping ports open that can handle large ships, which has become more of an issue since the 1960s in particular. There have been a lot of proposals to have better ports on the West Coast, including options that have been considered for a deep water port at Westport. Ones that I have read about recently were put forward in 1946, 1971, 1985 and 2005 in particular:
- In 1946 F W Furkert, a former government PWD engineer, wrote a report suggesting an option for a deep water port development off Tauranga Bay. He discounted further extension of the harbour moles which was not giving long term outcomes. In the event, this option was not proceeded with and a small scale extension of the moles was constructed in the late 1960s. This appears to have been, as predicted, a waste of money, since the main problem with the moles has been the sand flow past them filling up the foreshore and making the entrance shallower.
- In 1971, a government committee looked at the options for a deep water port development off the coast just north of Westport. The estimated cost at the time would have been around $500 million in today's dollars but even the cost saving of shipping 12 million tonnes of coal through this port would have paid for it within a few years (the peak coal traffic shipped on the Midland Line annually would have done this in about four years). But the politicians decided they did not want to spend this money so nothing was done.
- In 1987 the port option was looked at again. Holcim (NZ Cement Holdings) proposed to develop a new terminal to enable its cement boats to have reliable operation from Westport. The company had previously examined options for relocating to Oamaru. In the event, it was apparently economic conditions prevailing at the time and the closing of the competing Golden Bay Cement works at Tarakohe that stopped this development from going ahead. The development at Cape Foulwind would have only handled 10,000 tonne ships and its deepwater potential would appeared to have been limited. With the shelving of Holcim's proposal the rail network was developed to handle larger locomotives and wagons. From this has come the 30 wagon trains hauled by DX locomotives that we have today, and the replacement of electric traction with diesel haulage through the Otira Tunnel. However although the cost of rail haulage per unit of weight has come down, the capacity limit has been reached at the Otira Tunnel and Kiwirail is not making any money on coal haulage. There are also serious concerns over the safety of the Otira Tunnel banking operation.
- West Coast Regional Council has continued to push the cause of port development and it commissioned a report in 2005 which put a case.
Now I believe WCRC has correctly addressed the issue in that there are no major ports in the West Coast region. And in fact further research tells me the dispute between shipping and rail has been a longstanding one, and led to a standoff between Solid Energy and Tranz Rail from 1994 to the early 2000s when the former was successful in forcing TRL to lower its haulage prices for the traffic. However the cost of long distance rail haulage remains a significant sticking point for the development of the West Coast region. Quoting the study, "the West Coast is a region disadvantaged by its location, which is further from ports and population centres than any other region in New Zealand. It is the only major region further than 150 km from a major port or population centre. "
Unfortunately a continued lack of commitment from politicians has led to the situation where the failure to develop a proper port for the West Coast is strangling its economy as the high cost of land based transport causes industries to be mothballed.