Tuesday, 5 January 2016

Why a Pokeno-Paeroa railway line makes no sense

Here is the statement from the 2014 election campaign manifesto where the party's rail policy was explicitly laid out.

5. Auckland-Pokeno-Paeroa-Te Aroha-Tauranga-Whakatane 
A new line to be built along the rail formation between Pokeno-Paeroa-Te Aroha, a new line to be built between Te Aroha and the western portal of the Kaimai tunnel and a new line to be built between Awakeri and Whakatane, all combined creating a shorter and more direct rail route into the Bay of Plenty.

The NZ First party has proposed the government build the previously abandoned Pokeno-Paeroa railway line which Labour completed formation works for in the 1930s but never laid track and bridges into. Much of the completed formation was subsequently taken over for the area's highway or has been redeveloped and therefore the re-establishment of such a project would have to re-establish virtually all of the formation works. To the best of my knowledge no bridge works or station construction was completed at the time so these facilities would all have to be built from scratch.

The main question is why duplicate the East Coast Main Trunk route via Hamilton when there is an extant former rail corridor from Waitoa to Paeroa that would provide a connection from an existing rail line rather than a completely new line, if having rail access to Paeroa were significant. 

So let's have a look in detail at the ideas that somehow we actually need this route given it was already evaluated and rejected more than 50 years ago in the process that led to the Kaimai Deviation being built as the replacement for the old railway line from Morrinsville to Paeroa and through the Athenree Gorge to Tauranga. 

First off it is highly misleading to suggest there is a rail formation just waiting to have tracks laid on it between Pokeno and Paeroa. As I have noted parts of it have certainly disappeared and no bridges and stations appear to have ever been built. Those latter items in particular will swallow up significant amounts of the total cost. 

Now for the route from Pokeno east, this is shown on this set of maps here. From Pokeno to Paeroa is about 65 km based on the 1930s route. Paeroa to Te Aroha on the old route closed in 1991 is 24 km. A new route from Te Aroha to the Kaimai Tunnel portal would be about 22 km based on the route the highway takes. Let's say it joins up at Hemopo. To get to the same location from Pokeno via the ECMT comprises 68 km from the proposed junction to Frankton, and 60 km from Frankton to Hemopo. So for the existing route you have 128 km from Pokeno to Hemopo vs 111 km via the proposed new route. This amounts to a 17 km saving in length which is hardly significant since you are duplicating the line and siphoning off traffic from the existing route. It is favourable to Auckland but not to Hamilton.

There will be claims that this route increases the capacity on one of our few freight lines that actually makes money. Whilst that is true, there are more cost effective ways to do that with the existing route without producing a separate and costly duplicate route. It is possible to increase the speed of trains somewhat, but there are also other ways to do that with existing infrastructure. 

The last part of the proposal is a new railway from Awakeri to Whakatane. This is in fact the Whakatane Board Mills siding and would connect to the existing disused branch line to Taneatua. Just why this is conjoined in a project for an entirely unrelated line to Paeroa is not particularly clear. There is nothing to stop this project from proceeding separately from the Paeroa proposal which it is completely independent from. However it requires a detailed evaluation to see whether the volume of freight relating to the Whakatane mill is significant.

If saving distance on the ECMT is significant about the same distance as the Paeroa-Pokeno line would save can be achieved by a deviation of a short part of the present ECMT at much less cost.