Gisborne-Napier’s Rail Survival: The Hard Facts
There are a few new bites about moving freight on the Napier-Gisborne rail line but a Council report reveals the facts and figures of what it will take to make rail not run at its present loss.
The Hawke’s Bay Council’s transport committee yesterday considered a report about the line.
There are 340 trucks a day on the state highway to Gisborne each carrying about 29 tonnes. That would make the total freight load on the highway to carry 3.6m tonnes a year.
If all this was transferred to rail it would keep the service going. The volume of freight would be the equivalent of running 15 fully-loaded return trains a day between Napier and Gisborne.
The report says at the present rate a subsidy of more than $2m a year would be needed to keep it going but even that would not make an appreciable difference to the future of the rail service.
KiwiRail is already effectively subsidising the service at a cost of at least $2.5m a year in terms of the loss. The service is still shifting only the equivalent of one or 2 truckloads of freight a day.
A KiwiRail decision on its future is a year away.
KiwiRail says gross income last year was $586,719. That compares with $2m in line maintenance costs on top of running the trains ($1m a year).
The Council officers’ report to the Council committee said that in the short-term a closure of the line would have only a minor effect on heavy traffic volumes on the state highway. In the last year the rail service moved just 23,600 tonnes of freight in both directions combined.
Converted to road-truck equivalents, that’s the same as a single truck carrying 32 tonnes doing a return trip to Gisborne each day.
But it warns that in the long-term a closure of the line would mean the region would have one less mode of freight transport and once closed, it would not be simple to resurrect it.
And the report before the Council suggests that while higher fuel prices could make a difference, if fuel efficiency is the deciding factor for freight, coastal shipping also needs to be part of the picture.
There are presently just 2 return trains a week on the line. Most of the freight is fertiliser from Ravensdown in Napier although its carrying more by road these days. Other freight includes corn product from Corsons in Gisborne (3-8 containers a month) and frozen product for Heniz-Wattie in Hastings (5 containers a week during the picking season).
The Council report believes that freight users are preferring road transport because of its comparative flexibility and convenience of road freight and the only way rail can compete on pricing is to run at a loss. It’s not possible on current volumes and with all the fixed costs involved to on-charge the full cost of the rail service to the customer.
The report goes on:”In order to be financially viable the rail service needs to attract enough freight to not only cover the costs of running the service but also to arrive at a point where the per unit costs has been reduced sufficiently to genuinely compete.”
It says the economics are also constrained by towing capacities- limits placed on weight. For example, with existing gradients a DC locomotive can tow 840 tonnes and a DXB 940. That leaves 320,580 and 650 tonnes respectively for freight. On the same the same amount of freight could be carried by 10, 18 and 20 trucks carrying 32 tonnes each.
The report notes that in the last 30 years road travel time between Napier and Gisborne has been cut by about an hour and fuel consumption of the average road truck has dropped by a third while rail has not seen big improvements.
“The fuel efficiency of road and rail has therefore come closer together- although rail is ahead.
It’s estimated a fully laden DX locomotive on the Gisborne line would use about 52% of the fuel consumption of the number of trucks required to carry the same amount of freight.
Until recently the real prospect for rail was a new plywood mill constructed by Hikurangi Forest Farms in Gisborne but those plans have been put indefinitely on hold.
The report says that even if the mill went ahead, it would remain to be seen if rail was used as the company did not make that commitment.
As more trees come to maturity in the far north of the region and if there’s a shortage of logging trucks, this may be a niche for rail and KiwiRail is talking to local forest companies.
The local newspaper reports a few bites coming through. Four extra weekly services would start next month and another potentially large customer had been turned away because of a lack of equipment and crews.
Let’s hope that issue gets sorted.
In conclusion, the report says that if the log service happens and works successfully and can be proven over the next 12 months, then other freight could possibly follow and the rail service may become economic.
If that does not occur, then a next priority could be to ensure that the rail designation and rail corridor are at least retained intact so that future options for re-utilisation of the rail corridor are preserved.