The Napier Gisborne Line is a 212 km railway which is a part of the Palmerston North Gisborne Line. The webpage from Engineering NZ records that “This line was a major feat of engineering, built through very difficult terrain and generally weak tertiary geological conditions”. It is these “generally weak tertiary geological conditions” that are a key feature of the Eastland Region that have foretold against the line over the past century. It was built in stages over a period from 1911 to 1943. Construction was extremely difficult with the works interrupted many times by adverse weather conditions including flooding, and the Napier Earthquake and the Great Depression took their toll. The period of construction was well past the peak of railway building in NZ and it is significant that three particular railway corridors, the lines to Gisborne, Dargaville and Picton, all were completed in the 1940s and without question, all have struggled to pay their way. The reasons are all much the same: low population in the areas they served, and the existence of viable coastal shipping links to ports over all of the same areas served ensured in each case that the railways did not have a strong economic base of its own. The Napier Gisborne line has only one intermediate township of any note, at Wairoa. The NGL is currently open to this town as a terminus for loading logs out of the area, but this traffic has an uncertain future. The line was reopened to Wairoa in 2019 after the entire NGL had closed in 2012. Therefore the lack of traffic of any significance over the 212 km section except at one station is a strongly negative economic factor in the operation of the line and given the low level of freight currently being hauled on the line out of Wairoa, it is easy to appreciate how it is possible for coastal shipping to compete effectively with a railway corridor.
Shipping is a key factor in understanding why there is no strong economic base for the operation of the railway. The port of Gisborne was well established from the early days of Gisborne itself, many decades before the railway got anywhere near Tairawhiti. From this early start and continued development of the harbour, Gisborne’s needs were readily able to be met in the 19th and early 20th century in an era when there was no railway and the roads such as they existed were not suited for the carriage of significant volumes of goods and supplies long distances from Napier or the Bay of Plenty. Moreover this has continued to the present day; the port currently exports over 1 million tonnes of logs each year, and also handles other freight seasonally, which has included containers of vegetable and fruit produce grown in the region. Whilst the port can only handle coastal services (whether operated by dedicated coaster operators, or international vessels transiting between different local ports), this volume has continued to expand year on year and the port is currently developing plans for extra wharf space. It is true that the port is really only at provincial standard, but it is still more than capable of moving large volumes of freight on coastal services as it has done for many years. The problem for the rail campaigners in Gisborne is that coastal shipping is easily capable of competing very effectively with the rail line, with many advantages and few of the disadvantages that have affected the railway operation over the 69 years the Gisborne railway operated. Using a contemporaneous example in the South Island, when the Rotherham Earthquake of 2016 forced the closure of the Picton Line, coastal shipping took up the slack easily and still in fact competes with the re-opened rail line to the present day. This makes a comparison between rail and coastal shipping in the case of the Gisborne line very straightforward and has undoubtedly influenced Government thinking over the past decade.
There are very strong reasons to discount the re-opening campaign which keep increasing as time goes on. When Kiwirail closed the line in 2012 it was in the certain knowledge that there was an ongoing heavy maintenance burden for the line. Year upon year since the line first was opened, there have been a constant procession of slips and washouts in the hilly sections, most notably the Wharerata Hills, which is where the most significant damage that closed the line in 2012 took place. But there are many other problem areas, such as at Waikokopu, Muriwai, Blacks Beach, Opoutama, the Kopuawhara Valley, Esk Valley and others. Once the traffic volume on the line fell significantly, as it did from the 1970s with deregulation of intercity freight transport resulting in greater competition from trucking, its future was always going to be in doubt, a similar fate having befallen numerous other significant rail corridors around NZ. So in the last 40 years of operation, the continued operation of the Gisborne Line became increasingly precarious, and closure was considered multiple times, for example in 1988. By the time that Ontrack took over the country’s railway network back into state ownership in 2003, it was considered that the Napier Gisborne Line only needed to be maintained in good enough condition to operate one public freight train per week, a traffic flow that would be insufficient to meet maintenance costs.
The line’s backers have made claims that a significant freight volume is available to be carried on the railway if it were to reopen. But the vast majority of this can readily be moved coastally by sea to either Napier or Tauranga, and in fact a great deal of it already is. The Gisborne Line has no real significance to the rest of the national railway network, in terms of moving freight within New Zealand, simply because it is a long slow dogleg up the east coast of the North Island before reaching Palmerston North and a choice of destinations. For example, one type of freight that was proposed was from Gisborne to the Bay of Plenty via rail, which was a total farce as the distance by rail was approximately four times the distance by road, the rail journey effectively able to be conceptualised as involving a trip through 300 degrees of a circle. The same issue affects freight to Auckland, in that every railway journey out of Gisborne requires a southward leg of nearly 400 km before it can go north if that is where the destination is. This makes for slow trip times and long wagon turnarounds, which are significant factors with the railway network in adding extra cost. On the other hand, coastal shipping has a distinct advantage in that there are not the high maintenance costs on the Blue Highway. This factor is why Gisborne’s port has continued to present a viable alternative, further reinforced in the last few years as the land has kept slipping in the Whareratas. In 2023 the impacts of climate change on the Eastland area are being felt to an ever increasing extent. This will ensure that the constant flow of damage to the rail corridor will be maintained, and therefore the coastal shipping route will remain an attractive and economical alternative.