What is the North Auckland Line (NAL)?

The North Auckland Rail Line (NAL) runs between Westfield in Auckland and Otiria, approximately 60 kilometres north of Whāngārei.

The line from Westfield to Swanson is part of the Auckland metropolitan passenger network.

The operational part of the line runs from Swanson in West Auckland to the Fonterra plant at Kauri, around 10 kilometres north of Whāngārei. Other sections of the line are either mothballed or closed.

What is the Marsden Point Link (MPL)?

The Marsden Point link is a potential new section of track to connect Northport to the North Auckland Line. The connection would run approximately 20 km from Oakleigh, south of Whāngārei, to Marsden Point.

Why was this business case developed?

When asked about their regional development needs, Northland’s lack of connectedness to the wider world has regularly emerged as a key theme among Northlanders.

A rail connection, as part of ongoing improvements to land transport connectivity more generally, would help position Northland more completely in the upper North Island growth triangle (Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Auckland).

The Government has identified rail as a key opportunity to improve Northland’s transport connections, and is interested in the potential future development of the North Auckland Rail line.

We advised Ministers that the best way to understand the merits of rail in Northland was to complete a business case.  This would provide a solid base upon which any future investment could be made. This work has examined the merits and costs of investing in, renewing and upgrading the North Auckland Line (NAL) and constructing the proposed Marsden Point Rail Link (Marsden Link).

What was the scope of the Business Case?

The business case explored the merits of upgrading rail in Northland, and constructing a new section of track to connect Northport to the North Auckland Line (NAL). It did not investigate the merits of roading options, which have been investigated in other business cases commissioned by the New Zealand Transport Agency.

This project is consistent with the Coalition agreement for “significant investment in regional rail” and relevant to “a feasibility study on the options for moving the Ports of Auckland, including giving Northport serious consideration.”

What investment options were considered as part of the business case?

From an original shortlist of 11 options, the business case examines four main options in-depth. These four options are:

  1. doing nothing
  2. renewing the existing line to Kauri
  3. renewing the existing line to Otiria and constructing a connection to Northport
  4. opening up access again for tourist oriented services.

The option that was chosen for further exploration by the consultants was option 3, renewing the existing line to Otiria and constructing a connection to Northport. This is referred to as the Rail Connected Port option in the business case.

How much would the Rail Connected Port option cost?

The business case identified that it would cost around $800m to renew and upgrade the existing North Auckland Line (NAL), and build a new rail line to Northport (MPL). The split of investment is roughly $438 million for the NAL and $329 million to construct the MPL. Construction for all components would require at least four years to complete. The remaining $32 million was estimated for re-opening the Dargaville branch line from the NAL.

What were the key conclusions of the business case?

The business case concluded that the most compelling case for renewing the NAL and constructing the Marsden Point link hinges on the realisation of all three key benefits:

  • The significant medium to long-term strategic option and resilience value of providing a second high-quality land transport connection linking Northport to Auckland
  • Regional economic development gains through better land transport access to help Northland grow, though rail only part of the transport solution.
  • Delivering the Government’s land transport objectives of reducing CO2 emissions, crash risk, congestion, road maintenance costs and increasing modal choice

How does this work align with the Upper North Island Supply Chain Study?

The Government commissioned a comprehensive Upper North Island logistics and freight review to ensure New Zealand’s supply chain is fit for purpose in the longer-term.

This review is led by an independent working group of experts, and includes a focus on the long-term future of ports in the Upper North Island, with a particular focus on Ports of Auckland and Northport.

The working group are due to produce a final report late in 2019 that will include their recommendations on the priorities for investment in rail and road in the upper North Island.

The NAL business case is a separate exercise which only investigates the merits of upgrading rail in Northland, and not the wider supply chain context.

What happens if there is no investment in the North Auckland Line?

The line has been in a state of ‘managed decline’ for several decades, and will likely close within five years without significant investment.

The current line is not fit-for-purpose for moving freight. There are weight limits on what can be carried due to bridges and track in need of repair, and older, smaller tunnels on the line limit the ability for modern hi-cube container freight to be carried.

The current freight carried by rail (approximately 116,000 tonnes p.a. – less than 1% of Northland’s freight task) would likely move to road.

How much freight would be carried on an upgraded NAL and the Marsden Point Link?

The business case identified that between 1.9 million and 2.6 million tonnes could be transported by rail. This is about 12% of Northland’s freight task. It is important to note that the business case is indicative only, meaning that none of the interviewed firms signed up to use an upgraded NAL.

Does the business case investigate the option for passenger rail?

The early stages of the business case assessed the potential for commuter rail, however it determined that there is not high enough passenger demand to make it commercially viable, including with public subsidies. It was therefore not included further in the analysis.

There is potential for boutique rail tourism services, offering passengers travel between Auckland and Northland, and within Northland servicing cruise ships. The business case estimates potential for 60,000 passengers a year.

What engagement has taken place to inform the business case process?

The Ministry of Transport convened and chaired a Northland Rail Stakeholder Reference Group during the project, which met every 6-8 weeks as the Business Case was developed in late 2018 and into early 2019. This engaged local business interests, local Government and central Government agencies.

The Ministry of Transport with KiwiRail also held three hui on 6, 7 and 8 March 2019. These were held in Otiria, Whangarei and Te Hana respectively.

What are the next steps?

No final decisions have been made as to what will happen yet.