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Auckland port debate building to a crescendo


The intensely political debate over the future of Auckland’s port and whether it should be moved to Northland or elsewhere is building towards a final key report next week. The road versus rail freight issue will be crucial, Dileepa Fonseka reports

Infrastructure Minister Shane Jones and Upper North Island Supply Chain working group chair Wayne Brown are looking forward to next week. 

A much speculated-upon third report on the feasibility of moving Auckland’s port north will be considered by Cabinet with its public release likely to follow soon afterwards. 

Critics of the suggested move have alleged it is a “solution looking for a problem” while Auckland’s Mayor has expressed concerns at the third report’s suggestion the port could be taken off his council with no compensation

Brown said he was looking forward to debating the report which he said had suggestions for how a shift of freight from road to rail could take place.

Road to rail

Seventy percent of freight going through Northport would need to be shipped by rail. Currently just 5.6 percent of freight that comes into New Zealand via a sea port is forwarded on by rail, on average. 

Such a high percentage of rail freight would also go against a trend noted in a National Freight Demand study commissioned by the Ministry of Transport. 

The study shows the amount of truck freight has increased by 12 percent since 2012 while the use of rail for freight declined by 17 percent.

Part of that slump was attributed to the damage to rail infrastructure after the Kaikoura quakes but NZIER economist Gareth Chaplin said trucks were chosen by shippers of goods because there are fewer shifts between transport modes with them.

“At the moment all the ports of New Zealand are designed to favour trucks and in fact they’re almost exactly the same layout as they were when horse and carts came to port.”

A mode shift is where freight is shifted from one type of transport to another. Such changes can increase the cost of freight by 30 percent due to the manpower and expensive equipment needed to facilitate such transfers. 

In the case of the Northport proposal Chaplin said the increase in cost would be the upper end of that figure and very likely over 30 percent. 

Freight would be taken off a ship docking at Northport, then put onto a trail at a railhead, sent by train 215km south, before being transferred onto a transport node in Auckland – and trucked to the customer.

Freight shifted by truck has increased since 2012. Photo: John Sefton

Chaplin said there would be fewer mode shifts, kilometres travelled, and even fewer emissions – the trains on such a line would be diesel trains – if goods were simply shipped to a port in Auckland before being driven by truck to where they were needed. 

There might even be fewer mode shifts and kilometres travelled if goods were shipped to the Port of Tauranga – 70 percent of goods that come in to the Port of Auckland are consumed in South Auckland by industrial and manufacturing concerns.

Brown said he was limited in what he could say before the report was released but noted a newly-expanded Northport could be designed to make rail a cheaper option. 

“At the moment all the ports of New Zealand are designed to favour trucks and in fact they’re almost exactly the same layout as they were when horse and carts came to port and that’s why rail doesn’t work very well.”

“If you design the actual layout of the port to favour rail then containers go on rail, containers just take the easiest and cheapest route.”

Brown said freight would be shipped by train to an inland port in Auckland, something he said already happens to goods that come into Auckland via the Port of Tauranga.

Wayne Brown says companies shipping goods will choose rail as an option if Northport is designed differently. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

A larger number of inland ports are set to be built in large cities as an alternative to expanding shipping ports. 

These inland ports can be built in places where land is cheaper.

Opponents of retaining Auckland’s port say freight that comes in via the current port will likely be shipped on by rail or road to another inland hub in the future.

This would mean an extra mode shift for goods received through Auckland’s current port too. 

“If the rails are set so that they go out to where the ship is then stuff gets loaded onto the trains, modern ports are like that, we don’t really have any modern ports here,” Brown said.

“It’s not just moving freight off the roads to rail, there’s a genuine possibility of using the ‘blue highway’ as well.

Brown said New Zealand shifts goods currently from “truck-to-truck-to-truck”, which he argued is less efficient than transporting them by rail. 

“When they pick a container up in a truck now it goes out to a place where it’s devanned and it’s broken down and then it gets into another truck.” 

Jones said the Northport move could see freight moving to more of a “hub-and-spoke” model in New Zealand, and there were options other than rail for transporting goods from Northport.

“It’s not just moving freight off the roads to rail, there’s a genuine possibility of using the ‘blue highway’ as well.”

This would mean goods could be transferred from Northport onto another ship destined for a smaller Auckland port.

“If you’re going to be mode-neutral there’s the tarmac highway, there’s the rail highway and there’s the blue highway.”

“These are the sorts of issues that can be probingly and penetratingly worked through in the next phase.”

Digging in

Campaigners on both sides of the debate have ramped up their efforts to show their support or opposition to the move as it goes before Cabinet.

RNZ reported former Prime Ministers John Key and Helen Clark had lined up in favour of a “Waterfront 2029” campaign backing the move to Northland and The New Zealand Herald reported National MP Nikki Kaye had expressed a preference for moving the port but wanted to explore a number of options including the Firth of Thames.

And former Infrastructure Minister Stephen Joyce penned an opinion piece for Stuff saying he didn’t believe the case for a port move stacked up. 

Shane Jones has said he wants to lay a complaint against POAL CEO Tony Gibson. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Ports of Auckland (POAL) too has stepped into the debate, commissioning studies from NZIER and Castalia that question the validity of the conclusions in the Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy working group’s second report. 

POAL CEO, Tony Gibson, earned a rebuke from Jones after details of a meeting where Gibson was warned “do not put your head in a political noose were made public.

Last week Jones signalled he would seek permission from NZ First’s caucus to make a complaint to POAL’s board over the release of the information. 

“I won’t be talking to him [Gibson] anytime soon, I don’t talk to people who can’t be trusted with confidential information,” Jones said.

Get it early – This article was first published on  and included in Bernard Hickey’s ‘8 Things’ morning email of the latest in-depth business and political analysis. Get it early by or

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