Saturday 5 October 2019


The Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy Working Group, an independent working group established by Cabinet last year to undertake a comprehensive review of NZ’s freight and logistics sector for the upper North Island, has released its second report of three planned. It recommends that Ports of Auckland undergo a managed closure and that Northport at Whangarei be developed as a new major freight port for the Upper North Island, along with options for continued investment in Port of Tauranga as an alternate port for the UNI freight task.

The base assumption in the report is that public pressure in the City of Auckland will force the Port to eventually relocate to a new site outside the City. Whilst Auckland Council has desired to keep the Port within its regional boundary by touting a possible development in the Firth of Thames, the report found on the basis of a Benefit Cost Ratio (BCR) analysis, the development of Northport as the main alternative had a much higher BCR – 2.0 – compared to the Firth of Thames option’s BCR of only 0.2. The option for Northport and Tauranga sharing the existing POAL traffic has a lower BCR of 0.6 than the Northport main alternative scenario,, due to the costs of additional investment at Tauranga, whilst the option for closing POAL and shifting all of its current freight to Tauranga has a BCR of only 0.1. Thus, moving all of the existing freight from POAL to Northport yields by far the strongest financial case in the scenarios that involve closing Ports of Auckland.

The proposal to develop Northport as a main or shared alternate to POAL would require a substantial investment in the North Auckland Line, which has so far had $94 million of upgrade work approved by Government. A much more significant business case that is currently under consideration for Northland’s rail network involves the likely scenario of building the long-mooted spur line from Oakleigh to Marsden Point, an essential missing link in establishing rail freight services to the Northland Region’s major international port. Rail haulage of freight to and from the port has not been possible since it took over from Whangarei around 20 years ago. Significant development of the spur route was undertaken by the Clark Labour Government and Northland Regional Council in the late 2000s but was stopped by the incoming National government, and resumed in 2017. The geotechnical analysis of this route has been completed, and detailed engineering scenarios and costs are currently being developed.

The working group has a third report due out shortly to consider other issues and there are many questions relating to this proposal. The most significant one is that the costs of moving freight into and out of Auckland would be increased. Large volumes of containers can be moved more efficiently by sea than by any form of land based transport. Therefore the onus would fall upon the rail network to develop the most cost effective means of running trains between Northport and Auckland, a distance of around 225 km (port to port). This would entail the development of the highest capacity capability to run the largest trains operated in New Zealand and likely require the full doubling of the existing route over time, and possibly future electrification. Currently the line has numerous tunnel clearance problems and there are some steep grades in a few places that could benefit from easing to increase capacity. The biggest questions of course are political ones, that the Government will need to weigh up before deciding whether to proceed with the overall scenario, or other possibilities.

This scenario overall is more realistic than one that has been floated in some circles, that Northport should be the sole international terminal in NZ with all other locations served by land transport links or coastal shipping. However the number of international container terminals presently in NZ is excessive. The NZ Shippers Council has suggested four ports (two in each island) would be ideal for NZ’s needs. The UNISC scenario reduces the international container ports in the upper half of the North Island from three to two and is a step in the right direction from that perspective at least.

For more information about the Upper North Island Supply Chain Strategy, visit their website at

 The North Auckland Line – 280 km from Auckland (left) to Otiria (right). The former terminus, Opua, is the northern most railway station ever opened in NZ.

Proposed route of the Marsden Point spur between Oakleigh, near Portland, and Northport.