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The Northland rail network, due to be shut down next July, looks to have won a six-month reprieve.
A critical factor in the change of plan is the possibility of using low-floor wagons which can carry the new "high-cube" containers through existing tunnels, saving millions of dollars in tunnel reconstruction costs.
The larger containers cannot go through about half of the region's tunnels, forcing many customers to move freight by road.
The efficient use of the network also depends on developing freight hubs - notably enlarging the Otiria yard - and integrating road and rail links.
KiwiRail staff working with the Northland Regional Council and the New Zealand Transport Agency on ways of making the network financially viable will recommend that the deadline be extended to the end of 2012, in a report going to the KiwiRail board in February.
Save Our Rail spokeswoman Vivienne Shepherd said a six-month reprieve would vindicate its campaign "in that we've seen that rail is a valuable asset and that we need to be thinking about using it in an integrated and efficient way".
Kiwirail chief executive Jim Quinn said last February the line would close in 2012 but invited the Northland community to join with KiwiRail in working to "flush out any commercial possibilities and probabilities" that might save the route.
He also confirmed that closing the line would sound the death knell of the proposed rail link from the main line out to Northland Port.
The Northland Regional Council, responsible for the region's transport networks, immediately set up the Rail Working Party under the umbrella of the council's Regional Transport Committee to investigate how to keep rail alive in the North.
The Rail Working Party completed a review of the low wagon concept (widely used overseas) just a few weeks ago and handed the findings to the KiwiRail/NZTA/NRC team, which prepared an investment proposal for buying the wagons. The proposal is now with KiwiRail.
Vaughan Cooper, NRC growth and infrastructure manager, told the December meeting of the Regional Transport Committee meeting that cost estimates and numbers of wagons were not yet available from KiwiRail but early thinking was that at least 35 wagons would be needed at a build cost of up to $200,000 each.
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