City left counting the cost

Today marks a dark day for the city and its long and proud manufacturing history.

It is the last day for Hillside staff, who will hold what will undoubtedly be an emotional ceremony at 11am outside the main gates of the now-defunct South Dunedin workshops.

At the same time, more than 4000 rail and port workers throughout New Zealand will down tools for two minutes in support of the redundant workers. The public are invited to attend the Dunedin ceremony and lay flowers alongside wreaths to be laid to honour Hillside's war dead as the facility sounds its own death knell.

Thirty-five workers will walk out of the gates for the last time today. Thirty staff left on December 7 and another 20 will be made redundant as soon as they have completed work to shut down everything but Hillside's foundry and heavy lift capacity. KiwiRail will retain for the moment seven staff for the heavy lift. Heavy engineering company Bradken, headquartered in Australia but with workshops in Dunedin, has leased the foundry for at least five years and employed 21 former Hillside workers.

The departure of the final workers brings to an end 130 years of full operation at the facility, whose staff numbers peaked at more than 1200 during the golden age of rail in the first half of last century. Staff numbers, orders and investment have declined through the decades as roading infrastructure has taken precedence, and the facility's death warrant was effectively signed last year, with KiwiRail's announcement dozens of industry jobs, including at Hillside, would be lost on the back of multimillion-dollar contracts going to Chinese companies for new rail rolling stock.

The news the first batch of the cheaper stock proved to have extensive mechanical problems and the second batch was put on hold awaiting design modifications was bittersweet, particularly as the deal remained in place. In April this year the state-owned company confirmed it would sell Hillside as the financial impact of the reduction in construction and refurbishment forward work orders meant there was no longer enough work to make the facility viable. It was hoped then the facility could be sold as a going concern, but that proved not be the case.

Dunedin South Labour MP Clare Curran has been Hillside's recent champion and should be commended for her relentless fight to retain the facility and its skilled workers. Likewise, Bradken should be praised for committing to the foundry lease and employing some Hillside workers.

Many will wonder whether KiwiRail and the Government really had any choice. KiwiRail is a business, must make a profit, and - particularly in tough economic times - must make necessary cost savings where required in order to survive.

Last month, National list MP Michael Woodhouse, of Dunedin, said wagons built at Hillside were about 40% more expensive than their outsourced equivalents and although there was no ''candy-coating'' the disappointing news, it was tempered by relief the foundry had been leased. But there is no doubt the price - arguably of quality and potential safety and certainly of workers' jobs and a city's skills - has proved high indeed. And there are many who believe the tradeoff has not been worth it.

There can be no-one in the city who does not feel for the workers, who have paid the ultimate price for cheaper wages and materials with their livelihoods and now go into the festive season unemployed.

And there can be no-one who does not also fear for the long-term future of the manufacturing sector with the loss of such skilled labour to the city as workers inevitably seek employment elsewhere to support their families - like Fisher and Paykel staff and other casualties before and after them.

For the moment, the city can only join in commiserating with the workers and their families and holding on to the same thought expressed this week by Rail and Maritime Transport Union Hillside branch secretary Les Ingram: ''We live in hope Hillside will rise again.''