Reincarnation must be sustainable

It's premature to celebrate, but there appears a strong chance Dunedin's famed Hillside railway workshops may be given a second chance at life.If so, it would be directly attributable to policy changes and significant cash injections the current Government is making in rail services and infrastructure.

And it would come as an incredible turnaround from the still-fresh closure of one of the most recognisable features of Dunedin's industrial economy.

The 2012 decision to sell a section of the workshops and close the rest meant the loss of 90 jobs and, perhaps more importantly, risked symbolically terminating Dunedin's long history and reputation as an engineering hub. But the city, as it tends to do, took the blow and recovered.

While the Labour opposition at the time called the closure ''political'', in truth it was not a difficult decision to explain away. The facility needed significant capital expenditure and, in the fast-moving world of engineering and manufacturing, would have needed ongoing capital injections on an almost constant basis.

That expenditure was necessary for Hillside to compete with the vast overseas facilities which were undercutting it. Gone were the days when New Zealand was closed off to global competitive forces. In a free-trade age, Hillside simply didn't have the volume of work to sustain it.

What's changed? Obviously, the government. Labour was loudly opposed to Hillside's closure and, to its credit, appears to be putting its money where its mouth was.

But the global appetite for mass transit and lower-carbon transport has also shifted in the last nine years. Electric cars are rapidly becoming mainstream. The carbon cost of flights, cruise ships and other mediums is in the spotlight.

Trains, even those belching diesel smoke, can move vast quantities of goods and people at a much lower environmental cost than most cars and trucks. They allow the removal of thousands of truck journeys from our roads, making them safer and more attractive environments for pedestrians and cyclists.

They are perfectly suited to park-and-ride mass transit needs - fitting hundreds of passengers on board who have parked their cars or bikes on a city's outskirts where the necessary parking facilities can be cheaply provided - ensuring shorter car trips and less reliance on urban car parks.

They offer a less carbon-heavy option for our ever-expanding tourist market and, with efforts afoot to transition that market from a high-volume-based model to a high-value-based model, the attraction of our trains to inbound tourists is likely to rise.

And, of course, the electrification of our rail network - though an expensive and distant dream at this stage - could help New Zealand reach its ''carbon neutral by 2050'' goal.

But none of this guarantees Hillside itself will be part of the transition back to trains. And, no matter how attractive trains become in the coming years, it is still unlikely the volume of railway-based work going through Hillside will be enough to sustain a healthy and profitable business. It will need to diversify.

Recent talk about Dunedin bidding for a portion of an upcoming Australian defence force construction contract is healthy. There will be myriad other opportunities to add volume to a re-invigorated Hillside hub, and those opportunities must be taken.

Long gone are the days when cities could sustain massive engineering industries oblivious to competition around the world. Liverpool, Belfast, Dunedin and many other cities can testify to that.

But Hillside, with its history, a resurgent rail industry, and its convenient proximity to the city, port, main trunk line and to its workforce, may prove to be the proverbial phoenix.

If so, Dunedin should and must do all it can to ensure Hillside's second coming proves more sustainable than its first.

Comments

Offshore built rolling stock didn't fit.

Australian defence contract? What will they build in there?

 

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