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The announcement last month of a $20m spend to rejuvenate and expand operations at South Dunedin's Hillside Workshops is great news for our community and music to the ears of those who campaigned for and supported its retention.
Why was it closed? It is important to remember that before Hillside's closure as a manufacturing workshop in 2012, we had a National-led government that was ideologically opposed to a public rail network.
Minister of finance in that government, Bill English, told an audience that rail in New Zealand would soon be ``a relic of the past'', and MP Gerry Brownlee described KiwiRail as ``a dead duck''. These were the people with the purse-strings and along with John Key, Steven Joyce, Michael Woodhouse and others, the government considered any investment in rail a bail-out rather than beneficial for our social, economic, environment and transport infrastructure.
Ironic, considering some of their personal fortunes were made from subsidies which created zero economic value. During the campaign to save Hillside Workshops from closure I attended regular meetings as a Rail & Maritime Transport Union (RMTU) delegate to find ways of keeping them going as part of a regional engineering hub.
Other groups attending were KiwiRail, Dunedin City Council, Otago Chamber of Commerce, local engineering businesses and local MPs including South Dunedin Labour MP Clare Curran and National list MP Michael Woodhouse.
This was a very collaborative effort from groups who represent different interests. A huge thank-you must go to Clare Curran for her unceasing support and no doubt constant reminders to colleagues in Parliament to keep the issue front of mind.
In contrast, it was galling to hear recent comments in the media by Woodhouse, questioning why any money should be spent on rail.
Obviously he speaks from both sides of his mouth at the same time. Hillside wasn't failing; the workforce there was producing high-quality rolling stock at a marginally higher cost than what could be imported. Imagine what could have been achieved with investment in plant and machinery at that time.
As we said at the time, the decision-makers knew the price of everything but the value of nothing. Everything outside the purchase price of a flat deck wagon, i.e. social, employment and training, environmental, local economy benefits, even actual whole of life costs of the wagons, was utterly ignored.
It was a surreal feeling at the end of 2012, and one I will never forget, to walk into the Hillside fabrication shop and see that huge area laid bare: silence, no workmates in sight, and all the plant and equipment axed off at ground level and deliberately got rid of in a fire sale.
So I welcome last month's news wholeheartedly. It is a tribute to those involved in the campaign, the RMTU, all our supporters and the public of Dunedin.
The Labour-led Government and Clare Curran in particular should be thanked. As investment in rail is coming, there will be need for new rolling stock beyond current contracts. Let us remember that when Hillside Workshops all but closed its doors in 2012, it was as a manufacturing workshop not just a repair facility. It must return as such.
We owe it to our children, ourselves, and all those who came before.
Ka whawhai tonu matou, ake ake ake!
- Dave Kearns is a former Hillside worker and union delegate who was involved in the campaign to save Hillside from closure up until December 2012. He is the Rail & Maritime Transport Union (RMTU) Otago Rail branch secretary.