Kiwirail’s Bunnythorpe Development

Kiwirail Networks has proposed a new railfreight terminal be developed at Bunnythorpe, which is the first station to the north of Palmerston North. The idea is that Palmerston North’s existing freight yards are too constrained by adjacent industrial and residential development to allow for future needs, and Bunnythorpe offers a new opportunity for Kiwirail to develop with an eye on rail growth for the future. The Bunnythorpe project is a part of the first really major opportunity Labour has had to develop the rail network since it nationalised Kiwirail in the final days of its 1999-2008 term of office. The National Party government that came into office at that time and continued until 2017 responded to the unwanted, in its eyes, spectre of a government owned rail operator by attempting to run it into the ground, euphemistically conceptualised as “the turnaround plan”; this was supposed to make Kiwirail commercially viable in its own right. New Zealand is however not the kind of country where this could reasonably occur at any time due to the small spread out population, and all major commercial modes of transport are subsidised by taxpayers or private motorists to varying degrees. The National Party, however, prefers to funnel government funds into the pockets of its big business supporters and run down public services every opportunity that it has in office; the only good action carried out in their term was the rebuild of the Main North Line after it was extensively damaged and crippled by the 2016 Rotherham earthquake.

So enter the NZ First / Labour coalition and opportunities to seriously develop rail. It took a few years but in 2020, Kiwirail was ready to announce Bunnythorpe as its choice of a site on which to develop the proposed terminal. The plan is that 177 hectares of what is currently mostly open farmland would be set aside for the development. The location is shown in the map below:

Kiwirail plan for the Bunnythorpe site, about 143 km on the NIMT.
The site is currently mostly open farmland. A number of roads will be closed or changed, including Railway Road, the main thoroughfare between Palmerston North and points further west. This is to be replaced by a new road alignment on the other side of the NIMT.

Bunnythorpe has been historically the site of two stations previously. The first being at 144.75 km, which can be seen at extreme left in the above maps, dated back to the days of the Wellington to New Plymouth Railway, which historically was how this part of the NIMT was developed. Bunnythorpe itself was opened in 1876, around the same time that the Foxton-Palmerston North line was completed. The Wellington and Manawatu Railway completed its private line from Wellington to Longburn Junction, just south of Palmerston North, in 1886, and as the line to New Plymouth had opened the previous year, the New Plymouth Express was operated between Wellington and New Plymouth from that year also. Initially this was as two separate trains on the WMR and NZR lines but from 1901 a single train was operated through on both. With the takeover of the WMR’s line in 1908 it became part of the WNPL, as the NIMT then began (or terminated) at Marton. Bunnythorpe was a small station with mainly passenger facilities but did have a couple of sidings in the yard, one of which was apparently used by the nearby Glaxo factory. A private siding was opened to the then-new Bunnythorpe electricity substation in 1949, and at some point of its life a branch off this siding ran into what appears to be a sawmill. The siding was still connected in 1981 but appeared to be practically disused by that time, when the station was closed to public services.

The second “Bunnythorpe” is a crossing loop at 146.10 km and is currently in use, having been opened sometime in the 1980s. It is expected the new freight terminal will probably get a different name which has not yet been announced. Following Kiwirail’s commencement of the designation process in 2020, the independent panel of commissioners holding public hearings announced in 2022 they would recommend the Notice of Requirement. This was subsequently appealed to the Environment Court which is presently holding its own hearings. It is uncertain at this time when its ruling will be announced. Even when the Court has ruled if it permits the project to go ahead, it is uncertain when the project will be completed; Kiwirail have asked for 15 years to allow for construction to commence. Although some Government financing has already been received, it is only expected to cover planning and land purchases, leaving Kiwirail to secure additional funding to enable construction works. Given the National Party’s general anti-rail bent, it is also likely this project will be targeted for funding cuts if there is a change of government within the next three years as is highly likely. In that case, the project would take even longer to build.