21 May 2021

$85m Hillside workshop Budget boost: Seymour's comments 'ludicrous'

1:48 pm on 21 May 2021

An advocate of the government's $85 million allocation to Dunedin rail wagon assembly plant says it will bring huge benefits to the country and has called ACT Party's criticism of the move "ludicrous".

The Hillside engineering train workshops in South Dunedin.

The Hillside engineering train workshops in South Dunedin. Photo: RNZ / Ian Telfer

Local reaction to the news that Hillside railway workshops is to be given a new lease of life has been universally positive.

The funding forms part of the 2021 Budget announcement made yesterday, which will now see the workshop assembling about 1500 wagons.

The workshops effectively closed in 2012 with 90 people losing their jobs. There had been a $20m boost two years ago to upgrade the workshops before the latest expansion plan.

State Owned Enterprises Minister David Clark said the investment would bring local jobs and youth training opportunities, as well as a more self-reliant national railway system.

Transport Minister Michael Wood said about 445 jobs would be created between Hillside and a new South Island Mechanical Maintenance Hub in Christchurch.

However, critics on the right were less impressed with the move, with the Taxpayers Union comparing it to communist-run Polish shipyards.

ACT leader David Seymour said that North Korea would not even be bold enough to take on policies like that.

"This is a 1970s union fantasy that men will be working away with hot steel and sledge hammers banging together locomotives and wagons in a big warehouse in Dunedin. This is this government's idea of innovation," Seymour told the House.

Railways and Maritime Union national secretary Wayne Butson told Morning Report a previously-commissioned study found the Hillside operation would bring huge benefits both to New Zealand and Otago, and that it illustrated the "ludicrous comedy" of David Seymour and fellow travellers in the Taxpayers Union on the issue.

No caption

Act Party leader David Seymour's North Korea comments have been described as "ludicrous comedy". Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

"One thing I can guarantee that David Seymour will have wrong is that it will not be all men that will be assembling the wagons and vehicles at Hillside workshops," Butson said.

Participation by women in the traditionally male-dominated industry had increased 14 percent since 2019 and women now represented a significant section of that workforce, he said.

Hillside was able to compete with relatively cheap overseas manufacturing operations, especially in terms of quality assurance and offered value for money, the union leader said.

"This government has commissioned reports, we've participated in studies and it's very clear that if you compare what Hillside can, could and will do against what our purchase decisions in the rail industry have been like over the past 10 years, we're going to end up with far superior products.

"Let us not forgot that we have a railway that is absolutely saturated with dog-and-lemon Chinese-manufactured locomotives that were full of asbestos even though it was promised they wouldn't be and they are as unreliable as hell. At any one time, there's about 40 of them out of service getting repaired - that's almost half the fleet."

He said the moves to invest in local manufacturing should be applauded because they reversed a destructive, orchestrated decline of rail systems throughout the country and would make the economy and transport systems more resilient.

"The problem with KiwiRail has been that in 2008, the government renationalised Tranz Rail... and in 2009 we had the election of a National Government, who declared war on railway and they declared war on Dunedin and wider Otago," Butson said.

"The loss of jobs has been appalling. So we think this really makes a difference to the so-called managed decline, the orchestrated decline of rail. It will see new facilities, new buildings, new amenities and more importantly, decent world-class ICT systems and of course, Waitako DHB has shown us the importance of having those."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs