A move away from electric to diesel powered trains in the central North Island will help the environment, says KiwiRail.
The Labour and Green Parties say phasing out electric freight trains over two years and replacing them with diesel is a backward step. Rail & Maritime Transport Union general secretary Wayne Butson called it an "act of environmental terrorism".
But KiwiRail said going all diesel would make the company more efficient, better able to take freight than trucks, and so was better for the environment.
At present, the rail company has to use diesel locomotives in Wellington, switch to electric units in Palmerston North, then back to diesel in Hamilton, because work in the 1980s to electrify the tracks was never completed.
KiwiRail chief executive Peter Reidy said that was inefficient and, as well, the 16 electric trains were breaking down almost twice as often as the company average.
They would be replaced with eight diesel locomotives, making it a standard diesel fleet across the North Island main trunk line.
Mr Reidy said the change would make KiwiRail more able to take cargo from trucks that emit more CO2 per unit of freight than trains do.
He won some support from the managing director of transport giant Mainfreight, Don Braid.
"Do we need a more efficient rail service? Yes we do, and I think the company is taking the right decision at this point in time," he said.
"Right now the business does need to be more efficient for its customers and we are one of those.
"It is our understanding that we will save 40 to 60 minutes on the journey from Auckland to Wellington."
Mr Reidy said unifying the main trunk line by going all electric instead of all diesel would have cost $1 billion for the main trunk line and $4.5bn for all the North Island. Far better, he said to go all diesel.