Plan to get Dunedin Railways back on track

Could a suburban train service be the answer for a mothballed tourism venture?

By Hamish McNeilly

Could a suburban train service be the answer for a mothballed tourism venture?

That’s a question posed by the Rail and Maritime Transport Union (RMTU), which opposes a move to mothball Dunedin Railways Ltd’s stock and track, with the likely loss of 51 jobs.

The company operates tourist trains from Dunedin including the Taieri Gorge Railway and The Seasider trips, which are popular with visiting cruise ship passengers and international tourists. Founded and partly owned by the Otago Excursion Train Trust, the company is now majority owned by city council company Dunedin City Holdings.

On April 6 the Dunedin City Council voted 14-1 to mothball the railway at a meeting behind closed doors.

That decision came after Dunedin City Holdings recommended closing the business and selling the stock as the cheapest option.

”We deeply regret the impact on our staff and their families. This is a very difficult time for them, and we will work hard to do everything we can to look after them,” Dunedin Railways chairman Kevin Winders said after council’s decision was made public.

The company was facing significant business challenges before Covid-19 struck including a $10m deferred maintenance bill for the Taieri Gorge track.

Under the proposal all but a few of the staff would be made redundant. The company would also spend at least 18 months mothballed, ”before the tourism market recovered sufficiently to warrant re-opening of any or some train activity”, the now released council report said.

The council would also provide up to $1.05m for mothballing costs from July 2020 to December 2021, subject to a business case, and also requested a report from the holding company detailing future options.

The union was arguing that a feasibility study looking into suburban commuter rail — between Mosgiel and Dunedin — should be investigated.

That was a possibility given that job losses would not take effect until June 30, allowing time to explore the proposal, including possible funding via the Provincial Growth Fund, the union said.

That limited suburban service would include three return morning services, a lunchtime return service, and three return/evening services, at an estimated cost of $250,000 for a six-week trial.

That idea would be pushed by RMTU Otago Branch secretary Dave Kearns at the Dunedin City Council annual plan hearings,on Thursday.

About 1600 people have joined a Facebook page calling to ‘Keep Dunedin Rail Rolling’.

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