Otago Daily Times: merit in exploring commuter rail

Mothballing Dunedin Railways might easily be blamed on the disastrous knock-on effects of the Covid-19 pandemic but rail must not die quietly in a city whose rail heritage is an important part of its modern story.

Mothballing Dunedin Railways might easily be blamed on the disastrous knock-on effects of the Covid-19 pandemic but rail must not die quietly in a city whose rail heritage is an important part of its modern story.

The Rail and Maritime Union and a growing group of petitioners maintain its city council-owner must use innovative thinking to keep its stock rolling and to protect ratepayer’s not insignificant investment in the Taieri Gorge Railway.

They know tourism will be severely curtailed for at least as long as there is no vaccine for Covid-19, and that high operating costs and a $10million deferred maintenance bill will loom large if services continue without significant change.

They have pitched plans to move the business from the cruise ship market to the domestic market, and to sell or transfer the Wingatui to Middlemarch line to KiwiRail. They warn mothballing is as bad as closure, and risks the loss of skills and brand recognition before the tourism fightback.

It is hard to see light at the end of the tunnel for plans that require a significant spend towards an indefinite future, but there is significant merit to exploring the union’s most immediately achievable pitch.

The council was right to look into a feasibility study as to the merit of a six-week trial of morning, mid-afternoon and evening commuter train services between Dunedin and Mosgiel, one of a suite of options that included a Port Chalmers service and long-distance services to other centres on the main south line.

The trial could cost about $250,000. As pitched by the union, it could help the company’s council-owners decide whether the railway had a future, potentially saving jobs and keeping the railway usable until tourism returns.

The union hopes for success. It says ‘‘if Dunedinites know what is at stake, this will encourage use’’, but there must be early concern a plan to demonstrate a plan’s sustainability might rest heavily on sustained goodwill.

The proposed service would retrace that abandoned by New Zealand Rail in 1982. Then, patronage was on the slide and the government-owned operator said the city’s suburban services covered less than 30% of what it cost to run them.

Much has changed since then. Mosgiel is bigger than in the 1980s and, as commuter service proponent Cr Jim O’Malley notes, there is significantly more commuter vehicle traffic into the city.

He told councillors there are some 30,000 car movements every morning on the city’s Southern motorway and that 75% of the vehicles making the trip were destined for the city centre. Such numbers hint at a potential market.

But they also demonstrate some of what a commuter rail plan maybe up against. After all, Mosgiel has regular bus services into the city centre but not all seats on every bus are filled with people who choose to leave the car at home.

Frequency, travel from the station to work, convenience and cost will all play a part in attracting and retaining the customers such a service will need to ensure it develops further than the feasibility stage.

The numbers will have to stack up because ratepayers should expect the council to gather the intelligence it needs to lobby the Government to help pay for a service provided so lavishly in other centres.

This newspaper has, for many years, noted successive government’s continued focus on road and rail in parts north over the transport infrastructure needs of the South. Last week, it noted Dunedin’s Hillside Workshops will not get a slice of the Budget’s $1.2billion investment in rail.

At the same time, the Government has clearly signalled it sees a future for rail, just as it continues to say it wants to secure livelihoods as the country adjusts to a world without significant tourism.

A commuter trial must be seen through this lens. From the feasibility stage onwards — but only if the numbers do, indeed, stack up — it provides new opportunities to go to the Government with a plan that can work, and that is worth paying for.

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