Vital that we once again save the train

Former Taieri Gorge Railway Ltd chairman John Farry reflects on the history of the tourist enterprise and believes it is time to campaign to save the train.

Otago Daily Times, Tuesday 11 August 2020

Former Taieri Gorge Railway Ltd chairman John Farry reflects on the history of the tourist enterprise and believes it is time to campaign to save the train.

As a member of the social committee when the 1981 National Law Conference was held in Dunedin, I helped to organise a trip on the Taieri Gorge train, which was then operated by a voluntary organisation known as the Otago Excursion Train Trust.

Other than that I have boyhood recollections of travelling to and from Gore and Oamaru as a boarder at St Kevin’s College. I remember those enormous black locomotives pulling into the station platform, puffing smoke and hissing steam. They were a fearsome sight.

Apart from these experiences I had no particular knowledge or interest in trains, so I was rather surprised when I was asked to chair an appeal to raise funds for the Taieri Gorge train. I discussed the matter with George Emerson, who was an associate professor at Otago University. George was dedicated to the cause, which was to save and develop the train, which was at that time managed and operated on a voluntary basis by some railway enthusiasts. I was greatly impressed by the passion, enthusiasm and ‘‘can do’’ attitude I encountered and without any real appreciation of how long and difficult the task would be, I decided to accept the challenge.

The Save the Train Appeal was launched in the winter of 1991 at the same time as it was announced by then mayor of Dunedin Richard Walls that the city had successfully negotiated the purchase of the rail track between Wingatui and Middlemarch.

We recruited a large team of participants who were willing to assist. As far as I can recall, there were 12 team captains who each established a team of 12 members. Potential donors were approached for pledges or donations and results were collated on a weekly basis. At the end of a six-week programme the appeal had raised $1.2 million; a tribute to the generosity of the business community and the citizens of Dunedin. It also illustrated an amazing level of support for the train. When adjusted for inflation, the appeal total in 2020 value would be in excess of $2 million.

The Taieri Gorge Ltd was established, a board of directors was appointed and I remained as chairman until my retirement from the position in 2013. In those early years it became necessary to seek some financial assistance from the city council. Our request was approved, rather reluctantly, and we were told in no uncertain terms not to come back seeking further assistance. In spite of facing many obstacles and challenges, we never required further financial assistance.

The company was able to operate successfully and developed the fledgling organisation into a vibrant business. All capital expenditure involving the development of new and refurbished rolling stock, locomotives, etc, was funded by the company.

Eventually it became obvious that there was a need for the direct equity involvement of the city, which took up a 78% shareholding and appointed a board of directors representing the city and the Excursion Train Trust.

Over the years, passenger numbers increased, revenue grew and the ticketing office in the historic Dunedin Railway building was redesigned and refurbished. The company name was changed to Dunedin Railways Ltd as the company expanded its services beyond the gorge.

The annual report of the company for the year ended June 30, 1919 reported a turnover of $9,216,000 and showed a loss of $122, which compared with a loss of $260 in the previous year.

Maybe the time has come to look at a smaller, simpler business model that caters to the domestic market until the world at large recovers from the effects of Covid-19.

The company has become an important and integral component of Dunedin’s infrastructure and I believe that it is strongly supported by the citizens of Dunedin. The Covid-19 pandemic resulted in the temporary closure of Dunedin Railways Ltd, which faces an uncertain future. It’s time once more to ‘‘Save the Train’’ and it is my belief that there are valid reasons why it should be saved.

It is a unique and iconic facility that has no comparable service in New Zealand. There is no rail trip in this country that rivals the rugged splendour of the Taieri Gorge. Without the train, that rugged beauty could languish unseen forever.

It is my firm belief that the Taieri Gorge rail journey was, and is, one of the vital on-shore options that resulted in Dunedin becoming such a popular stopover port for cruise ships. Last year there were 150 cruise ship visits and each visit brought thousands of tourists to our central business district, and to all our other tourist destinations.

There is no way of predicting exactly when cruising will recommence but it is a multibillion-dollar enterprise and one can say with absolute certainty that it will not disappear. The critical question is whether Dunedin can retain its appeal without an excursion train option.

Clearly, it is time for a reappraisal and there is no easy answer.

Sometimes there is a need to be courageous, and while it is impossible to predict the future, it seems to me that it is imperative to retain the train.

If that can be achieved with a relatively modest subsidy from the city then I believe that such a subsidy would be supported by the citizens of Dunedin.

Over the past 30 years, many have contributed to the success of the train. At this stage it seems appropriate to pay tribute to them and express our thanks.

To all those businesses and individuals who contributed so generously to the original appeal to Save the Train, to the late George Emerson and the hundreds of members of the Otago Excursion Train Trust who helped out whenever required and provided hosting services on every excursion train, to Murray Bond, who was CEO during all the former years, to the committed and dedicated staff who were always willing to go that extra mile, to those who served as directors of the company and the Dunedin City Council for providing support whenever it was needed — heartfelt thanks.

It is time to drag ourselves up from the floor, roll up our sleeves and once again brace ourselves to save the train.

Let’s give it our best shot.

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