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Don’t let railway suffer cable cars’ fate

The people have spoken — and they want to save Dunedin Railways. John Farry revisits the issue.

Otago Daily Times, 12 October 2020

The people have spoken — and they want to save Dunedin Railways. John Farry revisits the issue.

It has been gratifying to receive a number of positive responses to the article published in the ODT (11.8.20) under the heading “Vital that we once again Save the Train.”

There is little doubt that the Taieri Gorge train is dear to the hearts of the people of Dunedin, and rightly so.

Some additional observations have emerged from recent discussions which I have had with a wide variety of local citizens.

There is a strongly held belief that Dunedin Railways should be regarded as a civic amenity akin to the Dunedin City Library, Otago Museum, the Botanic Garden, Moana Pool and so on. It was never intended to be a commercial venture in the true sense of the term and should never have been included in the various commercial operations which are under the supervision of Dunedin City Holdings Ltd.

The Taieri Gorge Railway Ltd, established by the Otago Excursion Train Trust, was initially operated voluntarily by railway enthusiasts. From the completion of the Save the Train Appeal in 1991, the company operated successfully without financial support from the city.

Up to the date of the recent decision to mothball the operation, the company developed — and over a period of 25 years expanded and upgraded — the rolling stock from its own resources without requiring capital from the Dunedin City Council.

In recent publicity, the management projects losses of $500,000 per annum and one can only assume that this alarming figure includes the projected annual cost of track maintenance over a 10-year term. It is understood that most of this maintenance cost pertains to the track beyond Pukerangi through to Middlemarch.

In view of the effects of the current pandemic, it is clear that it was necessary to temporarily reduce the overheads of the train company. A much smaller operation could be maintained in the interim to service the local and wider domestic tourist market. A trip to Pukerangi would be very appealing to the local community and would keep the wheels turning until the wider world returns to normal.

If a modest subsidy is required to maintain such a service then the collective wisdom strongly affirms that the necessary support should be provided by the city.

A number of people who spoke to me referred to the loss of the Mornington cable cars. The older generation remember this service with immense nostalgia and observe the fact that such a facility would be an amazing attraction for the city in today’s world.

A group of dedicated and courageous Dunedin citizens are working to restore the cable cars. They face an enormous challenge and, of course, we wish them well, but should we stand by and accept a similar fate for the train?

If ownership passes out of the hands of the city, the train could suffer a similar fate and a vital element of our infrastructure would be lost forever. The amazing experience of travelling through the tunnels and over the incredible viaducts of the spectacular Taieri Gorge would be impossible.

We must not allow this to happen.

As a philosopher once observed: “Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it”.

The consensus from all those with whom I have discussed the situation may be summarised as follows:

– The Taieri Gorge Train is a vital component of the Dunedin infrastructure.

– The Dunedin City Council has an obligation to the citizens of the city to retain and maintain the train.

– Until the world recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic, the train should continue to operate at a much-reduced level to service the local and wider New Zealand market.

– A trip to Pukerangi twice or three times per week in the meantime could be very popular with locals and especially during school holidays.

– The train should be made available for excursions and special charters as it was in the early days of its operation.

– Ownership and control must not pass from the city.

The operation of the train is not, and was never intended to be, a commercial venture. Management should be the responsibility of the council and if a modest annual subsidy is required to maintain the operation that subsidy should be provided by the Dunedin City Council.

It would be tragic if the Taieri Gorge railway were to suffer the same fate as the Mornington cable cars.

– John Farry is a former chairman of the Taieri Gorge Railway Ltd.

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