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The Little Engine That Could?

Although the plans for scenic train trips from Dunedin this summer might only be for a three-month trial, they are welcomed with enthusiasm.

Originally published in the Otago Daily Times, 24 November 2020

Although the plans for scenic train trips from Dunedin this summer might only be for a three-month trial, they are welcomed with enthusiasm. City residents are proud of Dunedin Railways (formerly the Taieri Gorge Railway). Its post-Covid mothballing was sad and disheartening.

Dunedin also lost a key and distinctive feature of its tourist scene, at least temporarily and perhaps forever.

The Dunedin City Council has now decided to underwrite a limited season that would allow The Seasider (Dunedin to Waitati) and The Inlander (Dunedin to Hindon) to run on Sundays from December 20.

It was councillors themselves in the late 1980s and early 1990s who took risks in backing the Otago Excursion Train Trust, buying the tracks through to Middlemarch and investing in the operation. The people of Dunedin and businesses also raised $1.2 million in 1991 in short order in the Save the Train Appeal.

Councillors recognised an unprecedented storm could decimate the viaducts and tracks. Such damage could end the dream. But they went ahead anyway. That risk remains a dark cloud on the train’s horizon.

Any revival is also threatened by expensive and essential mid-term track maintenance. Meanwhile, the Government has poured hundreds of millions of dollars over decades in subsidies to the national rail network.

Volunteers were the heart and soul of the train in its early years. The effort and attitude could be summed in the quote from the popular story of The Little Engine That Could: “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can …”

Steep challenges were overcome with the support of the council and the community and the vigour and leadership of the late George Emerson, among others.

The services began to be operated more along business lines, but they were not expected to do more than break even. The directors, led until 2013 by John Farry, took no fees in the early years. A frugal train was run under the long-time chief executive, engineer and railways enthusiast Murray Bond.

Cruise ship visitors became the mainstay, and the business burgeoned. Turnover had risen to more than $9million by the end of the 2019 financial year.

The rocks of the Covid pandemic wrecked the cruise ship industry overnight, and Dunedin Railways, as it was set up, was sunk along with it.

But is there another future? Can Dunedin Railways emerge a smaller, leaner operation that can just about meet its outgoings and basic costs?

Is a return to a trust structure with lower costs and more access to grant funding, as well as extensive volunteer support, an option? Or does today’s world of business, health and safety and professionalism make that impossible? Will cruise ships return when Covid-19 is contained? What sort of domestic tourism market is out there? How much support will come from Dunedin residents? What can be done to Save the Train?

News of the summer trials gives everyone a glimmer of hope.

The Little Engine That Could informs children about optimism and effort, that a little locomotive could achieve what others disdained.

This again is the mindset required for Dunedin Railways, the council and everyone else involved — just as it was 30 years ago. The city needs to assert “I think I can, I think I can”.

And when the trains are back on track permanently, the city can smile and say “I thought I could”.

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