Train keeps rolling?

Rail and Maritime Transport Union representative Dave Kearns said the council should avoid closing off opportunities when rail will only grow in the future.

Otago Daily Times editorial Thursday 15 April 2021

This seems like a good time to be waiting patiently at the station, wondering when the next train will arrive — or indeed if it will arrive at all.

We broadly agree with the Dunedin City Council’s decision on Tuesday to seek more information about the financial and strategic implications of running a viable operation on the Taieri Gorge railway line.

The council had discussed four options from which to make a call on the future of Dunedin Railways, mothballed following Covid-19 lockdown then brought back on a trial basis over the summer to gauge interest.

We are pleased to note one of the options, winding up the council-owned service, appears to be the least-favoured option, backed up by the Otago Daily Times poll showing just 1.8% of readers wanted to head down that track.

The other options — negotiating with a partner about the sale or lease of the railways, having the city maintain ownership of the trains but running them on KiwiRail’s national network of tracks only, or retaining city ownership and running a service that also includes using the Taieri Gorge line — all have their merits.

It is a bit of a holding pattern for now, and that is not a bad thing, given the uncertainty of the times and the question marks hanging over the future of tourism in a post-Covid world. The old Dunedin Railways model — even though it attracted 80,000 passengers a year, many from cruise ships — is not sustainable. Waiting could be wise.

There is, we sense, an emotive attachment to the Dunedin trains from large numbers of the population — 75%, in our poll, favoured the full-blown option of a city-owned railway with services on both the national network and the Taieri Gorge — but this needs to be a decision taken with as much pragmatism as emotion.

As First Union organiser Sonja Mitchell pointed out, now would not have been the right time to make major decisions about selling assets and getting rid of a low-carbon form of transport. Echoing that theme, Rail and Maritime Transport Union representative Dave Kearns said the council should avoid closing off opportunities when rail will only grow in the future.

It seems councillors agree. But we will only really know how serious the council is about saving the trains when it commits money to the cause.

As comprehensive as DCHL’s report to the council was, it had an economic focus, and councillors signalled they wanted to take a more rounded — strategic, environmental and social — approach.

It is plain the upkeep of the Taieri Gorge line cannot be paid for from the revenue of the train service.

At a time of housing crisis and rising rates and infrastructure renewal and climate change mitigation, will there be the spare dollars needed to fund what some might perceive to be a luxury operation?

We wonder if there is room to move within some of these options. Could, for example, the council retain ownership of the railways but seek to alleviate the financial strain by seeking central government or private funding?

And what about the Central Otago Rail Trail? Chairwoman Kate Wilson has signalled the trail could be extended beyond Middlemarch, saying trains and bikes could co-exist on some sections and maybe rail bikes could be used in places. The Taieri Gorge is, everyone agrees, too spectacular not to be utilised as a tourist attraction.

It is a good time to be mulling what could be possible.

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