Categories
Uncategorized

Train keeps rolling?


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.

Categories
Uncategorized

Come to the DCC to support Dunedin Rail

This is a call for attendance to support continuation of Dunedin Railways, at the DCC meeting to be held on Tuesday 13th April at 10am, at the Municipal Chambers in the Octagon.

At the meeting will be a public forum where supporters of Dunedin Railways will be making submissions, and later a presentation of the report from DCHL for consideration by the council.

A large attendance in the public gallery will help council to do the right thing, so please share this among your networks and hope to see you there.

Categories
Uncategorized

Rail Union Calls for Dunedin Council to ‘Do the Right Thing’ and Keep Dunedin Railways Rolling

The union representing rail workers is calling upon Dunedin City Council to do the right thing at its meeting on Tuesday 13 April when it decides on the future of Dunedin Railways.

Rail and Maritime Transport Union (RMTU) General Secretary Wayne Butson says the RMTU led the recent Keep Dunedin Rail Rolling campaign, with the support of Unions Otago and a large number of people in the community.

“Our union backed the successful Trains not Planes initiative in running excursion trains over the summer which has gained the support of local businesses and proved a real winner with the public.”

He says Dunedin City Council have a number of options before them on Tuesday, and the RMTU are calling on them to choose the boldest option and retain the rail service both on the national network and through the iconic Taieri Gorge.

Mr Butson says this option will require investment but the economic benefit to the city will amply reward this.

“The Trains not Planes excursion services have proved an outstanding success with many sold out. Two thirds of tickets sold were to passengers from Dunedin. With our borders opening up as the threat of the global pandemic recedes, the potential demand from overseas tourists will only increase.”

Dunedin Railways has the potential to return to its status as a major attraction that will bring much needed money into the city, he says.

Mr Butson says he understands a commercial operator has expressed interest in operating a tourism rail service out of Dunedin and the RMTU was confident its members could work with any potential investor to make the venture a success.

Categories
Uncategorized

The Little Engine That Could?

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”.

Categories
Uncategorized

We welcome the Trains not Planes initiative

The Keep Dunedin Rail Rolling campaign has welcomed today’s announcement by Dunedin Mayor Aaron Hawkins that tourist trains will be running in Dunedin this summer.

The Trains not Planes promotion will run from 20 December to 31 March 2021 with services to Hindon and Waitati, using assets of the mothballed Dunedin Railways Limited.

The services will be managed by Dunedin Venues Management Limited.

The announcement comes after the mothballing of DRL earlier this year at the cost of 50 jobs and the loss what has been called one of the world’s great little rail journeys.

Keep Dunedin Rail Rolling spokesperson Dave Kearns says the temporary trial of local tourist services over the summer to Hindon and Waitati made perfect sense.

“The sooner regular services are put back in place, the greater the chance of re-attracting skilled staff and holding on to the iconic status and high profile of the service.”

He said it was important that a proper rail-focussed company was re-established as soon as possible to ensure the correct focus and organisational skills were available.

Mr Kearns says the City Council should still include staff and union representation on the reference group considering the future of DRL. 

“The problem we see is people who presided over the closure of DRL are still involved at a high level, whereas the workforce who have a detailed down to earth knowledge of this asset have been excluded.”

Mr Kearns encouraged all local people to use the service and to promote it through word of mouth to friends and relatives elsewhere in New Zealand.

Categories
Uncategorized

Don’t let railway suffer cable cars’ fate

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.

Categories
Uncategorized

Trains stopped, talks continue

The Star, Sunday 23 August 2020

By Shawn McAvinue

As expressions of interest in a tourist train company are evaluated, the Strath Taieri Community Board is calling to be part of any future decisions.

The Dunedin City Council-owned tourist and charter train company Dunedin Railways closed its doors on March 23 and was put into hibernation in July after its main source of revenue, overseas visitors, stopped when New Zealand’s borders were closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

About 50 people lost their jobs. Only six people remain employed to maintain the company’s assets.

Last month,, the city’s holdings company called for expressions of interest for Dunedin Railways and its assets.

This week, Dunedin City Holdings Ltd chairman Keith Cooper said 15 expressions of interest in the future operation of the tourist train company were received.

The options were being evaluated and a report would be presented to the council by the end of October.

“Decisions will then be for council to make. In the event that any options were to involve sale or transfer of Dunedin Railways’ assets, those options may well be subject to public consultation.”

Mr Cooper said another council company, Dunedin Venues Management Ltd, was leading the option evaluation work.

A reference group had been set up to “act as a sounding board as things progress”.

The group included Mr Cooper, city councillor Jim O’Malley, council group manager transport Jeanine Benson, rail specialist and former Dunedin Railways director Graeme Smart, Dunedin Host member Ralph Davies and former trustee of the Taieri Gorge Railway, former city councillor and current Otago regional councillor Kate Wilson.

At a board meeting earlier this month, chairman Barry Williams said the railway infrastructure was important to Middlemarch because most tourists visiting the village arrived by train.

The community had fundraised to get some of the railway infrastructure in the village, including a turntable, so the board must be consulted before the council made any major changes to Dunedin Railways’ operating model.

“To think all our hard work would be wasted.”

Mr Williams moved the motion the council consult the board “sooner rather than later” on any future decisions on the railway. Board member Robin Thomas seconded the motion and everyone voted in favour.

Categories
Uncategorized

Dunedin Railways decision in October

https://www.odt.co.nz/news/dunedin/dunedin-railways-decision-october

Otago Daily Times, 19 August 2020

Dunedin city councillors will consider what to do with Dunedin Railways and its assets in October.

Fifteen expressions of interest in the future operation of the tourist train company or purchase of its assets have been received by the city’s holdings company, Dunedin City Holdings Ltd (DCHL).

DCHL chairman Keith Cooper said the options were being evaluated and a report would be presented to the council by the end of October.

“Decisions will then be for council to make. In the event that any options were to involve sale or transfer of Dunedin Railways’ assets, those options may well be subject to public consultation,” he said.

The expressions of interest came from a range of organisations and individuals and spanned a variety of models.

Given potential commercial sensitivity, DCHL would not be releasing details of the submissions.

Ideally, DCHL sought a new operating model for the railway that kept trains operating in the city and created local employment, Mr Cooper said.

“A new model will, however, need to be sustainable and address the challenges Dunedin Railways was facing even before Covid-19.”

The council put the company into hibernation in July.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the company was forecasting ongoing losses of about $500,000 a year.

A review last year found about $10million would be needed in the next 10 years to keep the Taieri Gorge line safe and functioning.

The railways board was working on a business turnaround plan when economic fallout from the Covid-19 crisis affected the tourism industry.

The railway closed as a non-essential business on March 23 and was facing insolvency, even with support such as the wage subsidy, when the council decided in April to put it into hibernation.

Mr Cooper said another council company, Dunedin Venues Management Ltd, was leading the option evaluation work and a reference group had been set up to “act as a sounding board as things progress”.

The reference group included Mr Cooper, city councillor Jim O’Malley, council group manager transport Jeanine Benson, rail specialist and former Dunedin Railways director Graeme Smart, Dunedin Host member Ralph Davies and former trustee of the Taieri Gorge Railway, former city councillor and current Otago regional councillor Kate Wilson.

The reference group was also able to co-opt other members.

A team of six continued to look after the railway’s assets while the company was in hibernation, Mr Cooper said.

“This work includes keeping key rolling stock actively maintained, so Dunedin residents will see Dunedin Railways locomotives and carriages out and about from time to time,” Mr Cooper said.

Categories
Uncategorized

Vital that we once again save the train

https://www.odt.co.nz/opinion/vital-we-once-again-save-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.

Categories
Uncategorized

Dunedin Railways seeking to offload assets

Published in the Otago Daily Times, 31 July 2020.

By Molly Houseman

Looking for a life-sized railway set? Dunedin Railways has what you are looking for.

The Dunedin City Council-owned tourist and charter train company closed its doors on March 23 and was put into hibernation on July 1 after its main source of revenue, overseas visitors, stopped when New Zealand’s borders were closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. About 50 people lost their jobs. Only six people remain employed to maintain the company’s assets.

Now it is looking for submissions from individuals or groups who have viable business propositions for the use of its assets or proposals to buy some or all of them.
Among the company’s assets are six locomotives, 23 carriages, including six wooden heritage carriages, 64km of track and the associated thousands of sleepers, a house at the Middlemarch Station and the Pukerangi toilets. The Crown owns the rail corridor (the land), 39 bridges and 10 tunnels, which are leased to Dunedin Railways.

Maintenance of the corridor, bridges and tunnels is Dunedin Railways’ responsibility.
A submission requires a detailed description of a business proposal, including what equipment would be used and the short- to long-term viability of the model, while considering the uncertainty surrounding international tourism, the call for expressions of interest says.
The document says before Covid-19, the company was forecasting ongoing losses of about $500,000 per annum, and impending expenses of $10 million over the next 10 years on the Taieri Gorge line infrastructure.

It was considered unlikely Dunedin Railways would have sufficient tourist activity to operate for at least the next 18 to 24 months, it said. Expressions of interest close on August 13.

Rail and Maritime Transport Union Otago branch secretary Dave Kearns said a longer submission timeframe would allow people to plan and put a better submission forward.
The union planned to make a submission and would challenge Dunedin Railways on its reported financial position, he said.
The union believed Dunedin Railways could run a “substantial” number of trains with domestic tourists only.

“Hopefully, this time they listen to what they receive,” Mr Kearns said.
The call for expressions of interests opened as a Dunedin Railways train chugged its way from Dunedin to Middlemarch and back yesterday.
Mr Kearns said he was not sure of the purpose of the trip, but believed carriages were taken to allow the air-conditioning units to be run and keep the infrastructure in a usable condition.
“While they were doing that, we are pretty sure that they could have sold tickets and run a train.”
Dunedin City Holdings chairman Keith Cooper said an engine travelled to Middlemarch “for maintenance of the carriages currently stored in that location”.