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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”.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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An open letter to the Chair of Dunedin Railways Limited

Kevin Winders
Chair of the Board
Dunedin Railways Ltd
PO Box 140
Dunedin

Dear Mr Winders,

We are very concerned for the future of our members at Dunedin Railways Ltd (‘DRL’), and at the statement by yourself, reported in the Otago Daily Times on 20th June, that mothballing the operation of the railway for 18 months is “as good an answer as the company could provide”.

Given the support offered by central government for the tourist industry in general and the support in principle from DRL’s owners the Dunedin City Council for the ‘Keep Dunedin Rail Rolling’ campaign we find this to be both misleading and indicative of a lack of vision and leadership.

This view is compounded by your claim that you have not been contacted by the RMTU, despite the fact there has been a great deal of correspondence between the RMTU and DRL since the so-called mothballing decision was announced as well widely publicised campaign that has garnered much public support.

The RMTU is gravely concerned about your ability to oversee DRL. It certainly appears there is a real lack of ability to communicate with stakeholders who have the best interests of the railway and its contribution to the wider community at heart. 
For the avoidance of doubt, and to ensure you are clear that our members and supporters require answers please respond to the following questions:

1. why trains are not running in Taieri Gorge now, as under the current level 1 lockdown regime this could have begun on 9th June?

2. Has any research been done regarding the viability of running trains now in any capacity, including but not limited to, the potential domestic market, and/or the likely Trans-Tasman/Pacific market that would open as a result of an opening of bubbles in those regions?

3. How has consultation/communication gone with the Middlemarch community, another stakeholder that has ideas and plans for their area and the operation of the railway?

4. Did Dunedin Railways meet the criteria for 8 week government wage subsidy extension? If so, why was it not applied for?

5. What date would the 8 week wage subsidy extension, if successfully applied for, have ended?

6. Do you see it as the role of DRL to investigate the above under its published Statement of Intent?

7. What are your plans for maintenance of the Taieri Branch line and associated infrastructure to ensure it is fit for purpose if and when there is a return to service?

8. Should a return to service occur what are the contingency plans to ensure qualified and trained staff are in place?

9. On what grounds did you reject a submission from a DRL staff member which would have met the financial criteria, retained about 12 staff and kept trains running up the Taieri Gorge on a limited timetable, when this would have helped immensely with track and asset conditions pending resumption of a full timetable?

10. Does DRL meet the criteria for access funds under the Government’s $400m tourism recovery package announced in May, if so, has this been applied for and to what purpose?

Our final question concerns your appointment post 30 June. Are you intending to remain as Board Chair and if so, would you give consideration to stepping aside to allow someone take up the role that has the vision, commitment and energy to oversee the reconfiguration of the business?

Yours sincerely,
Dave Kearns
Branch Secretary
RMTU Otago Rail Branch

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This isn’t the end

Dunedin Railways is a major tourist attraction based out of the 114 year old railway station in Dunedin city, that operates excursion trains through the spectacular Taieri Gorge and along the Pacific Ocean north of the city, which is known as the ‘Seasider’.

Due to Covid-19, but mainly to do with an unmotivated and short-sighted board, the railway company is facing closure with over 50 employees facing redundancy at the end of June 2020.

This music video covers scenic highlights along the Taieri Gorge Railway, and also special charters and events that have been hosted by Dunedin Railways in the last 5 years, some in conjunction with other mainline heritage rail groups in New Zealand.

An attempt to stop the board’s awful decision has been created through Facebook, with the page ‘Keep Dunedin Rail Rolling’, please go and like the page and help sign their petition, as an effort to stop this iconic piece of railway operation from being ceased forever.

Link to Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/dunedinrail/

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TranzAlpine restarts while Dunedin Rail Limited is put out of business

KiwiRail have announced the reopening of the Christchurch–Greymouth TranzAlpine service from 4 July after several months of cancelled services due to Covid19.

Keep Dunedin Rail Rolling spokesperson Dave Kearns says the decision is an glaring reminder of the failure of leadership at Dunedin Railways Limited (DRL).

Mr Kearns says the view of the DRL workforce is that DRL Board Chair Kevin Winders should be stood down so he can concentrate on his job as Port Otago CEO, given the recent loss of business at that port.

“We have seen KiwiRail management looking at new opportunities with TranzAlpine while the Board and senior management of DRL have condemned this Dunedin asset to a slow death. This is absolutely gutting for the workforce and the many local people who want to keep Dunedin Rail rolling.”

He says the failure to get a trial commuter service up and running, or secure tourism recovery funding, could be laid directly at the feet of the DRL Board and senior management.

“Everyone has been doing their jobs for them. The workers, the Council, the public, even local MPs have been working to save this asset with fresh new ideas – but the people paid to keep this business going have done nothing except undermine the future of DRL.”

DRL is being ‘mothballed’ on 30 June with the loss of over fifty jobs.

There is no detailed plan for maintenance of DRL track and assets, says Mr Kearns.

The campaign has recently called for KiwiRail to take over the track owned by DRL to ensure it was not left to rot, he says.

“As the current DRL leadership can’t or won’t do the work, they should go, and we can find new people who are prepared to meet challenges and have a go forward outlook.”