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.


Dunedin Railways decision in 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.


Vital that we once again save the 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.


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”.


An open letter to the Chair of Dunedin Railways Limited

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

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


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:


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.”


Dunedin Rail workers furious at ‘sabotage by dereliction’ of business

Workers at Dunedin Railways Limited (DRL) are demanding to know why their management have not applied for Government funding that could save the iconic Taieri Gorge Railway.

The Minister for Tourism Kelvin Davis recently announced $400 million of funding for the Tourism Sector Recovery Plan.

Under the plan, operators could qualify as a strategic tourism asset if they were nationally or internationally recognised, were a key attraction for New Zealand or a region, if visitors to a region would reduce if the business closed, and if there were significant spill-over benefits for the business’ region.

A meeting of the affected workers at DRL today condemned the senior management and Board of Directors of DRL for neglecting to take basic steps to preserve the business by applying for the funding.

Rail and Maritime Transport Union Otago Branch Secretary Dave Kearns says a cornerstone of Otago tourism has been the victim of management and Board ‘sabotage by dereliction.’

“This group of workers are facing redundancy on 30 June when the company embarks on a poorly conceived mothball plan which gives no confidence at all in their ability to get this enterprise back on track.”

Mr Kearns says it was appalling that in the face of major public support for Dunedin Railways, those tasked with protecting and building the business have gone all out to finish it off.

This included not applying for further wage subsidies that could have kept workers in jobs for longer.

He says the workforce are not going away and letting those responsible off the hook.

‘The RMTU will continue to campaign for this asset and the jobs and livelihoods it creates, and will be taking further action to demand accountability and transparency on the decision making process.’


KiwiRail should take back Taieri line

The union representing rail workers says KiwiRail should revoke the lease for the Taieri Gorge rail line from Dunedin Rail Limited (DRL).

Rail and Maritime Transport Union (RMTU) General Secretary Wayne Butson says the mothballing of the line by DRL despite strong opposition from the Otago public was a threat to its future viability.

Mr Butson says the line is an important limb of the national rail network.

“We are concerned the bad decisions by the DRL Board and CEO are placing this line in jeopardy.”

He says the RMTU has no confidence that the mothballing plan proposed by DRL was going to keep track or rolling stock in working order, because the plan did not have any detail.

Mr Butson says the Board and senior management of DRL had actively worked against preserving this asset and should be replaced.

“It is staggering to see that despite the support for some form of Dunedin Rail operations by the Dunedin City Council, local MPs and candidates, and the general public, that a handful of individuals through negligence or arrogance or ignorance have been able to effectively ignore the clearly signalled wishes of their owners.”

The RMTU was calling on Transport Minister Phil Twyford and Associate Transport Minister Genter to intervene.

“Provincial Growth Fund Minister Jones should pay particular attention to this issue with his Infrastructure and Regional Development portfolios.”

Mr Butson says as a State Owned Enterprise, the shareholding ministers of KiwiRail are the Minister of Finance Grant Robertson and Minister of State Owned Enterprises Winston Peters.

He says the Taieri Gorge rail line is too important to be let down through mismanagement at the local level and neglect from Government Ministers as it is part of our national rail infrastructure.

Mr Butson says the Keep Dunedin Rail Rolling campaign led by rail workers who are union members locally had presented a strong case and had gained the support of the DCC for the campaign, which had been described by Council officials as ‘convincing.’


Sign our petition

To the Dunedin City Council

Dear Councillors,

The Dunedin City Council needs to use innovative thinking to keep Dunedin Railways rolling, including the iconic tourist attraction of the Taieri Gorge Railway.

Mothballing and/or closing this business would be a major blow for Dunedin. We ask you to invest in the future of Dunedin Railways and explore all the alternative options.

Why is this important?

The closure and/or mothballing of Dunedin Railways will lead to the loss of a substantial number of local jobs. It will end one of the most popular visitor experiences to Dunedin and Otago.

The flow on effects for other local stakeholders would be considerable.

Keeping jobs and skills in Dunedin, introducing local commuter services, and engaging staff in local rail projects is the positive alternative. When tourism rebuilds, this popular service will then be ready and waiting.