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.


Railway workers protest mothballing of Taieri Gorge

By Molly Houseman

Taieri Gorge workers marched through Dunedin streets to deliver the mayor a letter this morning.

Rail and Maritime Transport Union members and local politicians chanted as they made their way from the train station to the Municipal Chambers stairs, saying when the railway was “under attack” they would “stand up and fight back”.

People held signs, one saying “a future for Dunedin is a future with rail” and others passing by beeped their horns in support.

The protest was led by the union’s Otago branch secretary Dave Kearns, on behalf of the Keep Dunedin Rail Rolling Campaign, who said there was an “imminent” threat to the railway and their jobs, and that they needed to keep the pressure on.

Dunedin Railways Limited announced it would mothball its track and equipment in a bid to avoid closing entirely, following the impacts of Covid-19, but it would see about 51 people lose their jobs by the end of the month.

The letter delivered to the Dunedin City Council from the campaign expressed the workers “disappointment” that the board were going ahead with an “ill-thought out so-called mothballing scheme”.

“We call upon council to use its good offices to the limit of its power to enforce accountability on the board and management of Dunedin Rail Ltd (DRL) to the ultimate owners, the voters and ratepayers of Dunedin and to use every endeavour to ensure that at the very least DRL applies for the extension of the Government wage subsidy and rescinds the redundancy notices to its staff,” the letter said.

Taieri Gorge Ltd senior hostess Pat Tutty worked for the railway for about 30 years and said the gorge was the “bread and butter” of the railway.

But it was also a personal loss for her.

“It is magical … you do not stay in a job that long if you don’t love it.”

She believed the decision to mothball the rail, following Covid-19, was a “convenient excuse”.


Demonstration at Dunedin Railway Station, 10am Tuesday 2 June 2020

Following the protest action, a delegation will proceed to the Civic Centre to present a letter to the Dunedin City Council from the campaign.

Over 2,500 people have signed our campaign petition.

The text of the letter follows:

Dear Mr Mayor and Dunedin City Councillors,

On behalf of the Keep Dunedin Rail Rolling Campaign and the members of the Rail and Maritime Transport Union (RMTU) who work at Dunedin Railways Ltd (DRL):

  1. We wish to thank Council for its support for the feasibility study and trial of commuter passenger rail in the Dunedin Region as per the resolution passed by the Council’s Planning and Infrastructure Committee on 14th May 
  2. We also wish to thank Council for its support for the goals of the Keep Dunedin Rail Rolling Campaign as expressed in the above resolution, namely those of saving jobs,  the rolling stock and track. 
  3. We wish to express our concern and disappointment that the board and management of DRL are pressing ahead with an ill-thought out so-called ‘mothballing’ scheme and the dismissal of the vast majority of its skilled and dedicated staff by 30 June despite the support of Council for the campaign to Keep Dunedin Rail Rolling as expressed in the resolution referred to above. 
  4. We understand that Council is prevented by the commercial structure of DRL from directly intervening in its governance and management, despite the fact that Council’s investment arm Dunedin City Holdings Ltd, is the sole shareholder. That said, we note that Council did take the courageous decision to not close down DRL when this was put to Council as a recommended option on 6th April by DCHL, but instead opted for the ‘least worst alternative’ that was put before Council, that of ‘mothballing’. 
  5. We were understandably bitterly disappointed to read in local media that the proposed feasibility study and commuter passenger rail trial is considered impossible to do in the time available. By our calculation there are seven weeks remaining before the 20 July, the latest a six week trial could practically occur. Many of our supporters have experience in the establishment and operation of rail services and in our view the administrative and technical hurdles could be overcome in time with the necessary will and drive. To us, the issue is about how slowly bureaucratic wheels turn rather than any practical obstacle. Bureaucracy can be speeded up: our nation’s experience since early March is ample proof of this. What is lacking now is determined leadership. 
  6. Consequently, we call upon Council to use its good offices to the limit of its power to enforce accountability on the board and management of DRL to the ultimate owners, the voters and ratepayers of Dunedin; and to use every endeavour to ensure that at the very least DRL applies for the extension of the Government wage subsidy and rescinds the redundancy notices to its staff; and to engage with DRL, DCHL and DCC staff to facilitate the rapid establishment of the proposed six week commuter rail passenger trial so this can begin in mid-July before freight traffic on the Dunedin-Mosgiel line starts its seasonal increase.

Mr Mayor and Councillors, it seems to us that the Keep Dunedin Rail Rolling Campaign has enormous public support as well as that of Council but the opportunity presented to keep this iconic rail operation in business is being stymied by the people responsible for the governance and management of DRL. This will only be overcome by firm and energetic leadership from our elected representatives.

We look forward to your comments and continued support.

Yours faithfully,

Dave Kearns

on behalf of the Keep Dunedin Rail Rolling campaign
Otago Branch Secretary, Rail and Maritime Transport Union


There is enough time for a commuter rail trial – what is lacking is leadership

Workers at Dunedin Railways have rejected Dunedin City Council claims there is not enough time for a feasibility study and commuter rail trial this year.

Keep Dunedin Rail Rolling spokesperson Dave Kearns says workers at DRL were bitterly disappointed the proposed feasibility study and commuter passenger rail trial was considered impossible to do in the time available by the DCC.

Dunedin city councillors voted against funding a feasibility study this year while meeting on Wednesday.

Mr Kearns says there are seven weeks remaining before 20 July 2020, the latest a six week trial could start and not interfere with peak seasonal use of the rail line by KiwiRail.

“Many of our supporters have experience in the establishment and operation of rail services,” says Mr Kearns.

“Our view is the administrative and technical hurdles could be overcome in time with the necessary will and drive.”

Mr Kearns says it is a tragedy that despite the support of councillors and the public, the problem was one of bureaucracy and a negative Board and Management at DRL.

“These are extraordinary times and we need an extraordinary response. What is lacking is determined leadership.”

Mr Kearns says it was a bizarre situation when the only urgency seemed to be closing down operations by the DRL Board and senior management.

“They are working against the publicly stated goals of their owners and in our view this amounts to sabotage of jobs and a precious locally owned asset.”

Mr Kearns says the possibility of commuter rail trials next year or further into the future was not viewed with confidence.

He says the reality is that the operational expertise and skill base will be gone, and the mothballed rolling stock will be in no condition to resume operations.

“There will be no ability to run a trial then.”

Mr Kearns says the campaign was not over and would be ramping up pressure on the DCC and DRL management to justify their positions.

He says workers were extremely frustrated to have the backing of the DCC in principle, but in practice to have been left high and dry.

DRL workers are facing redundancy on 30 June.





Otago Daily Times: merit in exploring commuter rail

Mothballing Dunedin Railways might easily be blamed on the disastrous knock-on effects of the Covid-19 pandemic but rail must not die quietly in a city whose rail heritage is an important part of its modern story.

The Rail and Maritime Union and a growing group of petitioners maintain its city council-owner must use innovative thinking to keep its stock rolling and to protect ratepayer’s not insignificant investment in the Taieri Gorge Railway.

They know tourism will be severely curtailed for at least as long as there is no vaccine for Covid-19, and that high operating costs and a $10million deferred maintenance bill will loom large if services continue without significant change.

They have pitched plans to move the business from the cruise ship market to the domestic market, and to sell or transfer the Wingatui to Middlemarch line to KiwiRail. They warn mothballing is as bad as closure, and risks the loss of skills and brand recognition before the tourism fightback.

It is hard to see light at the end of the tunnel for plans that require a significant spend towards an indefinite future, but there is significant merit to exploring the union’s most immediately achievable pitch.

The council was right to look into a feasibility study as to the merit of a six-week trial of morning, mid-afternoon and evening commuter train services between Dunedin and Mosgiel, one of a suite of options that included a Port Chalmers service and long-distance services to other centres on the main south line.

The trial could cost about $250,000. As pitched by the union, it could help the company’s council-owners decide whether the railway had a future, potentially saving jobs and keeping the railway usable until tourism returns.

The union hopes for success. It says ‘‘if Dunedinites know what is at stake, this will encourage use’’, but there must be early concern a plan to demonstrate a plan’s sustainability might rest heavily on sustained goodwill.

The proposed service would retrace that abandoned by New Zealand Rail in 1982. Then, patronage was on the slide and the government-owned operator said the city’s suburban services covered less than 30% of what it cost to run them.

Much has changed since then. Mosgiel is bigger than in the 1980s and, as commuter service proponent Cr Jim O’Malley notes, there is significantly more commuter vehicle traffic into the city.

He told councillors there are some 30,000 car movements every morning on the city’s Southern motorway and that 75% of the vehicles making the trip were destined for the city centre. Such numbers hint at a potential market.

But they also demonstrate some of what a commuter rail plan maybe up against. After all, Mosgiel has regular bus services into the city centre but not all seats on every bus are filled with people who choose to leave the car at home.

Frequency, travel from the station to work, convenience and cost will all play a part in attracting and retaining the customers such a service will need to ensure it develops further than the feasibility stage.

The numbers will have to stack up because ratepayers should expect the council to gather the intelligence it needs to lobby the Government to help pay for a service provided so lavishly in other centres.

This newspaper has, for many years, noted successive government’s continued focus on road and rail in parts north over the transport infrastructure needs of the South. Last week, it noted Dunedin’s Hillside Workshops will not get a slice of the Budget’s $1.2billion investment in rail.

At the same time, the Government has clearly signalled it sees a future for rail, just as it continues to say it wants to secure livelihoods as the country adjusts to a world without significant tourism.

A commuter trial must be seen through this lens. From the feasibility stage onwards — but only if the numbers do, indeed, stack up — it provides new opportunities to go to the Government with a plan that can work, and that is worth paying for.