Hasty move disservice to workers, community

Otago Daily Times, Monday, 4 May 2020

Dunedin Railways staff deserve better, Dave Kearns writes.

Workers at Dunedin Railways are dismayed by the announcement that management intend to mothball all services. The loss of over 50 jobs and the closure of the iconic Taieri Gorge Railway for an indefinite period is a devastating blow.

A surge in unemployment, and a severe economic downturn, are happening right now due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In this unprecedented situation, with closed borders and the impossibility of running tourist passenger trains under lockdown, it is certainly a tough time. Yet elsewhere, people and industry are adapting to the changed circumstances with innovative and creative responses. In contrast, the board of Dunedin Railways has reacted with zero vision.

It missed the opportunity to explore other opportunities before a disturbingly hasty decision was made public.

In its current Statement of Intent, Dunedin Railways commits itself to “exhibit a sense of social and environmental responsibility by having regard to the interests of the community in which it operates and by endeavouring to accommodate or insist upon these when able to do so”.

Jobs are at stake, and the flow-on effect to other businesses has not been factored in. It is easier to “mothball” than to “unmothball”. Skilled staff will drift away under this scenario and the cost and time of rebuilding a quality workforce has not been acknowledged.

At some point, tourism will regenerate and whether this is domestic or a more modest number of overseas visitors, Dunedin needs to be ready to roll with key attractions. The loss of brand profile and any uncertainties about our ability as a city to provide a visitor experience will be a big negative.

It is a telling fact this major proposal was announced by Dunedin Railways without meaningful discussion with staff, the union, or even its own management.

It doesn’t get any more major than this. This failure is a direct breach of Dunedin Railways’ employment obligations and its responsibilities to its ultimate owner, the Dunedin City Council, whose business arm, Dunedin City Holdings Limited, is now the 100% shareholder of Dunedin Railways.

Most staff learned of their jobs being axed from the media or elsewhere in the community before hearing from their employer. This is symptomatic of the failure of management and board to communicate with staff effectively.

Decisions ratified by the board are responsible for the dire financial position Dunedin Railways found itself in well before the impact of Covid-19.

The chief executive has included himself as one of only five paid staff to remain under the “mothballing” proposal, while watching over 50 workers lose their livelihoods.

It’s time for the board to step aside and let the workers have a real say in the running of the business.

Workers represented by the Rail and Maritime Transport Union are advancing our own plan to get Dunedin Railways back on track.

The current Dunedin Railways board must be replaced, and a workers’ council made up of, and elected by, current staff would play a meaningful role in the future operation of the business.

The Dunedin City Council should take the lead in investigating options for commuter rail in the region by working with its subsidiaries and KiwiRail.

The reinstatement of low-fare commuter rail to Mosgiel and Port Chalmers is an obvious starting point, especially given the pressure on downtown traffic in recent times. If Dunedinites know what is at stake, this will encourage use.

The offhand suggestion that a business plan for some distant date in the future be prepared for the council by Dunedin Venues Management Limited has our workforce shaking their heads. Why DVML should be involved is not clear, apart from a possible job creation scheme for stadium managers.

It has not gone unnoticed that the council has a remarkable ability to provide massive support and funding for pet projects that it believes enhance the city. We ask: in the present situation, why is Dunedin Railways not given the backing it needs and deserves?

Staff can be retained on rail projects under the post-Covid infrastructure spend such as a Taieri branch upgrade or the Green Island-Abbotsford crossing loop/double line build (part of the KiwiRail network), or commit to redeployment within DCC roles.

It shouldn’t be left to the city alone to carry the burden. This is a regional and national asset.

The Government is pursuing the correct course of action by its programme of investment to insulate the New Zealand economy from the economic shock of the pandemic.

Infrastructure spending could be redirected to carry out relevant infrastructure and rolling stock work — after all, we have the nearby Hillside workshops ideally placed to assist here.

Dunedin Railways has already claimed several hundred thousand dollars from the Government’s wage subsidy scheme, and we question why this is not being extended to provide a bigger window for all options to be considered.

This is not “business as usual” or even a normal recession. We cannot afford to have key local assets kneecapped by a small group of unelected bureaucrats who do not “get it” and have gone down the easy path of retrenchment while protecting their own positions.

This is a time for bold and innovative solutions to repurpose our economy. The public support is there. The Government is taking decisive action. All that is required is for Dunedin to take up the challenge rather than accept failure at the first hurdle.

 – Dave Kearns is the Otago branch secretary of the Rail and Maritime Transport Union and a full-time locomotive driver.


Otago Daily Times: Railway workers respond

See link for video

Saturday, 2 May 2020

By Emma Perry

Dunedin Railways workers have put forward suggestions for the future of the company in a bid to save their jobs.

Last week, it was announced 51 staff were likely to be made redundant as Dunedin Railways mothballed its track and equipment to avoid closing entirely.

The Rail and Maritime Transport Union, representing about 50 workers at Dunedin Railways, submitted a proposal on Thursday as part of a consultation process with management.

Options in the proposal included a commuter service to local destinations such as Mosgiel and Port Chalmers, or establishing a long-distance passenger service between Dunedin and other cities on the main south line.

Also included was a possible reconfiguration of the business away from the cruise ship market to the domestic market, or the potential to transfer or sell ownership of the Wingatui to Middlemarch line to KiwiRail, and Dunedin Railways to operate like other heritage rail concerns and pay a fee for track access while refocusing its business.

Rail and Maritime Transport Union Otago branch secretary Dave Kearns said there were a number of opportunities for rail services that had been ignored by Dunedin Railways, which was owned by Dunedin City Holdings Ltd (DCHL) under the Dunedin City Council.

Mr Kearns said the DRL board had a “negative mindset” and had recommended closing the railway to the Dunedin City Council, blaming falling revenues because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The DRL plan is meaningless as it is so lacking in detail.

“This raises questions regarding the competence and fitness of Dunedin Railway’s board and senior management.”

DCHL general manager Jemma Adams said the council had asked for a report to be delivered before the long-term plan next year to present future options for the railway operation.

“This feasibility work, particularly in the constraints of the Covid-19 alert levels, is unlikely to be possible in a short timeframe.

“As the employment consultation process between Dunedin Railways and its staff and the union is ongoing, it’s not appropriate for us to make any further comments at this stage.”

A council spokesman said Dunedin Railways had received the submission alongside other feedback from staff and expected to provide direction next week.


Submission to Dunedin Railways Limited


Dunedin Railways workers propose positive solutions to prevent closure

Workers at Dunedin Railways Limited (DRL) have put forward a proposal to reinvigorate the company, retaining the iconic Taieri Gorge Railway and saving up to 70 jobs.

Rail and Maritime Transport Union Otago Branch Secretary Dave Kearns says the union, representing about fifty workers at Dunedin Railways, has today submitted the proposal as part of the consultation process with management.

Dunedin Railways is 100% owned by Dunedin City Holdings Limited, the business arm of the Dunedin City Council.

Mr Kearns says the DRL Board of Directors had a ‘negative mindset’ and had recommended closing the railway to the Dunedin City Council, blaming falling revenues due to the COVID19 pandemic.

Dunedin City Councillors had voted to mothball the railway instead, but Mr Kearns says he is concerned that they have not been given the correct information about how this would work.

‘The DRL plan is meaningless as it is so lacking in detail. This raises questions regarding the competence and fitness of DRL’s board and senior management.’

Mr Kearns says there are a number of opportunities for rail services that have been ignored.

Options included the reconfiguration of the business away from the cruise ship market to the domestic market.

There was potential for staff and rolling stock to provide commuter services to local destinations such as Mosgiel and Port Chalmers, as well as the establishment of long distance passenger services between Dunedin and other cities on the main south line.

Other possibilities included the sale or transfer of ownership of the Wingatui to Middlemarch line to KiwiRail, with DRL to operate like other heritage rail concerns and pay a fee for track access whilst refocusing their business.

The Union was calling for genuine engagement by DRL management with staff and their union to investigate alternative options for the future of DRL, he says.

Regarding the DCC’s request for ‘options for DRL’s operating and governance structure in the interim’, the RMTU is calling for the immediate dismissal of the current board and the appointment of a new board with staff representation.

Mr Kearns says a Facebook page Keep Dunedin Rail Rolling had gained over 1200 supporters this week.


Time for innovative long-term thinking on Taieri Gorge railway

The union representing workers on the Taieri Gorge railway is urging the Dunedin City Council not to rush into decisions about the future of the iconic tourist attraction.

51 staff are likely to lose their job under a mothball plan announced today by Dunedin Railways Limited Board Chair Kevin Winders.

Rail and Maritime Transport Union General Secretary Wayne Butson says the announcement is not a surprise, but is disappointing.

“The effect of the Covid-19 pandemic is unprecedented, and there have to be changes to operations. However those changes should reflect a broad, long-term view about the value of this iconic attraction.”

Innovative thinking was required around passenger/commuter rail operations using current staff and rolling stock, he says.

The Labour-led Coalition Government was moving fast on investment in infrastructure to offset the downturn, and the Green Party had just made an excellent case for new rail services for major centres in New Zealand.

“A forward looking council in Dunedin must work with the Government to explore any and all opportunities to prevent long term economic damage to the Otago region.”

The cost of restarting rail operations, especially finding skilled staff, would be considerable, says Mr Butson.

The longer mothballing went on, the greater danger the iconic brand would lose its profile, and company assets would inevitably degrade.In the future, domestic tourism may increase and international visitors would return to some degree, he says.

The Taieri Gorge Railway was linked to the Central Otago Rail Trail and was a major attraction for the Otago region, and could not be viewed simply as a standalone business.

Dunedin Railways is now under the full ownership of Dunedin City Holdings Ltd, the business arm of the Dunedin City Council.