Hope the new board gets the railroad back on track

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An overhaul of the Taieri Gorge Railway is long overdue, writes Grant Craig.

It has now been over two years since Dunedin Railways went into hibernation, the world is changing and normality is returning.

With local body elections taking place on 8th October, we hope to see council enthusiastic about seeing one of Dunedin’s tourism icons return and the money and resources allocated to him to secure his future .

The return of cruise ships has seen some rail services run for cruise passengers, but not all businesses and ships that are scheduled at Port Chalmers and this is due to resources such as staff and maintenance n have not been increased to meet the demand of a market which is reopening.

If you travel to Middlemarch and visit the station you will see a rolling stock graveyard being stored there until a decision is made by the council on its future. The longer it stays there, the more difficult it will be to get the rolling stock back into service, especially the historic wooden wagons. Track maintenance between Hindon and Middlemarch has only the basic requirements carried out on track repairs, all this on top of the cost of restoring the train and railway to Middlemarch working order.

You can’t fault the board in its decision to put the railway into hibernation against the advice it received from the Dunedin Railways holding company and board in early 2020, but more guidance is now needed be given to the holding company to ensure the resources allocated are used to plan the future of trains and railways on the return.

The greatest resource is its staff, who have gone to great lengths to keep the railway running, all on short-term contracts that have given them no positivity for the future, but thanks to their commitment to keeping the railway running, they gave so much to ensure its survival in the face of staff shortages, lack of firm direction for the future, and lack of funding.

Railways are specialized operations that require trained personnel who know their operating and safety requirements and have the skills to maintain both track and rolling stock. A number left for more permanent employment and better wages – and who would blame them? – but those skills they learned are so hard to replace. Another major problem at present is the lack of a workshop for overhauls and maintenance with the loss of the leased locomotive depot in Dunedin making it much more difficult for staff to carry out overhauls.

Dunedin Railways is not the only tourist railway operating in New Zealand. Glenbrook Vintage Railway (which, like Dunedin Railways, has its own branch line and operates on the KiwiRail network) and Steam Incorporated in Wellington are successfully running trips now that the world is a different place and are getting into it with tours in North Island train and local services such as a tourist train from Auckland to Napier and New Plymouth and back to Auckland, plus a combined Mountain Thunder tour using the main North Island trunk with more than 700 passengers. Both of these organizations have paid staff (and volunteers to fill non-operational positions) to run trains with Steam Incorporated which are currently gearing up for cruise ship charters out of Picton.

Yes it is understandable that there is some caution ahead of the cruise ship season and we should not expect Dunedin Railways to go to pre-Covid operations for this first season but the board should now consider to gradually bring Dunedin Railways back to meet demand that we know will return.

I think some of our elected councilors and managers of council-controlled entities have been quite surprised at the taxpayer sentiment for their railroad and they need to take stock of that in the election campaign. Make sure you are heard at public pre-election meetings and ask the question: where are you with Dunedin Railways?

What I mean by all of this is that the more time there is, the more difficult and costly any decision will be. The administration of the council leaves all decision to the new council, which will be voted on October 8, and I sincerely hope that they have the right information to decide on an outcome and the motivation and enthusiasm to make a quick decision on the way forward for Dunedin Railways and the historic Taieri Gorge Railway to Middlemarch.

Grant Craig is a member of the Otago Excursion Train Trust.

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