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However, the costs of running a viable operation and upkeep of the Taieri Gorge line loom as challenges to be confronted.
Rather than shut the council-owned company or pursue a possible sale or lease, they sought more information about the implications of keeping the operation.
A report is to go before the council for 10-year plan deliberations in May and will include staff analysis of financial and strategic implications of running a train operation on KiwiRail’s national rail network only or adding to this the Taieri Gorge line.
The implications of keeping Dunedin Railways in hibernation until June 30 next year, though allowing trials of limited services, will also be assessed.
Only Cr Lee Vandervis voted against the plan, noting the situation continued to impose costs and that the council’s decision seemed to shut the door on the option of a sale or lease.
The company was facing a sharp downturn in custom due to a lack of international tourists when it was put in hibernation in July last year.
Mayor Aaron Hawkins said more time was needed to consider financial, environmental and social factors and to engage with the public on the train operation’s future.
Cr Chris Staynes said benefits of the service were reaped by more than just the council and its company — they extended to businesses and the broader community.
He was reluctant to lose the Taieri Gorge line.
"If the track is lost, it won’t come back."
The council’s decision came after a series of presentations during the meeting’s public forum, including from businesswomen from Waitati and Port Chalmers who praised the operation.
First Union organiser Sonja Mitchell said it was the wrong time to make major changes.
Rail and Maritime Transport Union representative Dave Kearns said rail was only going to grow. He asked councillors to consider ratepayer support as an investment, rather than a subsidy.
Dunedin without the railways would be like Rome without the Colosseum, he said.
The Taieri Gorge line is owned by Dunedin Railways and its upkeep is expected to cost at least $6.5million in the next 10 years.
Dunedin City Holdings Ltd chairman Keith Cooper said KiwiRail was not interested in taking over the line.
The short-term costs to the council of running a train operation have also been put at almost $1.6million a year.
The Dunedin Railways business model that had been run before the pandemic was not sustainable, Mr Cooper said, and the operation had not stayed on top of deferred maintenance.
Mr Hawkins said he did not sense public support for closing the business and selling its assets for scrap.
Cr Sophie Barker said retaining city ownership was a no-brainer.
Cr Carmen Houlahan said emotions tended to be heightened when decisions were made about rail.
"If it’s able to be saved, that would be my hope."