Crossing the tracks

A battle is brewing between cyclists and train enthusiasts over who claims the Taieri Gorge railway, and for what. Reporter Grant Miller strides into the emerging fray.

The next time Benje Patterson comes to a Dunedin City Council meeting, he can expect to be asked an interesting array of questions.

They may well be about bicycles, trains, and what might best be done in the Taieri Gorge.

Mr Patterson is an economist and his latest report was for the Otago Central Rail Trail Trust about the magnitude of potential benefits that could arise from extending the trail past Middlemarch towards Dunedin.

Developing a trail for cycling and walking there could boost annual spending by trail visitors by between $6.4 million and $11.4m, he said.

The gorge had the potential to be considered a "destination ride", which was a status more likely to be achieved if the proposed trail made full use of heritage rail infrastructure and scenery.

Such ideas are on a collision course with another set of aspirations held for a revitalised trains service.

Trains have operated in the gorge on a limited basis and under a temporary structure since council-owned Dunedin Railways was placed in hibernation in 2020 as Covid ravaged the tourism industry.

The council has been grappling with how the service might best be rebuilt post-pandemic.             

Mr Patterson prepared reports about that situation, too.

In March 2020, in a report for the Enterprise Dunedin unit of the council, he looked at the impact of Dunedin Railways on the city’s economy.

Data showed $24m spent by visiting Dunedin Railways’ passengers on rail excursions and other things during their stay in the city in the 2019 financial year.

Direct economic value added to Dunedin’s economy was $10m.

In September 2021, in another report for Enterprise Dunedin, Mr Patterson considered the impact of future options proffered for Dunedin Railways.

Andrew Simms
Andrew Simms
They included running trains just along the KiwiRail national network of tracks and no longer worrying about the Taieri Gorge and the burden of track upkeep there.

Mr Patterson seemed to caution against this, noting Dunedin Railways’ positioning as a heritage product consistent with city branding and that most passengers opted for the gorge trip.

He also suggested notions such as rail carts and cycle trails would need to be examined more carefully before any long-term call was made to rely on them as alternative uses of the rail corridor.

"After all, once the tracks are ripped up, you can’t go back."

There are parts of the rail corridor where a cycle trail and railway tracks could co-exist.

However, the information presented so far shows an unavoidable clash on at least part of the line, between Pukerangi and Hindon.

It is also fairly plain the most appealing route for a cycle trail would take full advantage of the railway’s viaducts and tunnels, consigning train trips from Dunedin through the gorge to history.

The city council has so far showed determination to preserve a train operation in Dunedin.

In January, a vote to approve retention of a train service through the gorge was passed 13-2.

The council had been "seeking potential new operating models for both the service and its maintenance requirements, as part of a plan to breathe new life into both Dunedin Railways and the Taieri Gorge service", a council spokesman said this week.

"Exactly what that might look like — and the place for bikes in any future Taieri Gorge proposal — is yet to be determined, but a range of potential options are being considered."

The Taieri Gorge railway

It comprises 60km of railway between Middlemarch and Mosgiel, near Dunedin.

Construction of the tracks began at Wingatui in 1879 and reached Middlemarch in 1891.

It served as a link from Dunedin into Central Otago, transporting people, farm produce and livestock.

In 1990, the line between Clyde and Middlemarch closed after completion of the Clyde Dam.

The Otago Central Rail Trail for walking and cycling opened on that stretch a decade later.

The Dunedin City Council in 1990 made moves to acquire the Taieri Gorge line and there was a public fundraising campaign that brought in $1.2m to rejuvenate a train service.

Benje Patterson
Benje Patterson
The Otago Excursion Train Trust (OETT), formed in 1978, was heavily involved in harnessing the line’s tourism potential.

More than 76,000 visitors took Dunedin Railways trips in the 2019 financial year, including about 19,500 from cruise ships.

Tourism took a hit amid restrictions connected to the Covid pandemic from 2020 and the council has since been considering what structure for train services might work best in the years ahead.

The push for trains

At the end of 2019, Dunedin Railways announced it would no longer run excursions to Middlemarch.

Factors cited included needing to cater for demand from cruise ships and the trip to Middlemarch taking too long for most tourists.

The pandemic then disrupted operations, and services have since been aimed mostly at passengers from cruise ships and train trips have typically run only as far as Hindon.

OETT chairman Murray Schofield said the trust was "working to retain the railway line from North Taieri to Middlemarch in its entirety".

The stretch north of Hindon had some of the most spectacular scenery, he said.

These aspirations appear to clash with any drive for a viable cycle trail, but this was not quite how Mr Schofield saw it.

"We would like to see the cycle people get what they want and for us to get what we want," he said.

"Ultimately, the people of Otago will, in fact, decide."

A key challenge

Train services — when considered together with track upkeep needed in the gorge — have for years effectively operated at a loss.

In 2020, the bill for deferred maintenance on the gorge track was declared to be about $10m in the longer term.

A figure of $20m has been used more recently to indicate the scale of upgrade required for the track.

"The $20m figure is broadly accurate and refers to an independently assessed and forward-looking asset management plan for the service’s future operation," a city council spokesman said last week.

Such a cost might be spread over a 10-year period, using a staged approach, he said.

An alternative idea

Murray Schofield
Murray Schofield
Mosgiel-Taieri Community Board chairman Andrew Simms — who has described the rail situation as a ratepayer subsidy for passengers off cruise ships — is one person who has argued a cycle trail should be seriously considered.

"Tapping into the tens of thousands of visitors already using the Central Otago Rail Trail by bringing them through to Dunedin is an opportunity which should no longer be ignored," he said.

It would preserve heritage rail infrastructure and "allow low-cost access" to the area for Dunedin residents and visitors.

Mr Patterson’s report pointed to the likelihood of many day trippers using Dunedin as a holiday base and 35-57 jobs being generated by extending the rail trail past Middlemarch.

"Given these potential economic opportunities from an alternative use of the Taieri Gorge railway corridor as a trail for biking and walking, it is important that decision-makers factor this information into any decision-making process regarding future investment into the Taieri Gorge railway," Mr Patterson said.

Where to from here?

The OETT seemed to provide some hint in September about an approach that could be taken to revitalise rail.

A proposal was being developed that might result in the train trust and Auckland’s Glenbrook Vintage Railway running the Dunedin Railways operation.

Under the proposal, the trust and the Dunedin City Council would own Dunedin Railways’ assets and would contract above-rail operations to an entity formed by the Otago and Glenbrook groups.

Consultancy Linqage International was commissioned to prepare a business case.

More material is also expected from the Otago Central Rail Trail Trust.

Trail designer Hamish Seaton has been looking into the feasibility of two options for a Taieri Gorge route.

His work is expected to include capital costs.

The city council is continuing to work on shaping its draft 2024-34 long-term plan.

"We have been talking to a range of interested parties and these discussions are continuing," the spokesman said.

"A preferred and alternative option for Dunedin Railways will be determined in January and will be put to the public as part of consultation."