Trains vs bikes: Taieri Gorge decision kicked down line

Options for train services in the Taieri Gorge will soon be discussed by the Dunedin City Council...
Tearing up train tracks to avert a "financial disaster" could jeopardise Otago railway services for good, councillors have heard.

The suggestion that a cycleway through the Taieri Gorge be prioritised over developing existing railway lines from Dunedin to Middlemarch was raised at a Dunedin City Council meeting yesterday.

Councillors voted 11-2 to defer decisions about the future of Dunedin Railways Ltd (DRL), which would involve the retention of train services through the Taieri Gorge, to its 2025-34 nine-year long-term plan.

Cr Brent Weatherall said the future of the Taieri Gorge Railway was at a crossroads.

Incorporating a cycleway into the route would only work if it was a regular daily service.

"Cycleways or Taieri Gorge Railway — having a foot in both camps doesn’t work," he said

"In my view, cycleways provide opportunity against a Taieri Gorge Railway, which is a financial disaster for a city on that line.

"Taieri Gorge is the asset, and the track is a liability."

Cr Weatherall said spending $20 million to keep the tracks safe so a train could run was a "loss-making venture" and there were other tourism options that did not drain the city’s finances.

"Here we go, for another year, having to prop up this liability for this city to the tune of another $2.4m.

"Enough is enough — Taieri Gorge cycle trail here we come."

Communications and city marketing manager Leanne Mash said a train had been running in a limited fashion through the Taieri Gorge but DRL had "hibernated" its full-capacity operations since the pandemic.

DRL had undertaken maintenance and entered a chartered service agreement with Pounamu Tourism Group to run a train to Hindon, roughly halfway between Dunedin and Middlemarch, and had estimated the costs to continue this service, until June 2025, at about $2m.

Cr Acklin advised Cr Weatherall that having a cycleway instead of the train was not necessarily a financial benefit.

"If you decide that you don’t want the train any more, sorry Cr Weatherall, don’t think for a moment we’re going to have a whole lot of money to put into other things because it’s going to cost a fortune to get rid of those tracks."

Cr Acklin said an up-and-running train generated revenue, and there were costs to removing the railway and maintaining the track for cycles.

Cr Mandy Mayhem, a self-proclaimed train enthusiast, said she was alarmed by Cr Weatherall’s notion of "tearing up the train tracks".

Trains created 30% less carbon emissions than cars and removing them meant the council would never have enough money again to rebuild them, she said.

"If we choose to rip up those tracks at great expense, we will never ever in a million years have the money to do that again.

"The train tracks are there, and sure they cost money for us to maintain them, but I think it would be really foolhardy of us to make a decision not to have those trains any more."

Discussion partly revolved around three independent reports prepared by Benje Patterson People and Place, on the economic impact of extending the Taieri Gorge trail to the Otago Central Rail Trail, which the council received last October.

The council had commissioned a peer review of these separate reports by MartinJenkins, the results of which cast doubt on the reliability of evidence at the council’s disposal — concerning Cr Sophie Barker and Cr Lee Vandervis.

Cr Andrew Whiley said deferring the decision to a later date gave the council more time to acquire information.

"We are going to come back and have this discussion, but we are going to do it with better information."