Merit in exploring commuter rail

Mothballing Dunedin Railways might easily be blamed on the disastrous knock-on effects of the Covid-19 pandemic but rail must not die quietly in a city whose rail heritage is an important part of its modern story.

The Rail and Maritime Union and a growing group of petitioners maintain its city council-owner must use innovative thinking to keep its stock rolling and to protect ratepayer’s not insignificant investment in the Taieri Gorge Railway.

They know tourism will be severely curtailed for at least as long as there is no vaccine for Covid-19, and that high operating costs and a $10million deferred maintenance bill will loom large if services continue without significant change.

They have pitched plans to move the business from the cruise ship market to the domestic market, and to sell or transfer the Wingatui to Middlemarch line to KiwiRail. They warn mothballing is as bad as closure, and risks the loss of skills and brand recognition before the tourism fightback.

It is hard to see light at the end of the tunnel for plans that require a significant spend towards an indefinite future, but there is significant merit to exploring the union’s most immediately achievable pitch.

The council was right to look into a feasibility study as to the merit of a six-week trial of morning, mid-afternoon and evening commuter train services between Dunedin and Mosgiel, one of a suite of options that included a Port Chalmers service and long-distance services to other centres on the main south line.

The trial could cost about $250,000. As pitched by the union, it could help the company’s council-owners decide whether the railway had a future, potentially saving jobs and keeping the railway usable until tourism returns.

The union hopes for success. It says ‘‘if Dunedinites know what is at stake, this will encourage use’’, but there must be early concern a plan to demonstrate a plan’s sustainability might rest heavily on sustained goodwill.

The proposed service would retrace that abandoned by New Zealand Rail in 1982. Then, patronage was on the slide and the government-owned operator said the city’s suburban services covered less than 30% of what it cost to run them.

Much has changed since then. Mosgiel is bigger than in the 1980s and, as commuter service proponent Cr Jim O’Malley notes, there is significantly more commuter vehicle traffic into the city.

He told councillors there are some 30,000 car movements every morning on the city’s Southern motorway and that 75% of the vehicles making the trip were destined for the city centre. Such numbers hint at a potential market.

But they also demonstrate some of what a commuter rail plan maybe up against. After all, Mosgiel has regular bus services into the city centre but not all seats on every bus are filled with people who choose to leave the car at home.

Frequency, travel from the station to work, convenience and cost will all play a part in attracting and retaining the customers such a service will need to ensure it develops further than the feasibility stage.

The numbers will have to stack up because ratepayers should expect the council to gather the intelligence it needs to lobby the Government to help pay for a service provided so lavishly in other centres.

This newspaper has, for many years, noted successive government’s continued focus on road and rail in parts north over the transport infrastructure needs of the South. Last week, it noted Dunedin’s Hillside Workshops will not get a slice of the Budget’s $1.2billion investment in rail.

At the same time, the Government has clearly signalled it sees a future for rail, just as it continues to say it wants to secure livelihoods as the country adjusts to a world without significant tourism.

A commuter trial must be seen through this lens. From the feasibility stage onwards — but only if the numbers do, indeed, stack up — it provides new opportunities to go to the Government with a plan that can work, and that is worth paying for.

Comments

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You have already stated why commuter rail isn't viable for Dunedin.
We don't have the population density. Busses that currently offer the service, don't get the patronage. Rate payers already subsidise public transport and we are being squeezed very hard right now.
The significant investment in the Taieri Gorge Railway should not be sold, placing it outside our control, nor should it be wasted. The same applies to the expertise that runs the operation however, one attribute that human capital has over hardware is flexibility.
Instead of wasting rate payer money on yet another example of idealism, how about running weekend excursions on the line, aimed at the Dunedin public and domestic tourism. Make an event out of it, with picnic days or other forms of entertainment, onboard or at the journey's return point or both. Keep the prices low and look to government support packages offered to sustain tourist operations during this downturn.
Let's be constructive in how we deal with this interruption instead of confrontational, pitting one group against the rest, with stealth and might being the deciding factor. That is not how to win friends and influence people.

I usually don't agree with Eyes Wide Open, but on this we totally agree. Unfortunately, the report supplied to the council by the chair and the CEO had no input from other staff. Unfortunately, staff losses at Dunedin Railways was really inevitable, but the proposals going forward see us losing the asset for good. We have so many opportunities here, and other than keeping enough locomotive engineers certified for the part of the journey that they don't own, I don't see commuter rail being that successful (without a government subsidy). Why don't they run picnic trains to Hindon? Mothball beyond that point till conditions improve. It may only be viable at the weekend, but it will keep things going at least.

Unfortunately many people see rail through rose tinted glasses. Any Dunedin rail service will cost in the order of hundreds of percent more than either buses or cars.

There is a similar fallacy that bus use is far more environmentally efficient than cars. In fact the average Dunedin bus user emits MORE carbon than a single person in a large Ford Ranger, because on average throughout the day, there are less than 6 passengers per bus (2.5 million annual passengers for 1400 bus trips a day on weekdays, and a bus uses over 6 times more fuel than a Ford Ranger). It's even worse when you consider most passengers don't go from the very first stop to the very last, or the empty runs to and from the depot at the start and end of the day.

A similar rose tint seems to be applied to traffic numbers. NZTA puts Southern motorway traffic numbers at 12,000-13,000 in one direction over a 24 hour period - not 30,000 in a morning as claimed , which should have raised red flags considering there are only 13,000 people in Mosgiel, and around half of them don't work in town.

The single person in a Ford Ranger is the problem.

Formerly Joan Bakewell, the thinking man's single person.

Give this person a 10% finders fee for the truth behind this so called need to trial and save the rest.

The plain and truthful facts of the matter are that, with our population density, diversity, geography and city plan; our desiel powered public transport is a public service only, and it exceeds the carbon footprint of the average car commuter by a large margin and as is often stated by the users, the service sucks, even more so in the winter.

The numbers will never add up. The union must know this which is why they are not trying to buy it. It will be a bottomless money pit for ratepayers already burdened with huge council owned companies debt. It is a liability. Let's also not forget it is not the DCC that is responsible for public transport.
Environmentally it doesn't stack up either. While there is great advantages of moving freight by rail, there are much smaller gains to be had even with more modern electric passenger train services. Which leads to final problem of air pollution, diesel fumes are toxic and regular exposure can lead to premature death. Riding a railway carriage behind a diesel locomotive exposes passengers up to 9 times the toxic fumes when compared to standing next to a busy city carriageway!
The fact is we need our councils to concentrate on the jobs they are supposed to be doing. Not running multi million dollar companies and speculating in investment portfolios.t

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