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Railways in New Zealand have always been a political football, the Otago Central Railway being no exception. Right from the beginning it was fraught with different towns and councils wanting the route to travel through their district and up to five routes were considered for tapping inland Otago before the railway via the Taieri Gorge was decided on.
Then, once the line was decided on, due to money issues, depressions, labour issues and changes of government it took from 1879 to 1921 to get to its final destination at Cromwell.
Railways were developed to open areas up and once opened they brought both social and economic benefit to the area. The cost of the railway was borne by the Government and as part of the big picture of economic development.
Closure of the operation of the train under Dunedin Railways was recommended to Dunedin City Holdings, but luckily the councillors did not like that option and decided on mothballing the operation to
give the council time to decide on the best option for the railway and Dunedin Railways.
Since then various options have been put forward, for example truncating the railway, making it into a cycleway and having portions separated to allow other organisations to operate trains. All have their supporters but at the end of the day we can’t forget that in the 1990s the Dunedin public supported the retention of the full length of the railway to Middlemarch and raised $1.2million to ensure its future.
It would be short-sighted not to retain the railway for its full length to Middlemarch, as the railway connects Dunedin to the Strath Taieri, the Otago Central Rail trail and Queenstown.
Yes, the focus of Dunedin Railways leading up to Covid was fully concentrated on cruise ships. Rightly or wrongly, that was where the money was but we now have a chance to change that focus of getting people to the Strath Taieri for its economic benefit, tapping the Queenstown market and investing in tourism away from the reliance on cruise ships, which will come back one day. That focus now needs to be domestic, free independent overseas travellers and any future cruise ships will be the cream on the cake.
The council will need to put some money into whatever option is taken. There is some thought that the cost of truncating the rail corridor or closing the line and making it a rail trail would cost more than investing in a upgrade of the line. You also have a large part of a rail trail in an isolated gorge with no cellphone coverage and no servicing town for accommodation and food between Middlemarch and Mosgiel, a distance of about 50km, so retention of the full line to Middlemarch is the best answer.
Middlemarch needs a daily train so local people and businesses can invest in infrastructure and tourism and that can only happen if they have a regular rail service that brings large numbers to the area. Dunedin also still needs to tap into the Queenstown market and the Otago Central Rail Trail where large numbers of domestic tourists travel to and from. A coach-rail connection would benefit the Strath Taieri and Dunedin, bringing more people to our city and bringing in more tourism dollars.
Dunedin tourism has been hit hard with Covid but it’s a short-term glitch and the Dunedin City Council should not allow one of Dunedin’s tourism treasures being closed or truncated. The Dunedin City Council needs to secure the future of Dunedin Railways and the Taieri Gorge Railway for Dunedin and see what previous councillors saw when they went into partnership with the Otago Excursion Train Trust in saving the line for its economic benefit, and cultural, historic and scenic value.
- Grant Craig is president of the Federation of Rail Organisations of New Zealand and former Dunedin Railways operations manager.