Middlemarch train decision “narrow-minded”

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Explaining "the game" . . . Dunedin Railways chair man Kevin Winders (right) and chief executive Craig Osborne after speaking at the Strath Taieri Community Board meeting last week. PHOTO: SHAWN MCAVINUE

Dunedin Railways is “narrow-minded” for letting money dictate its decision to stop a train service to Middlemarch, Strath Taieri Community Board chairman Barry Williams says.

But Dunedin Railways chairman Kevin Winders says the railway operator is a commercial business and “that’s the way the game works”.

Mr Winders and Dunedin Railways chief executive Craig Osborne spoke at a board meeting last week about a proposal to stop the service between Dunedin and Middlemarch.

Mr Williams said it was it was “disgraceful” Dunedin Railways had decided to consult the community only after receiving advice from the Dunedin City Council.

Earlier in the meeting, Mr Winders said the Middlemarch service accounted for 2% of its business.

The annual cost, including maintenance of 18km of track between Pukerangi and Middlemarch was $140,000.

“It’s used for 19 trips and generates $20,000 [in revenue].” he said.

“You look at that and ask: ‘Why are we doing it?'”

A more “significant part of the business” was taking cruise ship passengers on a train trip from Port Chalmers to Pukerangi.

Mr Williams said the Middlemarch community had given “a lot of money” to support the train service to Middlemarch – long before cruise ships began sailing to Dunedin.

“Once the tourists came, you’ve forgot all about the locals and their original support.”

Dunedin Railways was “narrow-minded” for stopping the service to save $120,000 a year.

“If everything needs to make money we wouldn’t have a library, a museum, a swimming pool or an art gallery, so bear in mind you’re partly owned by the council.”

Mr Winders said Dunedin Railways was a commercial company, of which the council owned more than 70%.

Dunedin Railways had issues around sustainable profit and it was a high-cost business.

As many of the older locomotives and carriages required a significant amount of maintenance, compliance costs, such as health and safety, were rising.

Dunedin Railways was investigating options to turn the business around.

Another challenge was the decline in the number of tourists visiting the country, he said.

“We’ve had a slower start to the tourism season this year and experienced lower numbers on the trains.”

The two “major” services offered by Dunedin Railways were the Taieri Gorge Railway trip between Dunedin and Pukerangi and taking cruise ship passengers on a trip from Port Chalmers to Pukerangi. The second was a “significant part of the business”.

The service to Middlemarch was an “oddball offering”.

“We have got to look at what we can stop to improve the bottom line.”

Mr Osborne said tourists visiting Dunedin were “time poor” and did not have the extra two hours to travel by train beyond Pukerangi.

Another reason for visitors not taking the trip was a belief the scenery on the 18km ride from Pukerangi to Middlemarch was similar to the scenery seen on an earlier section of the track, he said.

“We understand it’s different but they see it as the same.”

As part of the consultation, the board and Dunedin Railways would hold a public meeting in Middlemarch later next month, at a time to be announced, he said.

Mr Williams said Dunedin Railways “half-pie ruined” the Middlemarch Singles Ball last year by making patrons return to the city on buses after having transported them to Middlemarch by train.

Mr Osborne said it was not safe to transport intoxicated patrons on a train from a function such as the Middlemarch Ball.

At a past ball, patrons had climbed on to the roof of the train, he said.

Mr Williams took issue with that reasoning, saying Dunedin Railways did a return trip from Dunedin to Oamaru for patrons wanting to see a Ranfurly Shield match in the town and some of the passengers on the return leg had been in a similar “condition” to ball patrons.

Mr Osborne said such returns trips, such as the ball and rugby, would not be held in the future.

Before leaving the meeting, Mr Winders said Dunedin Railways’ mandate was to operate as a commercial company.

“If the DCC want to change our statement of corporate intent that’s our shareholders’ prerogative . . . That’s the way the game works.”