Sunday, June 13, 2010

Steam South?

Throughtful Jigging between (gasp) pot shotting rabbits in Central Otago, NZ c1900 Alexander Turnbull Library (No Copyright Restrictions )

Here is my synopsis for recreating passenger rail between Christchurch and Dunedin!

Anyone who knows anything about rail knows its is hugely expensive and in the current climate [or to be precise climate change and peak oil stage] we do not have the numbers to sustain a regular service. I suggest just one train a week each way! But this a train service so very strategically planned it might have the potential to meet most or all of its immediate costs. The cost-benefit ratio to the communities it serves and the accommmodation, hospitality and tourism sectors it fosters could  be significant, way beyond just the patronage itself, making it a win win win win situation. In this scenario one train a week is enough to establish an world class iconic image (adding immensely to existing rail based tourism) and establish a further layer - or repeat visit factor for tourism in  NZ -  the Te Wai Pounamu  east coast  experience. At the same time (unlike current rail) the locals and traditional travellers such as students get a more modest opportunity to use rail.

In this scenario I see the City councils and District councils of Christchurch, Ashburton, Timaru, Waitaki (Oamaru) and Dunedin form a joint company (I have called it Steam South - I like simple package names!). The holding company would be as legally required separate from direct local governance. Shares could be held pro-rata with population except Christchurch would be held to a max of 50% of shareholding so it does not have absolute power. Funding equivalent of $2-5 per ratepayer from each of the East Coast councils would raise several million, Government might offer some funds or a loan for more. (politically, I think most south islanders would find a $5 gamble on restarting rail fairly attractive!). Steam South subsequently calls for tenders for private company to supply a steam pulled rail service Christchurch to Dunedin and return. The successful tendering company might be established local outfits like Ian Welch's Mainline Steam, the Taieri Gorge Railway [owned by Dunedin City Council]  or could be an outfit from anywhere - India for example -with a background in steam locomotive operations. 

The core minimum train suggested in this scenario, pulled by a steam engine, would have a standard consist of two heritage carriages (one with birdcage outside observation deck), two ultra modern first class level carriages, and two conventional carriages for "backpackers". The first four carriages are marketed to tourists - from overseas and New Zealand to have "the heritage experience" [with added elements] or luxury travel, honeymoon or high level comfort etc and are priced accordingly (circa $60-80?) ; the last two carriages are strictly economy and aimed at the conventional travel market including mum and dad and the kids on their first rail trip kiwi, budget travellers, overseas backpackers and students from universities in both Dunedin and Christchurch and from tertiary institutes along the whole journey path. They would be priced accordingly ($40-55). Of course there might also be the old fashion guards van for dogs, and bikes heading to The Rail Trail  or new planned trails south of Oamaru etc  Additional carriages, in any category, might be added in response to long term demand or just for special occasions, such as extra conventional carriages  for an International Rugby Test Match or Crusader/Highlander game in Dunedin.  Special return rates for weekend festivals in any of the five centres could be a major marketing ploy beneficial to both the rail system and the cities and town involved (I for one one am keen to attend the Dunedin Chocolate Festival in July and see Jaffas rolled down Baldwin Street, the world's steepest street  - thinking mainly of John Banks and Rodney Hide here!).

The norms of modern transport discounting (cheaper booked non-refundable well in advance etc) might also apply for the backpacker style conventional carriages. While it is expected the contractor to supply the trains will have a stable of several steam locomotives, in the event none was supplied, and it was necessary in an emergency to use diesel, all "heritage" and full luxury fares would refund back to the standard fare level, possibly with a 10% discount for future heritage and luxury trips.

In this synopsis Steam South negotiates with KiwiRail to allow operation of a train departing Christchurch  9am Friday morning for Dunedin. A train departs Dunedin Monday morning 9am for Christchurch. Obviously all the necessary bits and pieces are done before hand  - checking platform length, ensuring new coal [or oil] and water supply systems are in place, adding computer control links directly to the steam  locomotive if necessary, and doubtless a 1000 other tasks.  Some sort of KiwiRail, Steam South, and operating contractor division of tasks, infrastructure expenditure split would be needed here.  In my vision the train stops only at the five main centres and five intermediate points (Rakaia, Temuka, Palmerston etc) between them. It is also suggested that Oamaru (which still has a magnificent old classic wooden NZ station) and once was the "Taumarunui" major cuppa tea stopping place of the South Island  be revived as an en route tearooms - partly to allow the train to have water added, but also to foster the classic rail experience, for everyone.

After the steam train has arrived at Dunedin each Friday night, the locomotive could also be used to do the Taieri Gorge trips during the day Saturday and Sunday. This concentates more steam at the weekend - say for someone who has flown down for a Saturday rugby match in Dunedin, or car-driving NZ and overseas travellers not able to use steam service between Christchurch and Dunedin.

This service, once a week each direction, is a fairly minimal level of service (especially coming from a blogger much given to promoting frequency as a key public transport factor!!) but I think it consolidates all enthusiasm for rail travel at a key point in the week. For overseas  and out of town tourists it virtually guarantees they must overnight in Christchurch or Dunedin; for residents of Christchurch or Dunedin (etc) it offers a long weekend or five day midweek break, book-ended by rail, or with a mix of rail one way, bus the other. This can work both ways - rail to Southwards for Fri-Mon away; rail northwards for Mon-Fri away. 

If it really worked a reverse flow train could be operated, but I suspect one way flow done well offers better prospect of not financially bleeding to death, as so many other rail services! For the festival market, in all centres, it offers a way of added promotion and mass transit to and from the festival.

From the point of view of tourist industries in all the five main centres served, it allows a hugely useful structural starting point (Oamaru - the Heritage experience Steam from Chch Fri morn -have three wonderful nights doing x,y,z in historic. etc, or Oamaru's emerging Steam Punk Festival, or dozens of variations of similar themes, including those operating in or out of Ashburton, Timaru etc - do the plains alps bus experience and join the train midday at Timaru). Many bus companies or hospitality providers in smaller centres could tie into rail ("We can meet the the train at Palmerston etc....).  It allows Taieri Gorge Railway to offer and promote - almost to guarantee  - steam locomotion will operate every weekend.  In turn Steam South as a funding agency by offering a contracted payment tenders a minimum base income for the operating company to build upon - and if it dies the costs are evenly spread.  And for all us locals, for an extra $10 more than a bus service, we get to travel up and down the key population spine of Te Wai Pounamu by rail, if we plan our travels around Friday or Monday.

I think this has huge local, national and international tourist potential for areas mostly off the "lakes and mountains" prime tourist route. One train each week,  each way - yet carrying one hell of a head of steam!


  1. Hello it is Simon Atkinson of Christchurch.
    Great idea. We NEED passenger trains between Christchurch and Dunedin again. It was very sad they got rid of the Southerner in 2002.
    Great idea you people have.
    I have been on the train in early 1997 and loved it very much. Christchurch to Mosgiel. Dunedin to Oamaru. Oamaru to Timaru. Timaru to Christchurch. A great way to get around by train.

  2. Yes to a steam train - it would be just what my Dad needs to get him back to NZ!!!