Taieri Gorge Railway vs Otago Central Rail Trail Saga [3]

So then, we come to the question of the future of the Taieri Gorge Railway in its current form, the subject of this third article in TSBNZ’s current series of articles about the controversy that is currently being highlighted over the future of the present railway corridor. There are three possible options for the future of the Taieri Gorge Railway.

The first of those is to keep DRL as the operator of the railway. Current indications are that this would only run to Pukerangi, with the remainder to Middlemarch closed. This still leaves questions about the 19 km from Pukerangi to Middlemarch. It is unlikely any heritage railway would be able to maintain the full section between these locations for conventional trains. The operation is more suited to something less traditional like rail carts or rail bikes. One option which could be readily implemented is to put a cycle track in alongside the railway from Middlemarch to Pukerangi as the country is open and well suited to it. A heritage train operation based at Middlemarch may be able to operate on a short part of the closed section.

Second possibility is to run the Taieri Gorge Railway as a heritage line. This is the current focus of OETT who have brought in GVR alongside them, for the operational experience. Statements made by OETT to date suggest the TGR should have every train running through to Middlemarch. A heritage railway implies a downgrade in train operations as no heritage railway in ANZ operates 7 days per week. Only two tourist railways, Driving Creek at Coromandel and Shantytown at Greymouth, operate daily year-round services in Aotearoa New Zealand. OETT have suggested DCC should pay a subsidy of $1 million per year which essentially is to enable the backlog of deferred maintenance to be caught up. OETT want to keep all the heritage carriages (the old wooden ones) in the train. So on current analysis, this option would not provide much or anything for cruise ship tourists unless their ship happened to come in on one of the days it was running. This last option is pretty crucial for getting the economic support from DCC. The best information available to this site at the time of writing is found in this ODT article from 2021. OETT has done more work since, but has not yet released any further detail publicly.

Third option is closing down the TGR altogether and converting it to a full extension of the Otago Central Rail Trail coming out at North Taieri. From there, a conventional trail alongside some of the local roads could connect at Wingatui to any existing trail that might run south of Dunedin. The Dunedin Tunnel Trails Trust is attempting to create a cycle trail through the old railway tunnels from Caversham to Wingatui. This would provide cycle tourism fully south of Dunedin into Central Otago.

So that is summary is the three possibilities. The rest of this article will be given over to a more in-depth discussion of them and the factors influencing them. Should the TGR continue to operate as a railway line with its current type of passenger services and rolling stock; should it be downgraded to a different type of rolling stock or voluntary heritage operation to significantly lower its operational costs and potential losses; or should the railway tracks be torn up so that the existing Otago Central Rail Trail can be extended closer to Dunedin than its current terminus at Middlemarch? The impetus for writing this series of articles came from a summary presented in the Otago Daily Times of 18 November 2023, entitled “Crossing the tracks“. There are in fact many articles in the ODT over recent years covering the railway but not all of them have been put onto Facebook. This one attracted about 300 comments so provoked a lot of discussion of varying levels of quality. Regardless of the confrontational and often denigratory attitudes of a group of rail supporters towards conversion of the Taieri Gorge railway to rail trail, it is something that authorities must consider because of the problems that the railway has faced in recent years. Some in depth analysis is warranted here.

The first thing is to take a look at the nature of the Taieri Gorge Railway and how it is geographically divisible. The railway begins at North Taieri, 3.5 km from Wingatui. The first block of line from this point begins to climb into the western foothills of the Silver Peaks, entering the Mullocky Gully at Salsibury (10.41 km) and from there it soon enters the Taieri Gorge at 14 km. It follows the true left bank of the Taieri River for the next 12 km, until it crosses to the true right bank just before reaching Hindon (26.8 km). The gorge is finally exited at 42.5 km, a little short of Pukerangi (44.97 km), although it takes another 7 km to Matarae before finally escaping from the Taieri Valley. The Strath Taeiri plains then make up the landscape for the final 12 km run into Middlemarch station (63.81 km). The line is best divided into three sections: North Taieri to Hindon, Hindon to Pukerangi, and Pukerangi to Middlemarch, when considering how it might operate in future. The main challenge for rail trail operation would be the long length of the Gorge section with limited road access. There are only a few short equivalents to this anywhere further west, for example from Hyde to Tiroiti in the Taieri River Valley (8 km); Auripo to Lauder in the Poolburn Gorge (7 km); and Chatto Creek to Olrig in the Chatto Creek / Manuherikia Valley (8 km). The parts of the Taieri Gorge which lack road access are from Taioma to Mt Allan (10 km); Mt Allan to Hindon (6 km); Hindon to Pukerangi (19 km), with a corresponding lack of habitation. Pukerangi to Matarae (7 km) also has limited proximity to roads but is somewhat more accessible than the deeply incised Gorge sections. The standard of the unsealed Pukerangi Road was improved some years ago to give better access for the tour coaches which meet the Taieri Gorge Limited trains there. TSBNZ believes there is little prospect of public roads being built in the Taieri Gorge section of the rail corridor and the particularly long length of the Hindon to Pukerangi section in particular is very challenging. However, the surrounding country is all in farmland or forestry, and over time private road access could be formed to suitable points along the rail corridor without excessive difficulty. Any rail trail use of this area would succeed or fail on the basis of adjoining landowners’ willingness to provide for accommodation or other facility development along their boundaries to allow for service access for trail users.

The history of the rail corridor and its contribution to economic development has to be looked at in its entirety as well. The railway historically contributed a great deal to developing the Otago Central region, until better road transport changed a lot of the social landscape, mainly from the mid 1940s. This enabled people and major machinery to move more readily by road and at that point, the decline of the smaller rural towns began to set in as people could live further away from their workplace and as it became more viable to centralise service facilities in a smaller number of larger townships. The loss of rail freight roughly paralleled this trend, and so, many far-flung stations closed down and staff were relocated out of these districts, although the advance of this was somewhat slower in the Otago Central than other regions, because it took until the 1960s for SH85, the well-known “Pigroot” highway from Palmerston to Ranfurly and Alexandra which serves the upper half of the line, to be upgraded, and SH87, the Mosgiel-Middlemarch-Kyeburn highway that serves the lower half of the line, took longer still. At that point, the railway’s role in economic development was sealed. The advent of the rail trail, which occurred the line had been closed down, created a unique tourism focus by giving Central Otago something that other regions didn’t have – and has brought about a stream of steady growth and development in those small communities that has not been evident for decades. If the railway had been retained purely for passenger service and/or the occasional tourist special, it would not have brought about the same economic benefits. Road or trail based tourism is of a different character than rail tourism, because the latter as with any form of mass transport is not geared to making random spontaneous stops all along the corridor and the establishment of facilities for the same. The roading system that enabled people to move away from small towns for economic reasons and brought about the decline of the railways as a general carrier, traded one type of economy – industrial or pastoral-based – for another that is tourism based. If a rail trail is developed along any part of the Taieri Gorge Railway corridor, it is sure to renew economic development at locations all along its length in a way that the present railway cannot achieve. There are at present only limited locations where this would naturally occur. Obvious potential examples are at Salisbury, Parera, Mt Allan, Hindon, The Reefs, Pukerangi, Matarae, and Sutton. Although road access in the area is somewhat limited, it could be improved over time if adjoining landowners become interested in exploiting the trail’s tourism potential. This is less likely to be the case from Salisbury to Little Mt Allan, where most of the adjoining land is now commercially forested, and more likely to be seen west of Little Mt Allan where the corridor retains its traditional pastoral outlook. There are also some areas of significant historical ruins around the vicinity of Quartz Reef Siding and The Reefs which are on private land and are not accessible to TGR passengers. These would have the potential to become another tourism attraction in time in the same way as some others have been developed along the trail since its inception.

At the time of writing this, TSBNZ expects that the Taieri Gorge Railway will be kept operational as far as Pukerangi. Perhaps the section from Pukerangi to Middlemarch will be kept for rail bikes or rail carts. Middlemarch owes all of its recent development to the rail trail and accordingly, none to the railway, and it would be difficult for the railway to offer trail users the same type of tourist experience they get elsewhere in Central Otago. Developing a trail alongside the tracks all the way from Middlemarch to Pukerangi would have definite benefits without impeding the use of the line by another form of rail vehicle, but it is very unlikely regular trains could continue to use the section as the financials are too poor. Therefore keeping the tracks in place on this section is more of a symbolic victory – retaining the whole line that the OETT and Dunedin City Council saved from the scrappers in 1990 – than a meaningful economic one. A heritage train operation based in Middlemarch would probably be able to run satisfactorily as far as Sutton, 6 km away, and could possibly provide for steam operation when the fire risk is lower in the arid landscape. Operating the Taieri Gorge Railway to Pukerangi would remain under DRL control, with 100% ownership by DCHL, as is the case now. Incidental funding could be available from time to time for any heritage operation on the Pukerangi – Middlemarch section, but would be contestable, just as all community funding from local bodies is. There would not be any guarantee of ongoing subsidies as sought under OETT’s proposals.

It is impossible to ignore the financial benefits of the Otago Central Rail Trail on regions outside Dunedin City, which would otherwise have received almost no income from a business activity wholly focused on net benefit to DCC and its political advantage. The operation of the Taieri Gorge Railway line to date has been in virtual isolation from the rail trail itself; cyclists can meet the train at Pukerangi in either direction, but no attempt has been made at any time since the trail opened to extend it further east from Middlemarch, even to put it through from Middlemarch to Pukerangi. People have naturally asked why more trains don’t go to Middlemarch and why it takes two hours longer for a return train trip trip from Dunedin. The unavoidable realities are that the railway is still the worn out branch line track with a maximum speed of just 50 km/h in the most favourable country (and a lot less in most parts, especially through the ten tunnels and across the eighteen major bridges) that it was at the end of its NZR days thirty-three years ago. As noted elsewhere, all the major structures were slapped with 15 km/h speed restrictions in the last years of the Otago Central Branch to avoid the need for expensive maintenance. Nothing of major consequence has been done to them since, and there is no incentive for Dunedin Railways to increase the speeds and make Middlemarch a more reachable destination in the future. This is because the main benefit of having more trains going to Middlemarch would be more tourists using it to get onto or off the rail trail, and those people would spend more money on the rail trail experience, outside the city limits, and less in Dunedin itself. The train going just to Pukerangi in the middle of nowhere and separated from the Middlemarch trailhead by an unsealed steep road is more favourable for Dunedin-based tourists taking a return excursion, including those who come in on cruise ships, which in recent years has been the source of the bulk of the railway’s passengers. For all trains to be run to Middlemarch, enough money would have to be poured into maintenance to significantly increase line speeds, which means addressing upgrades to major structures. This appears to be an unlikely scenario at the present time.

If DCC allows the Taieri Gorge Railway to be converted to a full heritage operation without any guarantee of operating for the benefit of cruise ship passengers, it then follows that DCC in order to attract the cruise traffic is far more motivated to subsidise other business activities which can guarantee the net financial benefit that has previously accrued to the community from the operation of Dunedin Railways’ trains into the Taieri Gorge. This could potentially take the form of passenger services operating on the main line north of Dunedin, which offers views similar to the scenic qualities of the TGR but does not carry with it the weight of the deferred maintenance burden accumulated over 30 years. A train service as far as Waikouaiti, the northernmost extent of Dunedin these days, could achieve the same outcome as the old Taieri Gorge trains, with few disadvantages. The population of this coastal township would be bound to welcome a trainload of passengers to a local market with open arms, and the improvised market that was set up in Pukerangi to meet the TGR trains could easily be relocated to Waikouaiti with the added benefit of being able to cater for passing traffic on the major State Highway 1. OK so maybe this represents some utopian situation, rather less than ideal reality. Small towns often don’t cope well with large influxes of tourists, especially on a basis as regular or often as the peak cruise season. However, the Main South Line through Waikouaiti does pass right by an old racecourse which was recently vacated and is therefore not used for race meetings any more, so there is a land area available for additional activities related to tourist visitors. The facilities at Waikouaiti are much better than Pukerangi, where the tourist version of the Taieri Gorge services usually finish up, although too far south for access to the Moeraki Boulders, the northern Dunedin coast’s best known tourist attraction. This is the option that DCC could choose to finance, whilst withdrawing financial support from the Taieri Gorge Railway and allowing it to be converted to a cycle trail. If the heritage railway option proceeded for Dunedin to Middlemarch, it would have to do so without the benefit of DCC subsidy. In other words, it could not expect to proceed at all. At best, heritage could expect to be confined to a shorter section of track near Middlemarch.

Debate on all of these proposals has been raging for the past three years. Particularly prominent in the debate have been OETT leaders and Dunedin politicians. Kate Wilson, Otago Regional councilor and chairwoman of the Otago Central Rail Trail Trust, and Andrew Simms, Chairman of the Mosgiel-Taieri Community Board, are notable supporters for extending the rail trail. An example of Wilson’s viewpoint is contained in this subscriber-only article in the ODT of 6 February 2023, where she appeared to suggest an alternative cycleway access to Hindon, but did not confirm how it would be provided. Wilson has stated she also supports regular trains to Middlemarch, perhaps leaving the door open for alternative trail access other than via the Taieri Gorge rail corridor. The Rail Trail Trust has received funding to look at two options for extending the OCRT further east from Middlemarch, only one of which is identified as utilising rail corridor. Simms has been more direct, openly campaigning for the Taieri Gorge line to be fully converted to trail and Dunedin Railways to operate only on Kiwirail tracks. He wrote as such in this ODT article on 6 March 2023. Simms, it turns out, is also a member of the Rail Trail Trust. OETT’s Murray Schofield has taken a sort of fence sitting position, saying only that “We would like to see the cycle people get what they want and for us to get what we want”. It’s hard to work out exactly what that means if the preferred cycleway option is to replace the railway line from Middlemarch all the way to North Taieri. A compromise seems inevitable, but would still make it impossible for both sides to “get what they want”. Numerous letters have been written to the Otago Daily Times by concerned readers opposing the removal of the Taieri Gorge tracks, although again there is considerable unwarranted denigration of cycleways in general, the letters often substiting emotive language for factual understanding of the issues raised. The matter is expected to be decided when Dunedin City Council releases its annual plan for consultation in January 2024, and this site will continue to report as best it can and particularly, as objectively as it can.