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An Anniversary, A Reflection, A Call To Action On Long Distance Rail Passenger Trains

Posted on February 10, 2012 at 12:21 AM
Ten years ago today, on the 10th February 2002, New Zealand’s longest running long distance passenger train route (operating since the 1870’s in fact), between Invercargill and Christchurch, closed for service. The Southerner  train did its last respective daily run each way between the two cities on that day. It closed as a mere shadow of what it was in its glory days as a new named train service introduced in December 1970.
In late 2000 all of the Tranz Scenic services were all offered for sale by Tranz Rail as it struggled to find the capital to sustain anything beyond a basic rail and road freight network. None of the bidders for the Tranz Scenic business were interested in the Southerner service as it was deemed “commercially unviable”. This led to the decision by Tranz Rail to close “non-commercial” services when they were not picked up in the sale to West Coast Railways of Australia. Of all the closures, the Southerner was by far the most contentious.
For many observers of the rail scene in New Zealand the closure of the Southerner was a dire, if not unbelievable, situation. Only a few short months earlier on 7th October 2001, the Geyserland Express (Auckland to Rotorua return), the Kaimai Express (Auckland to Tauranga return), the Waikato Connection (Hamilton to Auckland return) and the Bay Express (Wellington to Napier return) all closed for service. These closures effectively sealed the fate of long distant intercity rail in this country as the network critical mass was lost. Only the Overlander, Northerner, Tranz Alpine and Tranz Coastal (now Coastal Pacific) long distant services where left running after those closures. The last overnight passenger intercity train the Northerner, between Auckland and Wellington return, closed three years later on 12th November 2004. The Capital Connection service, also still running, was always considered more of a commuter train, albeit part of the Tranz Scenic business portfolio, being centred on people that work in Wellington commuting from Palmerston North and points south of that city. However it too is now at risk due to the extension of regular electric commuter services (the Tranz Metro services) to Wakanae in the Wellington region and may yet close too.
The demise of the Silver Fern serviced Waikato/Bay of Plenty routes could have been easily forecast as they had been struggling under Tranz Rail management for some years. But the Southerner, and to a lesser extent the Bay Express, was an entirely different story. This was a service that tied a national network of long distance passenger trains together. It was now no longer possible to go from Auckland to Dunedin and Invercargill by train. There was some initial protest at the proposed closure with some of the mayors of the towns along the route the Southerner passed through calling for the train to keep running but general local and central political apathy reigned. No one wanted to pay. Most notably it was only Tim Shadbolt, Mayor of Invercargill that really tried in any serious way to save the train. He organised local train excursions to Bluff and other towns in Southland, appeared on national network television and ran campaigns in other local and national media to try and galvanise support.  The Green Party under the guidance of the late Rod Donald also leant its weight behind the save the Southerner campaign. However, with the other regions effectively washing their hands of the service, Tim’s (and his councils) and the Greens valiant efforts were up an uphill battle and eventually all to be in vain.
As a last ditch effort, the central Government (and local Government) were approached by Tranz Rail in 2001 for financial support for the Southerner. In September 2001 it was thrown a brief lifeline by the Government whilst a study into its viability was to be undertaken. This extended the services life from October 2001 (when the other services closed) to February 2002 with Government funding assistance. The Ministry of Economic Development commissioned the study on the Southerner train route to see if any economic support for the service could be justified. It released its report in December 2001 concluding that any sort of central Government subsidy couldn’t be justified as the benefits to the wider community were not large enough. And so the train’s fate was sealed and it closed on Sunday 10th February 2002. Indeed a dark day in New Zealand rail passenger history.
A few short years later in 2006 the Overlander too got caught up in the battle over track access costs charged to Toll NZ from Ontrack and the Government of the day said it could not subsidise a rail passenger service between Auckland and Wellington and it too nearly closed. It was saved by the good will of Toll NZ at the last minute after a human outcry that enough was enough. New Zealanders did not want to see any more passenger train routes close down.
Under Toll NZ stewardship the Overlander quickly rebounded and the Tranz Alpine and Tranz Coastal continued their steady growth since the 1990’s under various ownership structures. All these trains were now firmly focused on the tourist market and almost discouraged, through fares structures, normal Intercity Rail travel that would compete with buses and air. Toll NZ introduced several innovations to the Overlander like Steam Engine Saturdays (later Sundays) to build the brand and re-launched catering with Wishbone meals on the Overlander including on board route booklets and eventually the Tranz Scenic travel magazine. It also repainted and refurbished the train with Overlander branding on the carriages.
After Kiwi Rail took over new carriages were approved and built for use on the South Island services only with the Tranz Coastal being rebranded to the Coastal Pacific and the first to receive new carriages in November 2011. The Tranz Alpine is set to receive new carriages later in 2012. However the Overlander missed out on any new investment.
But another cruel twist of fate was to deal a blow to the two remaining South Island passenger trains. The Christchurch Earthquake on 22nd February 2011 has had a major effect on the services operating out of Christchurch. Patronage collasped due the tourism market falling away. So much so that the Tranz Coastal was suspended from February 2011 through to August 2011. It was re-launched as the Coastal Pacific in September 2011 in time for the Rugby World cup of 2011. However, from their peak patronage around 2009/2010 all services including the Overlander now seems to be struggling more and more.
From the outside looking in, Kiwi Rail seems to be less and less interested in innovation in the Rail passenger market. Perhaps it is all too hard for them. They do after all have a lot of their plate in turning around the rail freight business into a commercially sustainable viable business. However there have been some attempts at rebranding with a move away from the Tranz Scenic brand to the Kiwi Rail Passenger brand, evident on the new carriages that have been released into service. Coupled with this has been the electronic advertising posters aimed at arrival passengers at Auckland International Airport of “New Zealand by Rail - Simply Stunning”. It must be given credit where it is due. This is a fantastic attempt to capture the attention of  inbound tourists to the country and is a smart approach in promotion. The new Tranz Scenic website (www.tranzscenic.co.nz) is also a credit to the organisation. It is new, easy to use (although not so good on a iPad as is often the cases in some of the more visually appealing websites available) clear, crisp and visually appealing.
However a huge outdoor poster just down from Sky City in Auckland on the Overlander does Tranz Scenic no favours at all. The picture is a particularly grubby looking Overlander that was obviously an old photo from the pre Toll refurbishment days where the Overlander train was in badly in need of a refurbishment and paint job. Anyone heard of photo shop? Oh yes they photo shopped the locomotive on the front with Kiwi Rail branding, and the volcanic mountain behind topped with snow but forgot the carriages. The train looks very uninviting and a positive put off and in huge poster profile to all waiting on buses and walking past. Sadly, not a good look for Tranz Scenic.
Please can someone at Kiwi Rail pay more attention to the detail. This seems to be Kiwi Rail’s and Tranz Scenic’s problem. They don’t pay enough attention to detail. In Aviation it is a no brainer to make things look smart so people fly with your airline so why does Rail get something so simple so badly wrong? Another example is that Kiwi Rail regularly seems to excel at is putting the most grubby, oldest paint job locomotives, they can find at the head of their Tranz Scenic passenger trains. Where is the pride in the business and service? This doesn’t happen with Amtrak, Countrylink, Great Southern Railway or Queensland Rail?  Why should it happen with a service almost solely aimed at the tourist market and where presentation is more important than ever? Even today it is just as bad as it ever was. The battle appears to be being lost at present and Kiwi Rails on-going lack of flair in the market place is doing it no favours. It ditched Steam Engine Sundays – a cost saving measure? For the last two years it has not run the Overlander over its busiest two to three weeks of the year, due to Block of Lines on both the Auckland and Wellington suburban networks over the Christmas / New Year period. We all understand the upgrades in Auckland and Wellington but why couldn’t it do its core runs – say Hamilton to Palmerston North? Too much effort? When will it end? One could be forgiven for thinking that they have given up on the Overlander and that they simply don’t care anymore. At a time when it should be booming, due to South Island trains suffering, it is anaemic. Neither has it been allocated any new carriages. It seems rather odd that the Government invests hundreds of millions in the loss making freight business to turn it around but nothing much into the Overlander which probably on one return journey doesn’t lose as much as one freight train traveling from Auckland to Christchurch when capital costs are factored in.
The lack of innovation is evident in other areas too. The earthquake calamity could have presented an opportunity, with less demand in Christchurch, to try out some of its rolling stock elsewhere in New Zealand. Perhaps on a service between Auckland and Tauranga or Christchurch and Dunedin over the summer months? One suspects that they still have surplus staff displaced by the huge fall in passenger numbers and that these staff could have run services elsewhere at relatively low incremental costs but are they leveraging of this? It appears not. They have spent the capital but are they getting the returns?  It appears not. Quite simply Kiwi Rail seems to be not that interested in long distance Rail Passenger anymore and it shows. Having largely divested themselves of Metro Rail “ownership” to both Auckland and Wellington regions – although they still ”run” Tranz Metro in Wellington by contract – it is probably only a matter of time before they are out of the Rail passenger market altogether. Perhaps it is time for them to exit Tranz Scenic also and get someone interested to bid on a franchise to run the services (maybe they could stay as a silent investment partner to avoid contentious track access issues) so as to build some momentum again. And why shouldn’t the regions support regional intercity passenger rail through rates if required?  A passionate entrepreneurial business leader could build momentum where Kiwi Rail seem unable to and build a business case with the regions for some limited financial support. After all Rail passenger services in other parts of the world bring a sense of national if not local pride. Look to Australia, Britain and the USA to see tangible evidence of this. And after all Auckland and Wellington regions have done it for urban rail. That is not to say the economics can't be improved concurrently also.
Sure Kiwi Rail has invested in new carriages for the South Island trains but the Tranz Alpine has been a money spinner for years and the recent earthquakes have now placed this train in a substantially poorer position relative to where it was. So even the jewel in the Crown is now struggling and urgent action is required to recover the situation.
The longer this situation goes on the greater the fear is that the few remaining long distance trains in New Zealand will eventually go the way of the Southerner and all we will be left is a struggling national freight network (with lots of new kit) and a strong Metro Network that is relatively well funded and politically and economically bought into and supported because of the excellent work of the regions.
Good entrepreneurship is needed but with regional and central Government support to bravely recognise that Rail is different and does need a financial hand in certain circumstances. If this is not recognised in New Zealand, like it is almost everywhere else including that bastion of free enterprise the USA through Amtrak, then most likely regular long distance passenger trains will be confined to history books on New Zealand railways and all we may be left with is the Tranz Alpine scheduled service (and even that may be eventually at risk) and the occasional charter or tour train. What a sad indictment this would be on New Zealand considering the billions being pumped in our freight railway when it is tourism that is one of our biggest earning and growth industries and that we should be leveraging of a highly fixed cost rail network. It is a choice that New Zealand has to make. Do they want that or not? Private sector involvement can help drive costs down and service levels and efficiencies up. Otherwise next on the chopping block will be the Overlander, the Capital Connection followed by maybe the Coastal Pacific.
The tenth anniversary of the Southerner closure is a time for reflection and maybe “A call to action” is required if any long distance passenger trains are to survive long term in New Zealand. This is despite the largest investment in passenger carriages since the 1970’s when The Silver Star and the Silver Ferns railcars were acquired. And we all know what happened to the Silver Star. The millions invested in the Silver Star in 1971 where all written off less than eight years after they went into service in 1979 and this train now operates a luxury Eastern Oriental Express in Malaysia and Thailand. If only we had been more entrepreneurial in New Zealand back in the 1980’s when the opportunity arose with that rolling stock after the Silver Star closed. Sadly new capital investment in rolling stock, whilst an excellent start with great potential, is in itself no guarantee of commercial business success when a lack of business flair is concurrent. The history surely shows this to be true.
Post Script - It has to be said the crew of the Tranz Scenic passenger trains in New Zealand continue to be some of the best On Board train crew in the world! They have lots of soul, character and flair and they truly help create a unique experience on the rails. Our journeys are some of the best anywhere. Keep it up Guys and Kiwi Rail - Don't let us loose that which has been built up over such a long period!
A nice history link on the Southerner can be found at the link below.

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