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An Opinion Piece from The Dominion Post (Wellington NZ) pB5
15 August 2006
Train operator Toll NZ should have tried harder with its Auckland-Wellington passenger services writes Dr Philip Laird.
See also Final Overlander rail journey sold out
15 August 2006 Waikato Times
The Overlander may have been running empty for several years but it's going to end its days fully booked, with the final Overlander service on September 30 sold out.
Meanwhile, Ruapehu Mayor Sue Morris said she was going ahead with plans to try to save the 97-year-old North Island main trunk passenger rail service. Ruapehu District Council unanimously supported her moves to meet Finance Minister Michael Cullen as soon as possible. "The public reaction has been overwhelming."
Mrs Morris said she had letters of support from all around the world.
As one who has used Wellington - Auckland train services over many years, the news that Toll NZ intends to withdraw these services is most unwelcome.
It counteracts the present drive by the New Zealand Government to attract more tourists from Australia. This campaign stresses that New Zealand is not just a place with great scenery but also a place to do things.
This includes great train rides such as Christchurch to the West Coast. The Auckland - Wellington day train is also a great tourist experience. Both trains have been featured on the Australian commercial TV programme Getaway. However the Auckland - Wellington train is under marketed.
The New Zealand Government in recent years has contributed to the attractiveness of the service. This includes the completion in 2003 of Britomart Station, the $200m commitment to track upgrades and now the $20m upgrade of Wellington station. This contribution should be more than enough to offset any loss of revenue to Toll NZ due to cheap air flights etc.
The Overlander is not just a scenic way of travelling between Wellington and Auckland. It also serves the two University cities of Palmerston North and Hamilton along with many towns. The train is also more energy efficient and so uses less imported oil than either driving a car or flying.
Informed reaction within the Australia rail industry notes that ideally these intercity passenger rail services should have been kept in public ownership so they could be operated and maintained in the public, not private interest. One can understand Toll looking after its bank balance, but the decision does highlight the potential failure of privatising inherently loss making activities that are for the 'public good'.
Improved marketing and on-board facilities may have reversed the patronage decline of The Overlander. Obviously for people in a hurry flying is a better choice. However, the magnificent scenery of New Zealand's North Island that the train traverses makes it an ideal trip for tourists who are a major market for the train'.
Toll should have tried harder. The question now is "what's next?"
Ironically, the Australian version of The Overlander between Melbourne and Adelaide and called The Overland. Its patronage has increased by over 40 per cent since it became an all daylight operation. The Australian Overland runs on a longer corridor (830km) and hence less suited to day travel than the more scenic Wellington - Auckland train journey (681km). The Australian train is operated by a private company (Great Southern Railway), but with some government help offers concession fares. While some people have been critical of its slow timetable it is likely to be speeded up by 90 minutes in September, which will further increase its appeal.
If Toll NZ is not prepared to operate the NZ Overlander train, there is a good case for the Government to require Toll to relinquish the train path and be prepared to sell the train sets at a reasonable price to another operator. In addition, if Toll NZ wishes to be a rail passenger operator, it should not be allowed to 'cherry pick' the services it chooses to offer.
In 2003, Toll's aim to acquire 90 per cent of the TRH shares was frustrated by three institutions and many small New Zealand share holders. As then reported, the prevailing view of many of the individual share holders who did not sell was that 'We do not want you Australians running our trains.'
Australians running New Zealand trains is one thing. But closing them down is another.
Dr Philip Laird is a land transport researcher at the University of Wollongong and a joint author of the 2001 UNSW Press book Back on Track: Rethinking transport policy in Australia and New Zealand
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