20 Jul 2018

New scenic rail service part of West Coast revitalisation plan

6:25 pm on 20 July 2018

A new passenger rail service between Hokitika and Westport is on a short-list of plans to revitalise the West Coast economy.

Inland Punakaiki

Inland Punakaiki Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

It is part of a $625,000 investment plan announced by the government today, aimed at kick-starting rail, ports and towns.

Minister for Rural Communities and West Coast-Tasman MP Damien O'Connor said it was the first stage of a comprehensive programme of assessment and support for the coast.

The new rail service would complement the existing TranzAlpine service, and include a new station in Hokitika and carriage maintenance facility in Greymouth.

It was among a list of economic development ideas to be looked into with help from the Provincial Growth Fund.

Development West Coast chief executive Chris Mackenzie said he was keen on the idea.

"I think is it part of a tourism strategy that KiwiRail, working with Air New Zealand and possibly bus lines, could make a very viable option for putting tourists up into the northern part of the West Coast."

But getting it on track would take a lot of work, Mr Mackenzie said.

"The feasibility study needs to be reasonably thorough to thrash out because the last thing you want to do is set up a business that in the end turns out not to be sustainable."

Minister of Agriculture Damien O'Connor.

Damien O'Connor. Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Mr O'Connor joined the Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones, and Under-Secretary Fletcher Tabuteau on the coast for today's announcement.

It followed the previous government's announcement a year ago it planned to pump millions of dollars into the West Coast, in an effort to move its economy away from coal mining.

Mr O'Connor said the plan had no vision, and had excluded many major industries, including dairy and engineering.

He said building on what the West Coast already had was the best way forward.

"Building off the back of tourism success, the back of dairy - we've still got a good timber industry and fishing, so there's huge potential here but hanging around waiting for the big projects is in my view, not the best use of our time or resources."

Mr O'Connor said the focus would also be on investigating the importance of the ports in Greymouth and Westport.

Grey District ratepayers subsidise the port of Greymouth because user fees do not cover all of its operating costs.

The Buller District Council has pulled back on dredging services closing it to all commercial users except fishing vessels and recreational boaties.

West Coast tourism operator Mickey Ryan

West Coast tourism operator Mickey Ryan Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

West Coast tourism operator and former fisheries school operator Mickey Ryan said successive governments had promised much but failed to deliver.

"My old man would be kicking the lid off his coffin knowing what Labour's turned into. I can tell you that now," Mr Ryan said.

Mr O'Connor said Greymouth and Westport ports had a future in New Zealand's coastal shipping growth.

"Greymouth is a very important fishing port. Both Greymouth and Westport are on the back door of significant hoki fisheries and tuna."

RNZ reported last year that almost 10,000 people had left the region over the past three decades through economic decline. Today, about 33,000 people live in the area that stretches the same distance as Wellington to Auckland.

Buller District Mayor Garry Howard, who was no stranger to ideas that came and went, thought a new rail service was a splendid idea for boosting the region's prospects.

But those at the coalface were not so sure.

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Shane Jones Photo: RNZ / Richard Tindiller

Mickey Ryan said at the moment he was working on the Otira Tunnel because tourism faded to near nothing in winter.

He said it was a nice idea but would cost millions of dollars.

"I looked into the rail here a few years ago and the line is graded 'two', or something. Basically it's going to need a huge amount of work to allow passengers on it, including the need for new bridges."

Fletcher Tabuteau said if feasible, the new passenger rail service would support West Coast Tourism to reach its goal of 1.1 million visitors by 2021.