27 Sep 2022

Council calls for 'long overdue' investment into South Island passenger rail

6:22 pm on 27 September 2022
Railway tracks.

The Dunedin City Council has approved a submission to central government calling for the return of passenger rail to connect several South Island cities. File photo Photo: RNZ / Cole Eastham-Farrelly

Dunedin City Council (DCC) is calling for the return of passenger rail in the south.

The Southerner express service ran between Christchurch, Dunedin and Invercargill until 2002.

DCC this morning approved a submission to central government calling for the return of passenger rail between the three cities.

The submission is in response to parliament's Transport and Infrastructure Select Committee's inquiry into the future of inter-regional passenger rail.

Dunedin mayor Aaron Hawkins told Checkpoint the region had "easily the most attractive railway station in the country".

"We welcome the renewed enthusiasm of government for passenger rail, and really we're here to remind them that the rail line doesn't stop in the North Island."

Hawkins said he had fond memories of travelling on the Southerner. The council would need to assess the mood of the public along with the costs of the project.

However, he said people were increasingly in search of options to travel around the country that don't involve flying or driving.

"We get overwhelmed by feedback from our community who want to have the option to travel via rail up and down the South Island, so the exercise here is testing that and seeing... what that would cost, and to what degree would the government be interested in providing that service in the South Island."

KiwiRail had placed too much focus on making money, he said.

"We need to ask a slightly different question when it comes to what kind of rail service do we need in the country."

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Dunedin mayor Aaron Hawkins says the council has been overwhelmed with feedback from residents wanting a passenger rail service. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

DCC also wants the viability of commuter rail between Mosgiel and Dunedin assessed.

Councillor David Benson-Pope, who moved a motion in support of DCC's submission to parliament, said passenger rail had been overlooked for too long.

"I think we'd all agree that more attention and more expenditure on this part of New Zealand's wider transportation network is long overdue.

"I think the fact this submission has been invited around passenger rail is more than welcome, and I hope that government will in fact listen to the submissions it receives from various authorities and helps facilitate not only the kind of improvements that we are suggesting that would be of immediate local advantage... but also the obvious logic and desirability of more passenger use of the main line."

DCC's submission called for the government to be more ambitious in making improvements to the Main South Line (MSL) in Otago and Southland.

"The DCC submits in support of resuming inter-regional passenger services between Dunedin and Invercargill, and Dunedin and Christchurch. These services would provide a lower carbon alternative for longer distance trips," the submission said.

"Rail connects Dunedin to Christchurch and Invercargill via the MSL railway line. The historic Dunedin railway station is well placed to serve the Central Business District (CBD) for passenger rail services, with lines connecting to Mosgiel and further to the south, and the coastal communities to the north.

"The DCC notes it may be difficult to currently justify a regular scheduled service due to slow travel times. Investment in the MSL is required to improve journey times so that inter-city rail can be time competitive with other transport modes. Running longer distance trains to large events, like major concerts at Forsyth Barr Stadium, could have safety and environmental benefits.

"Improvements to the MSL to support increased freight movements should be considered by the government as enabling for inter-regional passenger services along the MSL in the Otago and Southland Regions. DCC submits that the government should update the New Zealand Rail Plan and Rail Network Investment Programme to reflect the importance of improvements to the MSL.

"The DCC acknowledges the need for a stronger evidence base and requests the development of a business case for the re-establishment of passenger rail between Mosgiel and Dunedin and the wider region. The DCC requests the business case includes a trial of sufficient length to demonstrate the feasibility of a Mosgiel-Dunedin commuter service."

The motion to approve the submission passed 12 votes to one. Councillor Lee Vandervis was the sole voice of opposition.

"I hate to disappoint Cr Benson-Pope claiming that we all agree that more expenditure on passenger rail is long overdue. Passenger rail in the South Island has been virtually non-existent apart from heritage-type tours for many years now and the very obvious reason it's been non-existent is there simply isn't the population or the economies of scale to make passenger rail work."

Dunedin's mayor will speak in support of the submission when the Transport and Infrastructure Select Committee holds hearings as part of its inquiry.

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