Numbers down on rail service

Passenger numbers on the re-branded Wellington to Auckland rail service have dropped sharply as the Northern Explorer struggles to make its mark.

At the end of June the Overlander was scrapped and replaced by the quicker new service aimed more at tourists.

But new figures provided by KiwiRail show fewer passengers caught the new train in its first two months.

Between May and September the Overlander would run trains in each direction three days a week - six trains in total.

The new train runs three services a week in each direction - six in total - and in July and August carried about 2000 passengers each month.

This was compared with 5810 people who caught the Overlander in July last year and 3028 who jumped aboard in August, 2011.

Fares have increased and it is marketed as a tourist train, with modern rolling stock.

To make the journey quicker, KiwiRail controversially dumped 12 stations from the timetable including Taihape, Feilding, Marton and Levin.

But the passenger figures will not please KiwiRail. Briefing documents released under the Official Information Act show KiwiRail earlier this year wanted the new train to be a "must-do tourist experience".

"We need to attract more customers, but we also need those customers to be prepared to pay more for the service," one consultation document said.

It acknowledged the Overlander, which ran at a loss of $3.1 million in the past financial year, did not have a good reputation.

KiwiRail won't say if the Northern Explorer is making money, but passenger general manager Deb Hume said it was expected that fewer passengers would catch the train over the year, as there would be fewer services - the Overlander would operate every day between October and April.

"But we are achieving a higher, and therefore more financially sustainable fare, with less costs," Ms Hume said.

KiwiRail could not compare financial results after only two months.

Bookings were encouraging, Ms Hume said.

Rangitikei District councillor Richard Aslett led a push to keep the trains stopping at the smaller towns in his district and said yesterday he was not surprised at the reduction in passenger numbers.

He said an average of three people a day had used the train at the smaller towns and this added up.

Manawatu Standard