East coast rail service is stopped

But it will be back in August, KiwiRail promises

TANIA BUTTERFIELD
Last updated 12:00 05/04/2011

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KiwiRail has cancelled the train service from Picton to Christchurch over winter, but says it will resume the service from August 15 in time for the Rugby World Cup.

KiwiRail chief executive Jim Quinn said the TranzCoastal train service would lose money through the low season if it continued.

The company needed to save money following a drop in passenger numbers since the earthquake in Christchurch along with a drop in freight services following the Pike River disaster last year.

The company's target of gross earnings of $120.8 million had taken a $15 million hit, he said.

The TranzAlpine train, which generally attracts more passengers than the TranzScenic, would continue to operate and the company was committed to restarting the east coast service in spring.

"By committing to a restart date we believe that we can provide confidence for the wholesale market and be part of the upswing into the summer season and the Rugby World Cup," he said.

A company spokeswoman said TranzCoastal staff will be retained with full pay during this time and where possible will be shuffled around the company doing other tasks before returning to the TranzCoastal.

Rail and Maritime Transport Union general secretary Wayne Butson said the decision to "mothball" the service was short-sighted.

"It starts to make New Zealand look like a developing country. Will tourists be interested in booking a service that is being pulled off the market then put back on? From a marketing perspective it's a disaster," he said.

Picton and Kaikoura business owners are disappointed at the loss of the train over winter but those spoken to said they understood KiwiRail's decision to do so.

Destination Marlborough general manager Tracey Johnston said New Zealand has been trying hard to tell the world it was open for business after the Christchurch earthquake and KiwiRail's decision contradicted that message.

"Especially when other services have opened up to allow people to travel to Christchurch, the airport, motorhomes etc, and yet we don't have a train service operation."

On the flip side, tourists unable to take the train might rent a car and be able to visit more places in Marlborough, she said.

"It does bode well for Marlborough in that they will have more flexibility to experience the region than they would have from the seat of a train," Mrs Johnston said.

KiwiRail has invested in new carriages for the TranzCoastal train and hopefully will invest heavily in a comeback campaign when the train returns, she said.

Sounds Air staff who sell TranzCoastal tickets in Picton have dealt with numerous complaints and cancellations of train tickets since the service was suspended on February 22.

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Sounds Air managing director Andrew Crawford said it was great the TranzCoastal would not be closed indefinitely.

"It's a very good thing they're bringing it back. It's better than not bringing it back at all. They are a business and just can't run at a loss. It seems like a prudent business decision," he said.

It is not fair for people to criticise KiwiRail for not reinstating the train sooner, he said.

"It's only four months away, so let's just look forward to it coming back," he said.

The coach service which had replaced the TranzCoastal train will continue to run until Sunday, April 10. Passengers booked after that will be offered a full refund or the opportunity to rebook the train for a later date.

- The Marlborough Express

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