East Taranaki's mothballed railway line from Stratford through Whangamomona to Okahukura near Taumarunui will steam back to life as New Zealand's first self-drive rail cart tourist route.
Waikato man Ian Balme of Forgotten World Adventures has secured a 30-year lease on the line from KiwiRail and carts will start rolling on Labour weekend in October.
Mr Balme will start with 12 modified golf carts but plans to increase that number to 50 within five years, a proposal Venture Taranaki believes could start a small boom in tourist operations in the area.
The idea was raised by Mr Balme more than a year ago; line lease negotiations and safety plans prevented an earlier start.
"It's been a bureaucratic process; you are dealing with two bureaucracies: KiwiRail and the NZ Transport Agency, but ultimately we have ended up with a safe and enjoyable experience," Mr Balme said.
The operation is the first of its kind in New Zealand and will enable people to travel both ways between Stratford and Okahukura.
When the electric carts start chugging they will be the first significant traffic on the 144 kilometre line since a November 2009 derailment saw KiwiRail mothball the track rather than spend the millions required to fix it.
The 30-year lease, which can be cancelled if KiwiRail needs it for emergencies, gives FWA's rail carts access through one of the remotest parts of the country.
Some of the line's 28 hand-dug tunnels are more than a kilometre long. It has two viaducts, dozens of bridges and passes through a number of historic sites.
Mr Balme said the carts would be aimed at domestic travellers aged 45 and over. The carts can carry bikes if necessary, with the rail route giving access to both the Taumaranui to New Plymouth and Mountains to Sea – Nga Ara Tuhono Ruapehu bike trails.
Mr Balme said initial estimates were that 2500 people would use the line in the first year, though he was hoping for as many as 3000, one of those being Prime Minister John Key.
"I hope [MP] Shane Ardern reads this tomorrow morning and could tap him on the shoulder. The prime minister should be there. It's a big boost for the region," Mr Balme said.
Since the line closed, several ideas have been floated. Retired Taranaki engineer Chris Beath designed a bicycle especially to ride the line while King Country Mining manager Ben Richardson hoped to use it to freight coal to Port Taranaki if the Tatu State Coal Mine in Ohura reopened.
The Taranaki Flyer Society has suggested it use the line to run a restored steam train between Stratford and Whangamomona.
Venture Taranaki visitors manager Paul Stancliffe said the challenge would now be how to keep the people who used the line in the province once they arrived.
"I would hope this would be a catalyst to start providing products to compliant what is already there. More quality bed-and-breakfasts, places to stop and eat, maybe a couple of activity products like horse trekking or off-road trail biking," he said.
Stratford Mayor Neil Volzke said he had not heard anything from Mr Balme but was looking forward to seeing the rust blown off the tracks.
"It's great to see the line put back into some form of use. The potential for tourism operations in that area are enormous."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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