Mike Yardley: Southerner rail trip offers scenery worth sleeping through

The 185 empty white chairs may get a permanent home in Christchurch.

The 185 empty white chairs may get a permanent home in Christchurch.

The past week has thrown up a couple of fascinating local proposals that come with challenging dilemmas.


Hopes are being rekindled that the long-suspended Southerner rail service could make a dramatic comeback.

The Southerner trundles its way onto the Selwyn River Bridge in Canterbury on its way south in 2001.

The Southerner trundles its way onto the Selwyn River Bridge in Canterbury on its way south in 2001.

Fifteen years after the service was axed, the government has stumped up $50,000 for a feasibility study on reinstating the Christchurch-Invercargill rail service.  

Many a southern mayor has swung their wagons behind the chief cheerleader, Timaru's Damon Odey, who has been jawboning KiwiRail to investigate reinstating the Southerner since December.

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From a purely nostalgic perspective, I'd love to see the passenger rail link revived, but there are clearly some critical hurdles the study's business case assessment will have to wrestle with.

Interestingly, alongside 185 Empty Chairs, the TranzAlpine is the 4th ranked visitor experience in Christchurch on TripAdvisor.

Unlike the exalted visual symphony the TranzAlpine unfurls, the Southerner's route is aesthetically lacking.

Heading south of Christchurch, the tedium of the pancake-flat terrain and the endless reel of single pivot irrigators is all-consuming until you reach the Waitaki River.

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It's only when you hit the rolling hills of North Otago, three hours down the track, that the scenery is worth waking up for.

So purely from a picturesque perspective, would sightseeing tourists consider that an attractive proposition?

For prospective locals, wishing to travel inter-city down south, price is going to seal the deal.

And with our southern towns and cities already well-serviced by bus and air services from Christchurch, how could the convenience of a rail service successfully compete on price or speed?

The only viable option would surely be for the Southerner to be revived as a high-end luxury tourist experience with all the trimmings.   


Should the city council ring-fence substantial public space to permanently safeguard 185 Empty Chairs?

The city council has agreed to consider possible location options for Peter Majendie's evocative art installation, which was created in tribute to the 185 victims of the 2011 earthquake.

Initially crafted to commemorate the first anniversary of the disaster, Majendie only intended his heart-tugging artwork to be on display for three weeks.

Five and half years on, 185 Empty Chairs continues to rock its socks off on TripAdvisor, beloved by visitors and locals alike.

In the lead-up to every anniversary, an army of volunteers spring-clean the installation, ensuring it looks resplendent.  

Mercifully, there have been few vandalism problems. 

Currently the art installation is ranked on TripAdvisor as the city's top sight or landmark, trumping the likes of the Transitional Cathedral, the Christchurch Gondola, New Regent St or Re-Start Mall.

Those exorbitant Gormley sculptures, that we were led to believe would trigger a stampede of swooning, gushing arty globetrotting luvvies, barely register on the radar.

Currently sited on crown-owned Madras St land, earmarked for the stadium development, what would be the most appropriate location for Majendie's plans to recreate the 185 Empty Chairs in  permanent materials?

Following consultation with Weta Workshop, his new permanent design entails casting the chairs in aluminium, erecting them on a black concrete pad, with under-lighting.

The $500,000 project would largely be privately funded, through sponsorship and donation.  

Without wishing to beat up on the Gormley debacle too harshly, the $1 million spend-up on his two "discounted" pieces has proven to be a grandiose damp squib.

The magic of Majendie's installation is its tangible, emotional informality, and it's raw connection with our shared sense of grief through absence.

It is engaging, intimate, tactile and powerfully poignant.

As an enduring totem to our shared sense of grief, absence and our basic humanity, 185 Empty Chairs continues to resonant too strongly to be unceremoniously consigned to history. Symbols matter.

Some councillors have floated the notion of packing off the artwork to the residential red zone, while others have mused about the Botanic Gardens.

Even though it would siphon off some public green space, I believe Latimer Square is the most befitting location, given the site played host to the city's biggest mass-triage operation in the minutes after the quake, and its close proximity to the site of February 22's biggest catastrophe.  



 - Stuff

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