Rail to Recreation in the South Island

Published on 21/10/2021 at 5:45 pm.

Tim Frank looks at possibilities of how regional and inter-regional passenger rail can help in domestic tourism in Aotearoa New Zealand South Island.

Currently, when the future tourism revenues are in doubt, it might be a good time to refocus tourist trains from an experience for international high net worth tourists to providing access to recreation for ordinary Kiwis.

An opportunity exists to use current rail infrastructure to allow New Zealanders to access outdoor recreation opportunities in the distant backyards of cities. There is a need for Kiwis to be able to access recreation opportunities through low-carbon transport options. In Europe, many railway lines that were closed or were facing closure have been revitalised by offering services for recreation that is primarily based on domestic tourism with an important active ingredient, namely walking and cycling (which could be either mountain biking or tour biking or both). Many visitors to outdoor areas have an interest in sustainable travel; train travel and outdoors recreation are a natural fit, especially if there is some flexibility in travel times and regular services across the day.

Both Dunedin and Christchurch have railway lines that lead to major recreation areas within easy reach of each city.

Dunedin's the Taieri Gorge Railway Line has been mothballed. It is unlikely that it will open as a line for international tourism, at least in the medium term. This can be used as an opportunity to set up an environmentally sustainable rail service to access recreation opportunities and slowly develop an operation that can also grow into a more sustainable tourism offering. This would require the development of walking and cycling tracks in the Taieri Gorge. Regular services could also contribute to a greater local economy in Middlemarch, together with good access to the Otago Rail Trail.

The Korowai / Torlesse Tussocklands Park is about 1.5 hours by train from Christchurch and Arthur’s Pass National Park is about 2.5 hours away. These offer great outdoors recreation opportunities. While passenger traffic on this line is currently important for the economy of the West Coast, regular rail services could stimulate Canterbury local recreation and tourism. Services could operate between Darfield and Otira, connecting to Canterbury Regional Passenger Rail in Darfield, or they could operate directly from Christchurch to Arthur’s Pass National Park. A visitor concept would need to be worked out with the Department of Conservation and some new tracks provided to enable better access between stops and current tracks.

An opinion by Tim Frank, as rail travel connoisseur.

Similar articles