KEITH LOCKE (Green):
The Green Party has had a tremendous reaction from around the country since we launched a petition yesterday at both the Auckland and Wellington railway stations calling on the Government to guarantee the continued operation of the iconic Overlander passenger service for the next 2 years while the following important steps are undertaken: a study is initiated to assess the long-term viability of the service; an integrated marketing campaign is conducted to further increase passenger numbers; and the necessary resources are invested by ONTRACK to return the rail track back to a standard that will allow the service to run reliably.
We have had support from around the country. All kinds of people are helping with petitioning across the country. By and large, Dr Cullen’s response to questions from Jeanette Fitzsimons and Sue Kedgley in the question period today was disappointing. It is true, and we are at least heartened by the fact, that he did not rule out some form of future service and that he talked about it as a possible tourist service. But I think it is important — and councils across the North Island are calling for this — to keep the service going in the meantime because it will be much harder to resurrect the service when it runs out completely than it will be to keep it in operation for 6 months, 12 months, or, as our petition proposes, for 2 years, while the steps suggested in our petition are implemented. It will be a huge burden on the Government’s budget.
Of course, there has to be negotiation over what the Government’s financial contribution might be and in what way the Government becomes involved. Toll suggests $1.75 million and a $500,000 injection to help with the rolling stock. That is not an excessive amount. It should be negotiated to see whether it is appropriate at that level, but it would not break the Government’s budget, particularly when we are talking about an iconic service that has been going for 98 years. The Overlander is so iconic that folk songs ahve been written about it.
The thing that I picked up at the Auckland railway station yesterday, and which I have picked up across the country, is that it is part of New Zealand’s culture and we should maintain it at all costs. It is true that the patronage has dropped, as Dr Cullen mentioned in one of his replies. It has dropped from 90,000 to 50,000 over a 2-year period. But the main reason for this is not that people are just taking the cheap air fares — cheap air fares have been in operation beyond that period. I think the real reason is the reliability of the service. A 12-hour service in the summer can take up to 14 hours. The service would take a much shorter time if proper maintenance work was done on the track. Delayed maintenance has been a problem since the privatisation of the railway back in 1993. It is good that the Government has taken back the track and put some money into the development of the railway. But much more money is needed and the development needs to be sped up.
Those in the marketing and tourism industry say that the railway could be a huge success, but it needs marketing. Most of the tourist operators have pulled back on marketing because it is not a reliable service. So reliability is the key here. Around the world we see the effectiveness of subsidies. The Australian Government gives subsidies to the Great Southern Railway, and that has increased patronage over recent times by 40 percent — although if our railway were marketed properly, it probably would not need a subsidy.
What the Māori Party member asked in question time today was very relevant. This railway goes through two key Māori areas. The first is the Tainui area. Government members have been down at Tūrangawaewae celebrating the appointment of the new Maori King, and we heard today that the king is in favour of keeping that service, if at all possible. It is part of his people’s cultural heritage. Similarly, with the Tongariro National Park having been granted to this nation by Ngāti Tūwharetoa, the train service is particularly appropriate. It already stops at the National Park. We should see the Overlander as an icon, an important part of our New Zealand heritage.