KiwiRail will not restart two of its regular scenic trains until mid-2022, while the tourism market remains difficult and improvements are made to the services.
KiwiRail Acting Group Chief Executive Todd Moyle said KiwiRail’s three scenic trains – Northern Explorer (Auckland – Wellington), Coastal Pacific (Picton – Christchurch) and TranzAlpine (Christchurch – Greymouth) – have all been paused since New Zealand was plunged into a COVID Level 4 lockdown in August.
“We have now made the difficult decision that the Northern Explorer and Coastal Pacific will remain suspended while we evaluate different and better options for domestic and overseas travelers once New Zealand’s borders fully reopen and the tourism market picks up again,” he said.
“However, we will re-start the iconic TranzAlpine on 14 January, 2022, if “orange” or “green” conditions apply under the traffic light system for assessing COVID risk.”
Moyle said since COVID arrived in New Zealand early last year, and New Zealand’s borders were closed to visitors, KiwiRail’s scenic trains have lost money.
“They are forecast to lose almost $10 million this year. Lockdowns and changing alert levels have forced us to suspend services for long periods and have made people hesitant to book travel. Even when the services were running, our efforts to encourage domestic travelers with discounts during school holidays have not stopped the revenue decline. We can no longer keep absorbing these losses,” he said.
“Unlike commuter trains, KiwiRail’s scenic services are tourism experiences, so do not receive any direct subsidies. Their financial viability depends on the ongoing flow of international travelers. Like so many other tourism operators around the country, we have struggled with patronage since borders closed.
“Developing a workable vaccination policy has been an added complication.
“This has been a very tough decision to make and for now our priority is supporting our people who are impacted by this decision. We also apologise to affected customers.
“Around 60 team members have been impacted by the suspension of the three scenic trains and all have been retained. For the small number affected by the extended suspension, KiwiRail will be offering temporary secondments internally until services resume.
“The award-winning TranzAlpine, with its spectacular journey through the foothills of the Southern Alps, is our most popular train and has the best chance of returning to financial viability even without overseas visitors. Given that, and its importance to the West Coast, it will operate Friday to Monday under “orange” and “green” alert levels.
“We want to do everything we can to ensure our passengers and staff are kept as safe as possible, and we continue to work with officials on vaccine requirements.”
Moyle said KiwiRail remains committed to providing scenic services. The Northern Explorer and Coastal Pacific are likely to return in a modified form once New Zealand has opened to international tourists and the tourism market has rebounded.
“We’re very proud of our scenic trains and want to offer improved experiences in the North and upper South Island, once they are viable. For example, we want to offer overnight packages, where the trains can stop in regions and passengers can spend more time enjoying the experiences they have to offer. We will be using the coming months to explore and test possibilities and hope to have new services running by the middle of next year.”
KiwiRail is contacting Coastal Pacific and Northern Explorers customers who have bookings and will be issuing refunds.