As we all know, the Taieri Gorge Railway (the Otago Central Branch from Wingatui to Middlemarch) was saved for preservation by public fundraising with the addition of ratepayer funds from Dunedin City Council. The entire route is within the boundaries of Dunedin City since the local government restructuring of 1989 when smaller counties were amalgamated into DCC. The question then is, based on that history, if we accept that Dunedin Railways is unable to continue in its current form, we at least should be prepared to suggest and advocate for alternatives.
The station of Middlemarch forms a natural railway historic precinct that incorporates a number of buildings and facilities dating back to NZR days and this is an obvious base for a new operation to be established. Given there are already several groups based there, forming a rail heritage society at Middlemarch would be an obvious starting point, and it has access both to the rail trail and to the part of the TGR that is most easily maintained and therefore operate more readily long term. The rail trail should also be extended from Middlemarch to Wingatui alongside the existing tracks.
As most heritage societies do not operate 7 days per week except perhaps in a few busy holiday periods, the entire TGR section from Wingatui should be leased to a commercial rail cruiser type of operator, which might also offer a bike shuttle service for rail-trailers. The rail cruisers would not be operated on running days of the heritage railway. At present as there is no Dunedin-Wingatui commuter train service, we would assume there is potential for one to be re-established in future which could also carry cyclists. In the shorter term, a cycle trail from Dunedin to Wingatui is an alternative option that should be prioritised by DCC, building on the existing Dunedin Tunnel Trails Trust development.
We believe such a vision is feasible but it would have to have buy-in from the whole of the rail heritage community in Dunedin including OETT, OBR and the Rail Trail trust, as well as support from DCC.