Who will be brave enough to let train venture go off rails?

LET'S backtrack.

On July 24, 1998, then federal transport minister Mark Vaile promised $20.4 million to reopen the Abt railway.

The announcement came a month before that year's state election, with a federal election looming later in the year.

For decades, enthusiasts on the West Coast had pushed for a heritage railway. It was a dream for people like Roger Smith that many others scoffed at. Commonwealth cash made it possible.

At the time, John Caples wrote in this newspaper that it could attract 150,000 visitors a year.

The project, described as "visionary" and "ambitious" could open by 2000, and create 300 construction jobs.

Fast forward, and the most passengers those trains have ever carried was 61,040 in 2003-04.

That figure has dwindled to 30,000.

The project took longer than expected to get up and running, opening in December 2002. It cost more - the new Labor state government chipped in $18 million.

It also created fewer construction jobs; between 60 and 80.

Once built, Federal Group took over the operations from Mr Smith. It signed a 20-year lease with the government - which retained ownership of the assets.

Was it expecting to make quick cash? Unlikely.

The company owns a hell of a lot of other assets in the area that would benefit from the additional tourists.

People were shocked to hear Federal Group's announcement that it was pulling out as of April 30.

Why? The company blamed diving visitor numbers, which have halved over the past decade, as well as rising maintenance costs and damage caused by extreme weather.

How? Many questioned the conditions of a lease that allows one party to walk away at a moment's notice. The three months' notice, we were told, was a so-called bonus.

Commercial-in-confidence means the lease details may never be released, but two things are clear.

First, Federal Group was losing money. It was likely to be serious money, as the company could no longer justify such losses against the gain of visitors spending at its other ventures.

Second, the government must have been liable for serious cash too and, instead, agreed to end the lease.

The tourism industry is now arguing that the public money already invested in the railway should not be lost.

We are talking $38 million from taxpayers to set it up. And don't forget those beautifully maintained trains and stations, which are in perfect working order. Some $45million worth.

It's unfortunate to see any investment go to waste, but what if that money shouldn't have been spent in the first place?

When the news first broke the state government said it would cost $15-20 million to save it. In a state of a thousand budget cuts that is serious cash.

The fact that money was required over the next five years was lost in the headlines. By Thursday, it became clear that $5.8 million is needed up front for capital works, and up to $2 million each year to run it.

On the West Coast they are not quibbling over whether or not the railway should be saved, but how to save it.

West Coast Mayor Darryl Gerrity likened the railway to an umbilical cord. It winds through the hills and valleys of the region and many businesses rely on those passengers. They stay a night, eat meals and add on other adventures.

One motel owner told Thursday's public meeting in Queenstown that he had lost $16,000 worth of business in four days.

There are 48 workers who will lose their jobs immediately, but the flow-on effect will be felt more widely.

Now that the railway is there who is going to be brave enough to take it away?

With a federal election around the corner, and a state one soon after, it's unlikely there's anyone game enough. Braddon Labor MHR Sid Sidebottom is well aware of how precarious his seat is.

As Mr Gerrity summed up: "The stars are beginning to align."

In another decade, will we be questioning how much is spent now?

Dinah Arndt

Dinah Arndt


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