TasRail seen as heritage saviour

THERE'S no hope of securing a new operator for the West Coast heritage railway unless the state-owned TasRail accepts responsibility for the tracks and rolling stock, the state's tourism industry peak body has warned. 

Under a model proposed by  Tourism Industry Council Tasmania, the West Coast Wilderness Railway would be split in two with TasRail in charge of maintaining the infrastructure and a private company  running the tourism experience. 

The state government is scrambling to find a new operator for the railway by April 30 after Federal Group broke its 20-year lease, citing mounting repair bills and low passenger numbers. 

The federal government has commitment to spending $6 million on capital works while the state has offered up to $1.5 million a year for four years for ongoing maintenance costs if a new operator can be found. 

TICT chief executive Luke Martin said no company would be prepared to take on responsibility for the entire venture as Federal Group had done. 

``Commercial tourism operators don't run trains,'' Mr Martin said.  

He said the best-case scenario would see the necessary major repairs carried out over winter with  a new operator in place in time for the summer tourism peak. 

In the meantime, an interim model was required.  ``We need a temporary solution to secure the workforce to make sure they don't go,'' Mr Martin said.  

Premier Lara Giddings said there was some interest from potential new operators. 

She said the model had not been finalised, but she ruled out splitting the operation in two.  ``We do need an operator for the business however as a whole, and that's an important part of the overall sustainability of the business.''

A TasRail spokeswoman did not rule out future involvement in the heritage railway, but said TasRail was focused on restoring the freight railway business. 

``TasRail understands that the state government is working to secure a new operator of the WCWR at this time,'' she said. ``TasRail continues to works co-operatively with tourist and heritage rail operators including the WCWR.''

Greens acting leader Tim Morris called for a formal transition taskforce to be set up and for a strong and transparent case to be made to guarantee the long-term future of the operation.

``It's essential that we learn from the lesson of why the present business model has failed, which is why we need a formal transition taskforce to oversee scrutiny of the financials and finding an appropriate new operator,'' Mr Morris said. 

Opposition deputy leader Jeremy Rockliff said the best way  to make the wilderness railway viable would be to attract more visitors to Tasmania, referring to the Liberals' plan to boost visitor number to 1.5 million a  year by 2020. 

The West Coast heritage railway.

The West Coast heritage railway.