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Getting train tourism back on track

WHILE many of the State’s baby boomers will have fond memories of holiday train travel to places like Albany and Esperance, chances are their offspring – those we call Generation X – are unaware such trips ever existed.

“There used to be an overnight passenger train that ran to Albany,” train tour guide Kevin Pierce remembers. “It had buffet cars and bars.

“You had a meal, a few drinks, went to bed, and when you woke up you were in Albany. It was wonderful.”

So what happed to holiday train travel in WA? According to Mr Pierce, who runs holiday train package tours everywhere from the Queensland outback to the Dande-nong Ranges, it’s not that package train tours no longer exist in WA, but rather that the few remaining are finding survival increasingly difficult.

Westrail ran package train tours until 1995, and Mr Pierce chartered trains until 1997.

The Western Australian Govern-ment Railway Commission (WARG) is the new face of govern-ment rail travel, establishing itself in December last year after Westrail sold its freight department and restructured other services.

WAGR’s rural rail arm, Country Passenger, provides train services to Bunbury, Kalgoorlie and Northam, but does not deal in tourism packages and does not intend to do so.

As part of last year’s freight sell-off, Westrail’s freight tracks have been leased for 50 years to the Australian Railroad Group (ARG), a joint venture between Wesfarmers and Genesee & Wyoming Inc.

The freight track lease arrange-ment means that any operator who wants to provide a tourism train along these lines now has to negotiate with the privately owned ARG and its subsidiary, WestNet Rail.

WestNet Rail is operated by ARG in WA to offer track access to the former Westrail network for other train operators – at a price.

In addition to negotiating lease prices with WestNet Rail, prospec-tive tour operators also will need to be accredited and provide them-selves with indemnity insurance up to $200 million.

Previously, Westrail’s insurance automatically covered tour operators who leased government rail lines, re-moving a substantial cost impedi-ment.

The steep cost of insurance, along with private leasing charges, may result in some current operators, and prospective ones, being priced out of the game.

ARG public affairs manager Len Douglas said operating a tourism train service was bound to be an expensive exercise.

“It is very capital intensive and it requires a good business and a good market,” he said.

“They would need to have accredited rolling stock and have accreditation themselves.”

To train-travel enthusiasts like Kevin Pierce, this is a very sad state of affairs. He believes that, as a public service, the Government should have continued running passenger trains to Albany and Geraldton for tourists and for the public.

According to WARG, Westrail ceased providing train tour packages in 1995 because it was no longer financially viable, but Mr Pierce said he has never had any problems making money out of tour packages.

“One of the greatest successes I’ve had in running rail tours was chartering the Prospector rail cars for six-day tours from Perth to Kalgoorlie,” he said.

“We took the train right up the historic Goldfields to Leonora and then back right down to Esperance. These tours we’re the easiest tours to sell since I’ve been in the business. We filled every tour we ran – 124 people each time.

“They were run three times a year from 1983 to 1998, when the former government and Westrail stopped us from running them.”

This was the same time the government introduced the Northam service, which required the railway cars previously used for charter purposes.

“Since there has now been a change of government, we’re hopping that these tours will be re-established,” Mr Pierce said.

He currently is in negotiations with the Gallop Government to re-establish his six-day Northam tour along the State’s public lines.

Mr Pierce said lease costs before the tours were halted averaged as much as $40,000 for each tour.

One rail tourism service still up and running in WA is the Hotham Valley Tourist Railway, a volunteer-based non-profit organisation, which provides an old style train entertain-ment experience.

The Hotham tours include Murder Mystery nights and Comedy Trains, as well as trips to the Albany Show, scenic tours to Geraldton to see the wildflowers and day tours to locations including Dwellingup and Collie.

But Hotham Valley Tourist Railway manager Paul Grootveld said the operation had experienced financial difficulties in the past, and was finding things tough at the moment.

“It’s a voluntary organisation and for a number of years we’ve needed some level of government funding to make that possible,” Mr Grootvelt said.

“We’re currently exploring all of our future financial options.”

He said governments had an obligation to help the tourist railway because it provided a service to the people of Western Australia and helped to maintain the State’s heritage.

“It is important for the people of WA to have heritage rolling stock preserved in working rolling order – the steam locomotives for example,” Mr Grootvelt said.

The Hotham Valley Tourist Railway still runs heritage rolling stock, with a steam train dating back to 1897 still making weekly runs.

The concept of financially viable boutique rail travel has not been lost completely, however, with a new organisation called Leisure Rail attempting to get some tourism train travel services on the move.

“We’re capitalising on the re-emergence of boutique railways world wide,” Leisure Rail project director and general manager Graeme Vellacott said.

He said that, although Leisure Rail didn’t actually own any rolling stock or any engines and wasn’t currently accredited, he had high hopes for the future.

Mr Vellacott said negotiations for the purchase of stock and engines were under way, and that accredi-tation would take place once all the financing for the company was complete.

The total project cost of Leisure Rail is expected to come in at around $7.7 million and, according to Mr Vellacott, $5.25 million of this already has been committed.

Providing the rest of the funding is secured, the company hopes to hit the rails around the first of June 2002.

“Our experience to date with WestNet and rail access has been excellent,” Mr Vellacott said.

“The chief executive officer has met with us and they have been nothing short of receptive and highly accommodating. At this stage we’re having no problems.”

Plans are under way to offer both long and short tourism packages; from a four-hour restaurant on rails through the Avon Valley, to three or four-day Safari Tours through the southern half of WA.

Planed destinations include the Mid-West, Geraldton and the hinterland (for wildflower safaris), Wave Rock, Albany and the Stirling Ranges, Mt Barker, and Pemberton and the Karri forests.

Leisure Rail also plans to offer a Directors’ Special experience for business style charter services, by placing into service fully self-contained executive style observation lounges, with sleeping cabins for six guests and dining for 12.

The hope is to bring to WA the deluxe style rail travel and dining found aboard the private business cars of US railroads – along with a little of the magic and romance of the rails.

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