Overlander to continue running

The Overlander will stay in service on a reduced timetable, Toll NZ has announced.

The service between Auckland and Wellington had been due to run for the last time on Saturday after Toll said it was losing too much money.

It said annual patronage had dropped in the past two years from 90,000 to 50,000 passengers.

But today the rail operator said it was taking on board public support for the train service and would keep it running - initially for three days a week.

The Government on Monday declined to save the service with a subsidy. Toll had wanted $1.75 million a year from the Government to keep the train on the rails.

Regional councils asked Toll to give a six-month grace period to find a new operator for the service.

Toll said today it had taken on board all the support it had received and had itself been working exhaustively to find a workable solution to keep the Overlander operating.

It said that from next week the Overlander would run for three days a week -- on Friday, Saturday and Sunday on its existing timetable.

For the busy summer season from mid-December through to Autumn, and subject to patronage, the service would run daily.

After Easter the service would revert back to three days a week through the winter off-season.

"This will meet the needs of the majority of customers," Toll chief executive David Jackson said.

Continuing the service allowed Toll to look at other funding options, he said.

The Greens, which presented the Government with a 16,000 signature petition calling for the train's rescue, said today a reduced service was better than nothing.

Green MP Sue Kedgley told NZPA the Overlander had been given a "stay of execution".

"I'm pleased that the service isn't stopping on Saturday and certainly some sort of service is better than nothing," she said.

"But basically what we need is an upgraded, well-marketed daily service that tourists and New Zealanders can enjoy."

She was pleased Toll was planning to upgrade carriages but said the service needed to be marketed to ensure patronage.

"If the Government comes to the party and upgrades the rail (track) particularly north of Taumarunui, so that the train can be sped up, then I think it's certainly a good stop-gap solution and far better than finishing on Saturday," she said.

Mr Jackson said Toll was exploring options, and over the next few weeks would be speaking to key people aiming to put in place "a clear plan for the positive development of the Overlander".

Running to a seasonable timetable gives the company more time to look into the options.

"We have had tremendous support from the regional councils and will consider an upgraded service option and offering alternate packages aimed at both domestic users and the tourist market," Mr Jackson said.

"We especially appreciate the support of the regions to assist with marketing."

A spokeswoman for Toll said the Overlander had been running at a $2 million loss.

She would not say how much the reduced service would cost to run.

Mr Jackson said it had been clear the service could not continue in its current format "so change will be fundamental for its survival".

"Reducing the services will allow us to perform refurbishments on the existing carriages and it expected that this work will be completed by the start of the summer season.

Mr Jackson said he wanted to personally thank all New Zealanders who had supported the service until now.

The Overlander's demise would have ended 98 years of train travel between Wellington and Auckland,

- NZPA

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