By Jo-MARIE BROWN
Despite the dented, grimy rail carriages, many New Zealanders will have clambered aboard the country's regional trains. But not enough.
Tomorrow the Waikato Connection (Hamilton-Auckland), Geyserland Express (Rotorua-Auckland), Kaimai Express (Tauranga-Auckland) and Bay Express (Napier-Wellington) will all close.
For the latter, it will be the first time since its railway tracks were laid in 1891 that a passenger service will not exist between Napier and the capital.
But with each route only attracting around 30 passengers per trip - one-third of capacity - they were shunned by Tranz Scenic's owner-to-be, Australian-based West Coast Railway.
Tranz Rail announced last October that it would sell its long-distance passenger services and concentrate on freight.
West Coast has agreed to buy the Northerner and Overlander services (Auckland-Wellington), the TranzCoastal (Picton-Christchurch), the TranzAlpine (Christchurch-Greymouth) and the Capital Connection (Wellington-Palmerston North).
But the remaining routes will disappear, with only the Southerner (Christchurch-Invercargill) having been granted a four-month reprieve while local authorities and the Government work on a rescue package.
For regular train users such as Tauranga's Anne Raine, the closure of regional services is a huge disappointment. The 68-year-old and her husband have travelled to Auckland on the Kaimai Express every three months to visit family since it opened in 1991.
"It's going to be very sad because we probably won't be going to Auckland as much as we have done," she said.
"Being older, we don't really like driving in the heavy traffic."
Sipping cups of tea and nibbling at muffins while the countryside whirred by was the only way to travel, Mrs Raine said.
West Coast chief executive Don Gibson acknowledged that regional rail services were essential.
"I think people really underestimate how much they do help the community and they're about to find out," he said.
About $4 million was required annually to keep the unprofitable services alive, and Mr Gibson said it was not in West Coast's commercial interests to do so.
The trains themselves had been bought by the company and would be moved on to other lines.
While tomorrow will be a sad day for many, the closures will be a case of history repeating itself.
The Waikato Connection, Geyserland Express and Kaimai Express routes have all failed before.
Railway industry commentator Bob Stott said passenger services on all three halted in the late 1960s because of low patronage.
The Rotorua and Tauranga lines reopened in 1991 while the Waikato Connection began bustling to Auckland in June last year. "There's no reason they shouldn't be able to be revived again in five or 10 years," Mr Stott said.
The Geyserland Express and Bay Express in particular had considerable tourism potential, while the Waikato line could become profitable once Britomart opened.
Regional routes had faltered because a train culture did not exist in the upper North Island and because the lines were often not direct.
"If you were to drive from Auckland to Tauranga you wouldn't go through Hamilton, would you? Who would?" Mr Stott said.
"Well, the train does. You could get a bus and it would be much quicker, so it's difficult to be competitive."
For that reason a rail service to Tauranga looks less likely to be re-established, but Hamilton and Rotorua residents intend to fight on.
Four Rotorua businessmen formed the Geyserland Express Trust two months ago.
They are now pricing a new train and estimating running costs.
Spokesman Scotty Watson said other community groups and Transfund would then be approached about a new service.
Environment Waikato also intends pushing for rail services to be reinstated.
But having already cast the four regional routes aside, West Coast Railway may yet be the one that saves them.
Mr Gibson said he was unhappy to see the four services close.
"In the future when we know how the business is performing we can start to re-examine running trains on those lines again."