It's finally full steam ahead for a plan to link the Bay of Island's top attractions by vintage steam train and ferry thanks to a multimillion-dollar Provincial Growth Fund grant.

The $5.59 million cash injection was announced at Kawakawa railway station yesterday by Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones, accompanied by Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters, Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis and a who's who of Northland's tourist industry.

Also unveiled was a $1.96m training scheme to help Northland tourism and hospitality businesses retain and upskill staff during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The grants come just days after the Government announced $20m from its $3 billion post-Covid infrastructure fund for Whangārei projects including CBD rejuvenation and a 850-seat theatre and conference venue at Hihiaua Cultural Centre, and a week after Jones pledged $7.5m for ecological and Māori tourism projects in the Kerikeri area.

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Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis addresses the roughly 300 people who turned out to hear the funding announcement. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Tourism Minister Kelvin Davis addresses the roughly 300 people who turned out to hear the funding announcement. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Yesterday's $5.59m grant will go to Northland Adventure Experience (NAX), a consortium bringing together the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway, the 110-year-old steam ferry Minerva, the Twin Coast Cycle Trail, Far North Holdings and local iwi Ngāti Hine.

NAX chairman Frank Leadley said the cash would be used to extend the railway shed at Kawakawa so all carriages could be stored indoors, build a new engineering workshop and job training centre, and order a new boiler for the steam locomotive Gabriel.

It would also complete the Minerva's restoration and allow the railway track to Ōpua to be reinstated.

Leadley said the idea was to link the coast-to-coast cycle trail and the vintage railway with the Minerva, which would then ferry passengers to Russell and Waitangi.

The combined excursion would be unique not just in New Zealand but in the world, Leadley said.

Students from Te Kura Kaupapa Maori o Taumarere perform a waiata tautoko. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Students from Te Kura Kaupapa Maori o Taumarere perform a waiata tautoko. Photo / Peter de Graaf

The project is expected to create 68 jobs during construction and 25 long-term.

It was a case of second time lucky for NAX, which was turned down after applying for just under $19m in PGF funding last year.

After that setback the consortium was advised to break the project up into parts, get other funders on board, and try again.

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Yesterday's grant does not cover the vintage railway's plans for a new station at Colenso's Triangle near Ōpua, nor does it pay for re-routing of 6.5km of cycle trail from Taumarere to Opua. That leg of the bike trail currently sits on top of the rail track.

Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones tests the whistle on Esmae, one of the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway's diesel locomotives, after yesterday's funding announcement. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones tests the whistle on Esmae, one of the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway's diesel locomotives, after yesterday's funding announcement. Photo / Peter de Graaf

The Far North District Council will pay for a new cycle trail, still within the rail corridor, while council-owned company Far North Holdings will build the station on a commercial basis.

More than 300 people turned out to hear the announcements and speeches which included a convoluted story from Jones about a one-legged gymnast sparking a riot in Kawakawa, Davis recounting family connections to the railway, and Peters berating national media for ignoring the provinces and lauding the Government for pumping $500m-plus into ''one of the most neglected provinces in the country''.

The council is still working out how it will fund re-routing of the cycle trail. Chief executive Shaun Clarke said $2.6m had already been committed over the next two years in the council's long-term plan so some of the work could start straight away.

Ngati Hine leader Pita Tipene hammers in a symbolic rail spike despite hip surgery just days earlier. Photo / Peter de Graaf
Ngati Hine leader Pita Tipene hammers in a symbolic rail spike despite hip surgery just days earlier. Photo / Peter de Graaf

Meanwhile, the $1.96m training programme will be run by Queenstown Resort College's Paihia campus.

The scheme was spearheaded by Duke of Marlborough Hotel co-owner Riki Kinnaird and will see 250 tourism and hospitality staff from 22 businesses gain level 4 tourism operation qualifications while the borders remain closed.

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Duke co-owner Anton Haagh said it was an ''absolute game-changer'' because it would allow businesses to retain staff during winter instead of relying on overseas labour each time summer rolled around.

Next summer the hotel would have a freshly upskilled and fully Kiwi staff for the first time, he said.

Mike
Mike "The Train" Bradshaw shows how it's done as the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway Trust veteran of 34 years hammers in a symbolic rail spike. Photo / Peter de Graaf