Ensuring West Coast Wilderness Railway’s long-term future

Jeremy Rockliff, Premier

The Rockliff Liberal Government is getting things done by building and upgrading key infrastructure assets around Tasmania.

Major upgrade work is about to get underway over the Winter to ensure the West Coast Wilderness Railway can meet continued future growth in demand and continue being a major drawcard for the region for decades to come.

Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Michael Ferguson, said the upgrades would improve the reliability and resilience of the operation, following a recent incident which prompted a review of the operations.

“Demand for the rail experience has grown significantly since borders were re-opened and is in many respects being challenged by its own success,” Mr Ferguson said.

“We need to take the opportunity to let the hard-working team, rail infrastructure, and our heritage locomotives catch up and build for what promises to be very strong 2023-24 summer and beyond.

“With $16 million in state funds, management have been carefully mapping out and progressively addressing the maintenance and upgrade needs of the railway and locomotives while trying to keep the trains on the tracks, but the age of the infrastructure and the work that needs to be done calls for a more intensive, programmed work plan during the quieter time of year.

“It means the shutdown will be during the low-patron winter season, nonetheless it was a hard decision to make, but a necessary one and strongly recommended by local tourism representatives to get the best result,” he said.

The shutdown of the railway will be phased with Strahan services remaining closed, Queenstown closed from 5 June 2023 and operations expected to recommence gradually in time for the peak summer tourism season.

The Premier, Jeremy Rockliff, said while the decision was a difficult one, it was vital to the railway’s ongoing future.

“That said, we know that this longer shutdown of what is the region’s major drawcard will have an impact on our tourism operators and the region, and in recognition of this we have developed a $1 million support program to drive continued visitation, while also supporting our operators on the ground to invest in their businesses during the winter period.

“The program will include a targeted travel voucher program to encourage Tasmanians to visit the west and enjoy all the attractions that are open during winter, coinciding with Tourism Tasmania’s Off-Season campaign.

“We will also develop a small grants program open to west coast businesses who wish to invest in new projects aligned to our Small Business Growth Strategy, as well as advice and capacity building.

“We will also assist the Council and West by North West to plan for the future through a new heritage tourism masterplan project, ensuring the railway is developed as a visitor attraction for the longer term, is enhanced and linked to other ventures.”

West Coast Wilderness Railway Acting General Manager, Ian Robertson, said while smaller or partial closures were already planned for the Railway, the most recent assessments show a single bigger response would be far more effective in the longer-term.

“At the forefront of our actions is the quality of the passenger experience. It has become clear that, without action, passengers may not have the highest quality journey and this could quite quickly erode our brand and reputation,” Mr Robertson said.

“Our whole team takes a lot of pride in this and rather than trying to schedule maintenance and repairs around our busy operating schedule, we’ve decided it is better to get it done in one go with some short-term pain.

“The team has worked tirelessly to keep the wheels turning with aging locomotives and rail infrastructure but to achieve certainty well into the future, we believe that this is the best course of action.

“By tackling the necessary upgrades head-on and in one go we will add decades to the operational life of the railway and the local economic benefit it brings to the west coast region,” Mr Robertson said.

Anyone with tickets booked on affected services will be contacted directly and provided a full refund. Passengers booked on services out of Queenstown between now and 5 June 2023 are not affected by this decision. Importantly, all staff will be retained and the cafés located in Queenstown and Strahan will continue to operate.

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