Tourist business with romantic history can’t find buyer
New Zealand’s famous and historic Kingston Flyer tourist train is for sale yet again. Anyone with a spare $2 million can buy the rolling stock, two railway stations and 13 kilometres of track.
But the Kingston Flyer is a train with a checkered history. The first Kingston Flyer began as a local government railway venture in 1870 and connected the towns Kingston, Gore, Invercargill and sometimes Dunedin. The Public Works Department became the owner in 1877, followed by the Waimea Plains Railway Company. In 1890, it was merged with the Railways Department.
Meanwhile, road became the preferred way to move people and freight and by the 1930s traffic had declined to the point where the Railways Department decided to abandon the service in 1937.
After public pressure, the government re-launched the Kingston Flyer in 1971 as a heritage train running between Kingston and Invercargill. Passengers could connect with the Lake Wakatipu steamer Earnslaw to complete their journey to the growing tourist mecca at Queenstown.
The Flyer hit the wall again in 1979 when flooding damaged a section of the line near Lumsden and it was considered uneconomic to repair it. It became the Kingston – Fairlight line with a track length of just 13 kilometres. Fairlight was barely a place name on a map, Kingston had a few dozen houses, and there was only open country in between. The Kingston Flyer was suddenly a railway to nowhere.
The severing of rail links with southern population centres has certainly been a nail in the coffin of the Kingston Flyer. The aim has always been to tap into the huge flow of tourists travelling between Queenstown and Milford Sound. However, a little market research would have revealed that most people travelling that route do so on a one-day excursion on tour coaches. For most it will be the longest day of their New Zealand visit – a 12-hour day. They and their guides have always been reluctant to add another hour to the day. At best, they may stop for a photo of the historic train, but there is no revenue in that for the train operator.
The Kingston Flyer was in the wrong place. Without a connecting line, getting the train to a commercially more attractive site would be a logistical nightmare.
Since 2008, the Kingston Flyer has had several owners, but each new owner has found the mounting operation costs and the declining revenue, an insurmountable hurdle. Since 2012 the train has been listed for sale and is currently not operating.
Here is a video of the Kingston Flyer in 1971: A Train for Christmas