The irony is that this makes Toll Rail look like the good guys. Now, the government deserve all the criticism they get for this, but Toll aren't exactly the greatest railway operators on earth. New Zealand's railways would be in a much better state if they reverted to being a State Owned Enterprise with the public good prioritised ahead of financial profit. That's probably not going to happen in a hurry, given the world's current fondness for all things neoliberal and privatised, but maybe someday in the future ...
For now, let's hope that Toll actually bothers to upgrade the train as is desperately needed. Anyone who argues this train cannot be profitable in today's current climate needs to remember that just over a decade ago, before NZR was privatised, this train was profitable despite bus and air competition (and the Northerner overnight service operated then too!). It can be made profitable again. Here's some simple steps:
1. New wagons. The wagons being used now are a disgrace; you can probably find better in third world countries. They are 56' carriages that date from the era of WWII! They've been rebuilt so many times and they're now little more than pieces of steel patched together haphazardly on some bogies. Comfortable, clean new wagons are absolutely essential. And by new, I mean new. I don't mean second-hand refurbished wagons from the UK or Japan or anywhere else. Probably the best idea would be to build some new railcars like the RM Silver Ferns instead of operating locomotive-hauled carriage trains.
2. More reliable timetables. No-one is going to want to travel on a train so consistently late as the Overlander. At present, it struggles to keep a timetable already more than a couple of hours slower than timetables from a couple of decades ago. It should be quite possible to do the run in nine hours. Now, this will naturally cut out the extended National Park stop, but if passengers have the ability to place lunch orders on the train and have the food available on arrival, that would be ideal for all parties involved.
3. Advertise the bloody thing more! Unlike airports on the outskirts of cities, railway stations are centrally located and it's a whole lot more spacious and comfortable form of transport than either air or bus. Emphasising those qualities should help with the domestic market, and the beautiful scenery of the King Country should make attracting tourists a breeze. If they'll ride the TranzAlpine in the South Island, they'll ride the Overlander in the North.
4. Will! We need some people with the will to operate an excellent long-term service operating the train. Not money-hungry freight operators such as Toll, and not incompetent, ill-informed politicians like the current Minister for Transport, but some people who have the experience and ability to run an excellent service.
Those simple steps would surely attract people back to the Overlander. We may not return to the days of additional extra services that existed in the 1950s, and we may never see trains the length of the 1970s Daylight Limited, but a profitable and attractive service can certainly be run, and maybe it will lead to the revival of some other equally worthwhile services, such as Christchurch-Dunedin-Invercargill, Auckland-Tauranga, and Wellington-Napier.