By JR on Sunday, January 15, 2012
Both the Indian Pacific and the Ghan now to run only once a week
WA'S travel and tourism rail icon the Indian Pacific is under threat and will slash services to stay afloat.
The world-famous train linking WA with the eastern states via the Nullarbor Plain is battling competition from low-cost airlines and the cruise ship market, amid slumping tourism and a high Australian dollar.
But its owner, Great Southern Railway, says China could come to the rescue as visitor numbers from the US, Britain and Europe drop.
GSR has been forced to cut back services on the Indian Pacific, which runs between Perth and Sydney via Adelaide, dropping back to one service a week from March 28 two months earlier than it usually scales back for the low season.
The Ghan, linking Darwin and Adelaide via Alice Springs, will from April 4 also only operate one service a week.
The Indian Pacific, which celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2010, and The Ghan are regularly mentioned in lists of the world's great rail journeys.
GSR interim general manager Russell Westmoreland could not rule out staff cuts in the future. "This is a commercial decision, like we saw Qantas had to do last year," he said. "We know it will have an impact on guests, but it is what we need to do for the survival of the industry.
"We have a lot of fixed costs before we even put a guest on the train. We have to hire the locos, hire the track and put staff on train, before we welcome one paying guest. But we're competing with airlines, cheap holidays in Bali, Fiji and places like that, so have to be smarter about the ways we do things."
The biggest threat is cruise ships. With most ships flying under international flags, operators pay staff wages based on offshore awards in different currencies.
Tourism group Australia's Golden Outback chief executive Jack Eerbeek said GSR could ensure its future by "freshening up" its "fantastic" product and catering for an army of retiring baby boomers.
"While the Indian Pacific has been well maintained, there is nothing new, like an observation deck, or a double-decker train cabin," he said. "Some of these new things could rekindle some interest in the product."
GSR is promoting travel to Perth and a hire car to drive to Albany and Esperance, then up via Wave Rock to Kalgoorlie. But Mr Eerbeek said GSR should promote an alternative.
"We'd like to see them take their car on the train and get off at Kalgoorlie, then drive down to Esperance and Albany and then up to Perth," he said. "Unfortunately, there are no facilities for taking cars off at Kalgoorlie at the moment."