Heritage Railway Revival

By Alina Suchanski

Trains have been carrying passengers and goods in New Zealand since the 1860s. Before roads were even built, railways played an important role in the opening up and development of the country's inland settlements. Alina Suchanski visited a heritage railway site in Mandeville, Southland, to get the feeling of what it was like to travel by rail 160 years ago. 

Inside the cabin of the K92 engine the train driver moved levers and turned knobs as the fireman kept feeding wood into the furnace. The smell of smoke and steam filled the air. A bell rang and there was a whistle, then the train began to roll - and for the next few minutes I was transported into the 19th century.

Located on State Highway 94, halfway between Gore and Riversdale, the Mandeville settlement is so tiny that if you blinked while driving past, you’d miss it, but on the day of

By Alina Suchanski

Trains have been carrying passengers and goods in New Zealand since the 1860s. Before roads were even built, railways played an important role in the opening up and development of the country’s inland settlements. Alina Suchanski visited a heritage railway site in Mandeville, Southland, to get the feeling of what it was like to travel by rail 160 years ago. 

Inside the cabin of the K92 engine the train driver moved levers and turned knobs as the fireman kept feeding wood into the furnace. The smell of smoke and steam filled the air. A bell rang and there was a whistle, then the train began to roll – and for the next few minutes I was transported into the 19th century.

Located on State Highway 94, halfway between Gore and Riversdale, the Mandeville settlement is so tiny that if you blinked while driving past, you’d miss it, but on the day of my visit a beautifully restored old train standing right by the roadside attracted the attention of passers-by. Many of them had stopped to take photos of the handsome-looking machine, with its polished brass components contrasting against a glossy black body shrouded in clouds of steam wafting from its underbelly. Consisting of the Rogers K92 steam locomotive and A294 passenger carriage, the train and the railway line itself have a long and interesting history.

From its inception until the 1950s, New Zealand’s rail was powered mainly by steam locomotives. In the beginning, they were imported from the United Kingdom and later from the United States. It wasn’t until 1889 that New Zealand began manufacturing its own locomotives in the Christchurch suburb of Addington (Rail transport in New Zealand, n.d.).

New Zealand’s first public railway, built by Canterbury Provincial Railways, was opened in 1863, running the short distance between Christchurch and the wharf at Ferrymead. In February 1867, Southland Province opened a railway line from Invercargill to Bluff. By 1870 New Zealand had 74 kilometres of railway, all of it on the eastern and southern plains of the South Island (Atkinson, 2010).

Initially, short railway lines were built by regional governments, but a decade later focus shifted to building a nationwide network linking major centres on both the North and the South Island of New Zealand. The Kingston Branch was a major railway line in Southland. Construction began in 1864 in Invercargill and reached Kingston in 1878. It was operated by New Zealand Railways (NZR) for over 100 years before it was closed in 1979. Reinstated by NZR as a heritage service named the Kingston Flyer, running on the northern section of the Invercargill-Kingston line, it continued on and off under different owners. Today, the northernmost 14-kilometre part between Kingston and Fairlight is used as a tourist attraction (Kingston Flyer, n.d.).

The locomotives and carriages of those early trains have had mixed fate over the years, from being looked after while serving an important function, to being abandoned at the end of their productive life and allowed to rust; sometimes thrown into rivers and bogs. More recently, some have been re-discovered, retrieved, and restored to their former glory to be used and cherished again.

Restoring historic trains has a strong following amongst heritage rail enthusiasts who form clubs and trusts where they raise thousands of dollars and spend countless volunteer hours to bring vintage locomotives, carriages, and other railway paraphernalia back to life.

A heritage railway site developed in Mandeville, near Gore is home to the Waimea Plains Railway Trust, where on open days, rides on a restored heritage train are offered to visitors.

In the late 19th century, the proposal to build the Waimea Plains Branch Railway caused controversy and opposition from some Southlanders. Connecting Gore to Elbow (now Lumsden), this 59km railway line would considerably shorten the trip between Dunedin and Kingston, which was seen by Invercargill businessmen as an attempt to bypass their town, thus cutting off a significant revenue stream from the trade between Southland and Queenstown.

This railway line started as a private enterprise to serve the interests of mainly Dunedin-based wealthy and influential landowners, founders of the New Zealand Agricultural Company that owned over 300,000 acres of arable land between Gore and Lumsden.

The plan was to divide the land into farms and sell them. To make this offer more attractive to potential buyers, the idea of a private railway providing access to the farms came about, as there were no roads yet in this area. And so the Waimea Plains Line was built and a grand opening held on 31 July 1880.

The K92 locomotive was built in 1877 in Paterson, New Jersey, USA as part of a special order by the New Zealand Railways for eight Rogers locomotives from the K class, which arrived in the country in 1878.

Initially they were used on the express service between Christchurch and Dunedin. Later they operated in the Southland region, on the Invercargill-Kingston and the Waimea Plains Line. It was while working on the Waimea Branch that these K Class locomotives acquired the name of ‘Kingston Flyer’ due to their ability to attain high speeds even when pulling heavy loads. At Kingston, the trains connected with the TSS Earnslaw steamship for transfer of passengers and freight. For many years, this was the primary means of transport from Otago and Southland to Queenstown, as the road along Lake Wakatipu did not open until 1936.

Towards the end of 1926, the K locomotives were written off, having reached the end of their economic life. They were placed into rivers for erosion control. The K92, along with some other locomotives, ended up in the Oreti River, near Lumsden (Rogers K92, n.d.).

There she remained, until Te Anau railway enthusiasts from the Fiordland Vintage Machinery Club retrieved the engine in 1985. Carran Contractors did the lifting of the engine and Northern Southland Transport trucked it to Te Anau.

Chris Carran of Carran Contracting remembers the job well. “It took three days to dig it out. We weren’t exactly sure where it was and we needed to know where to dig. There were other locomotives and wagons dumped there, so we needed to make sure we got the right one – and they were completely covered with water and mud,” he said.

The restoration took thousands of man-hours spread over more than 10 years. At the end of this period the steam engine was returned to working order. In 1997, due to financial and organisational problems, K92 was moved for storage to Taieri Gorge Railway workshop in Dunedin to undergo further restoration. It was subsequently sold to the Waimea Plains Railway Charitable Trust formed in 1998 by Colin Smith to recreate a working heritage railway precinct on a portion of the original Waimea Plains Line (Rogers K92, n.d.).

 

Mr Smith, who developed the Croydon Aviation Heritage Centre and owns the Croydon Aircraft Company, took on establishing the heritage railway precinct as his next project. He said that acquiring the locomotive was the catalyst that got things moving and praised the restoration work the Fiordland Vintage Machinery Club did on the K92.

The new owners moved the locomotive to Gore for two more years of work resulting in the engine being certified for service. After restoration she has spent time at Ferrymead in Christchurch, Plains Railway, Tinwald, Ashburton, and Oamaru Steam before returning to Kingston in 2008.

Since 2009, K92 has been based in Mandeville while other railway assets have been acquired to help create the Heritage Rail Precinct, including water vats from Washdyke and Milton, the original Carriage and Wagon Building from Hillside Workshops in Dunedin known as the Gulley Building, the only remaining imported American 50 Sellers Turntable, and several period carriages from the late 1870s, 80s and 90s.

In October 2018, K92 had her first official running day taking passengers in the A294 carriage on a section of line within the Mandeville railyard area. This was the first opportunity for the trust to implement a revenue stream. Prior to that, all restoration work and item purchases were financed by donations and grants. Since then, the train has operated for eight months a year and shuts for four months between May and August. Its sister heritage railway service, the Kingston Flyer, has recently had its first run in eight years, which attracted a lot of media attention. It carried 360 passengers during a special leg of the inaugural Great Southern Train Tour organised by the Pounamu Tourism Group.

“These remaining sections of the original Waimea Plains Railway and the Kingston Branch are now beginning to portray an important period of early European settlement in Northern Southland, and the influence the Otago province had”, Mr Smith said.

 

Sources: 1. Rail transport in New Zealand; Kingston Flyer, Wikipedia 2. Railways, Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand 3. Kingston Flyer sold to mystery buyers, Stuff 4. Waimea Plains Railway Mandeville NZ