Pleasant Point Railway

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Enthusiasts enable a peek into a more romantic past.

By Nathalie Brown Photographs: Brian High

They’re a dedicated lot, these steam railway enthusiasts. More often than not, they’re blokes past retirement age who are happy to spend two days or so each week restoring late 19th- and early 20th-century railway carriages, stripping down locomotives, laying tracks, and the like. They bring a lifetime’s worth of skills and the willingness to learn something new.

There are around 60 rail societies throughout New Zealand and each one is distinctive.

The Pleasant Point Railway and Historical Society Inc. in South Canterbury will celebrate its 50th anniversary on 20 September by offering steam train rides from 10.30am until 9pm.

 

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Half a century of restoring steam locomotives
Over the past 50 years the society’s volunteers have restored a fleet headed by two steam locomotives: Ab 699, built in 1922 by A&G Price Ltd, Thames, and one of New Zealand Railways’ early steam locomotives, D16, built in 1878 by Neilson & Company, Glasgow, Scotland — it took a major restoration job to get that operating. Then there are two diesel locomotives, a small Ruston and Hornsby built in the UK in 1955, and former New Zealand Railways shunter Tr18, built in the UK in 1938. 

The society’s rolling stock includes New Zealand’s only restored half-birdcage carriage, built in 1895 and at present being given its second complete restoration job, and a 1925 Model T Ford railcar, the only one of its type in the Southern Hemisphere. 

 

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An impressive operation
In all, four carriages and two guard’s vans run on 2km of meticulously maintained railway tracks between the restored former Pleasant Point Railway Station and the Keane’s Crossing complex. 

This building is impressive by most steam rail society standards. The volunteers assembled and built it with the help of their supplier, Calder Stewart from Milton. It houses a workshop, where the volunteers set to with lathes, grinding wheels, drill presses, and the woodworking gear needed to make the shapes and moulding. There’s a locomotive turntable, a meeting room, a model railway operating room, a museum, and an archive of more than 3000 pieces of information relating to the society and the local district. Then there’s a printing room, a souvenir shop, a vintage movie theatre, and a kitchen.

 

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Young volunteers
Most of the volunteers are well past retirement age, but there are several younger volunteers and all of them are enthusiastic railway evangelists. 

The future for Nicholas Trounson-Harris was mapped out when he asked for an ultimate Thomas the Tank Engine railway set as a wee boy. Now aged 18, he is the youngest member of the crew but started volunteering at the Pleasant Point Railway when he was 10.

“I really enjoy being with the other members. I don’t think of them as grandad age,” he says. “I’ve always liked trains. I started out nipping the tickets. By age 16 I had more responsibility and these days I most enjoy firing up the steam locomotive.” 

Nicholas works in the railway yards and station every Wednesday and Saturday, wood splitting, driving the shunter, cleaning the carriages and locos, going out to farms to get wood, splitting it up, and bringing it back. At present he’s looking for employment and has his heart set on working for KiwiRail. 

Thomas Kissell is 19 and a second-year student nurse at Timaru Hospital. He has a family history with railways. He’s been doing railway modelling for a few years and started volunteering at the Pleasant Point Railway over new year 2020. “I’m keen to gather the oral histories of the older members on video, but I mostly enjoy working with something that’s not theoretical. It’s good to learn hands-on stuff. Steam trains are cool. I’d recommend younger men and women to get into it. If you can lift a shovel, you’re fine,” he tells us.

 

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Josh Granger, aged 28, has been a volunteer for 10 years: “My gran’s square-dancing partner got me into it,” he says. “I learnt to drive the shunter and carried on to get my steam ticket in 2016. Before that I got my Model T and diesel driving ticket. I’m happy to do any role here. We’re looking for younger people to get into it. Once the kids have left the nest and you’re bored, come on out!”

All of this is maintained by some 15 volunteers, most aged over 70 and four in their late teens to 20s. Several women volunteers tend the administrative and catering jobs, taking bookings and providing refreshments for the tour groups that, until Covid-19 took hold, provided much of the income to fund the enterprise. A local identity, Terry Broughton, is writing a book about the 50-year history of the society. 

 

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Why do it?
Ask the volunteers why they spend their time here and they’ll talk about the romance of the steam locomotive era and the need to preserve its history. They especially value the camaraderie they find here. “I missed it in lockdown,” says Stewart Frew. “The social contact is a big part of it — pot-luck dinners and a meeting two or three times a year. Last year we did two day trips to other railways around the South Island.” 

Stewart owns a 1913 Ford Model T hand-cranked car and is a local vintage car club member. The bulk of the repair and maintenance equipment, from spare railway lines to buckets of bolts and nuts, is meticulously catalogued and stored in the shed in the adjoining paddock. 

The society sometimes borrows specialist equipment and can call on the skills and services of people who help as and where they can, not necessarily on the regular Wednesdays and Saturdays. Many of the volunteer sheddies bring tools from their home workshops — drills, welders, log splitters. Bill Noble, assistant general manager and yard boss responsible for allocating jobs to others, brings his own Hough front-end loader and the Isuzu truck that goes with it to do jobs around the railway. 

“Keeping the locomotives, carriages, and tracks in good order is a big part of the job,” says the society’s president, Bryan Blanchard. “Because they’re old, they can break down and you’ve got to make parts using a lathe, a drill press, all sorts of welders, and woodworking equipment. However, the larger engineering and upholstery projects are farmed out to local businesses.”

 

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Fairlie Branch line 
New Zealand Railways announced the closure of the Fairlie Branch line in 1967. 

The line had run through Pleasant Point for 93 years and was steam operated all that time, but, like many others throughout the country, it could no longer compete with road transport. 

After nearly a century of service to Pleasant Point and 84 years of service to the Mackenzie Country, the Fairlie Flyer blew its whistle for the last time on 2 March 1968. A special excursion train ran from Timaru to Fairlie and back, hauled by two Ab-class locomotives — 718 and 798 — plus 18 passenger carriages. 

Shortly afterwards, local identity Bill Timmings approached the Pleasant Point businessmen’s association with a proposal to erect a memorial to the line. An incorporated society was formed and it was decided to secure the former railway station, restore it, and find money to pay for one of the locomotives that were being sold for scrap.

Before long, two members of the newly formed society had bought a 46-year-old locomotive, Ab 699, for $600. It was one of many of that class that once operated on that branch line. On 28 November 1970, a diesel shunting locomotive pushed Ab 699 into place in front of the derelict Pleasant Point Railway Station. 

Bryan Blanchard remembers the original plan to keep it as a static display: “It stood in the centre of the town under a new veranda that had been constructed and attached to the former railway station to protect it from the weather. In 1970 no one actually believed Ab 699 would ever be steamed again but in order to prevent the locomotive from rusting out, as was generally feared it might, members preserved it by pouring barrels of used oil into the boiler. It was a day to be remembered when a small team put the first fire in.” Over the next few years, the small society started relaying track and the first steaming day took place at Labour Day weekend in 1975. The line may be only 1.5 miles (2.4km) relaid from the original 38 miles (61km) of the former Fairlie railway branch line, but each year it draws more than 10,000 people to the small town of 1200 people.

Movie nights
The original Pleasant Point Railway Station of 1875 houses a community and railway museum. Adjoining the railway station is the restored former Washdyke Railway Station signal box. At the Keanes Crossing complex is a fully restored locomotive turntable originally used at Cromwell, plus a vintage movie theatre. 

Notices for any given night’s programme run something like this one from 19 February 2020: “Another of our popular Saturday night movie nights. Starting at 7.30pm — $2 entry fee and a plate for supper. Everyone welcome — spread the word. 

“The usual first half [a selection of vintage cartoons and black and white newsreels] with the main movie, this week, from 1946: ‘The king of the cowboys’, Roy Rogers, in My Pal Trigger [his famous horse]. Also starring George ‘Gabby’ Hayes, Dale Evans [Rogers’ wife], Bob Nolan, and The Sons of the Pioneers.”

 

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Annual safety certificates
Every year each of the locos gets a warrant of fitness, being brought up to a safety standard that complies with NZ Transport Agency and SGS specifications. General manager and safety officer, Leon James, and another member, Jeff Tollan, take on much of the paperwork.

Safety is the highest priority at the museum and railway. No shortcuts are taken. No one is expected to take on heavy work alone.

“We make sure the yards are well maintained. There’s a lot of mowing and weed spraying on the job sheets. We keep the gear looking top notch. We’ve won a number of awards for the condition of the carriages and locos,” says Bryan.

Every project must be properly funded and approved by the executive, and they try to attract people who bring a bit of structure and business acumen. 

The volunteers have just finished rebuilding the carriage of the Model T railcar, which had suffered water damage round the side windows. 

“The Model T is unique,” says Bryan. “It was the brainwave of one of our foundation members, the late Russell Paul, who supervised its construction from old New Zealand Railways plans. Until the recent lockdown, we had people coming from all over the world to ride in it and visit our railway museum.” 

 

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Still loving it
The Pleasant Point Railway and Museum has ruled the lives of Bryan and his wife Marian since they attended the foundation meeting in February 1970. Bryan has been president since the early 1990s and Marian holds the positions of membership secretary and charter booking secretary.

Bryan makes a point of saying that the men couldn’t do the work without the support of their wives. 

“It takes up so much of our time that we couldn’t do it unless the women were happy for us to be out of the house so often,” he says.

 

Story and images supplied by The Shed magazine. Read more The Shed content here at the-shed.nz.























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