Heritage railway is making tracks to preserve history

For more than a decade a solitary red light has signalled the end of the line for trains belonging to the Waitara Railway Preservation Society.

But last week saw a historical milestone in the club’s history as its yellow TR407 locomotive slowly travelled down the first few metres of a new track extension.

“It’s been four years in the planning so it’s very exciting that the building part of things is underway,” says Mike Zeier, who is in charge of the project to lay 300 metres of new track so the society’s trains can access the Lepperton rail yard just off State Highway 3a north of Inglewood.

“We will be there in a few weeks now, and ready to travel with passengers by Christmas, fingers crossed.”

The Waitara Railway Preservation Society was formed in 1999 in order to keep trains running on the branch railway that used to serve the AFFCO freezing works before it closed down. Run by a team of tireless train-mad volunteers, the society has been holding heritage excursions since 2003, giving excited small children and their families memories of a bygone era.

The society has one serviceable locomotive, with another’s restoration nearly complete. Once that is done, there are another three in a deteriorating condition waiting the wings.

The train ride from Waitara climbs the steepest gradient on a preserved railway in New Zealand (1 in 40 for the geeks amongst us), passes under the SH3 overbridge on Big Jim’s Hill and then through the society’s depot and yards at Waitara Rd. Crossing the picturesque Waiongana Stream, the journey ends parallel to Kiwirail’s Marton-to-New Plymouth line just short of the old Lepperton rail yards, at that red stop light.

“Because there is just the one track, and nowhere to turn round, our locomotives have to push the carriages up to Lepperton and then pull them back down again,” Mike says.

“This isn’t ideal as it means the driver is sitting a long way from the front and has to rely on a guard with a radio to tell him if there are any issues up ahead.

“It’s going to be great to be able to pull both ways as we will be able to switch the locomotive from one end of the train to the other in the yard.”

The $88,000 project to build the track is being financed through grants from the Taranaki Electricity Trust, TSB Community Trust and the Lotteries Commission – and a lot of free labour from the team of volunteers.

“It’s by far the largest track-laying project in the society’s history”, Mike says.

“It’s also an opportunity to pass on old skills and learn some new ones. We are working hard and having a lot of laughs along the way.”

It will take 250 tonnes of small rocks, called ballast, to provide a solid foundation for the wooden sleepers and iron rails that make up the track the trains runs on.

The sleepers and rail were donated to the society by the Duncan and Davies Nursery, known as the Stepping Stones Nursery, on Waitara Rd, when it was decided to tear up the branch line which used to carry plants to be exported all over the world.

“It’s nice that we can recycle track that has some local history so it can be part of a brand new story,” Mike says.

“It’ll be good to see trains running on those rails again.”

Excursions are held on the first and third Sunday of each month, departing from Queen St, Waitara. Tickets are $15 for adults and children $5 with under 5s free. A family ticket for 2 adults and up to 2 children is $30. There is no need to book and pay as you board. The trip takes around 80 minutes. Please note there are no toilets on board. For more information, visit waitararailway.org.nz or the society’s Facebook page.

Words by Polly Catlin-Maybury