Saturday, 10 July 2010

Early Years of the Weka Pass Railway – Part 2 : History

This text appeared originally as a linked article from the introductory page. It is reproduced as written and unedited since 1999. Please note that this blog is a personal journal and does not purport to be officially representative of the Weka Pass Railway in any way.

Also please note that this article has not been updated since 1999 and therefore is not current with the operation of the railway as it is today. The intention of these articles is to present some of the history of the railway during an earlier period of its operation, rather than the contemporary situation.

The Weka Pass Railway is a New Zealand heritage railway based in Waipara, North Canterbury. It is operated on a 12 km length of the former Waiau Branch Railway between Waipara and Waikari. The railway is operated by an incorporated society whose members come from all walks of life and are largely resident in the city of Christchurch, 60 km to the south. The railway began carrying passengers in 1984 and is now well established locally and nationally.



The first stage of the Waiau Branch line inland through the Weka Pass to Waikari was completed in 1882. This area is noted for its scenery and the railway passes through many large cuttings, around tight curves and on steep gradients (max 1 in 47). When originally built the line was expected to be part of the South Island Main Trunk north of the city of Christchurch. Further sections of the line through Hawarden, Medbury, Balmoral, Pahau, Culverden, Achray, Rotherham and Waiau were constructed in subsequent years. The line was officially opened to Medbury in 1884 and to Culverden in 1886 but the final section to Waiau was not completed until 1919. In the 1920s the decision was made to take the Main Trunk Line on a coastal route north out of Waipara. The SIMT which involved major earthworks and many engineering difficulties was not completed until 1945.

The Waiau Branch suffered the fate of many rural branch lines in latter years as increasing competition from road transport saw a decline in traffic carried. For many years the railways were protected from this competition by mileage limits; as these were gradually increased, more and more branches were closed. The branch had a short reprieve in its twilight years when large amounts of logs were carried from the Balmoral forest. Closure occurred in January 1978.

Following the closure the line gradually decayed. All of the track remained in place except for the removal of a level crossing at Waikari where the road crossed a national state highway. Some of the station buildings were removed or demolished soon after the closure. The mainline connection along with some of the associated sidings remained in place at Waipara and the line was occasionally used as a backshunt when long trains were crossed there. The national railway union banned the removal of the track for a period of five years after the closure. However tenders were called for the first demolition work in August 1982. That part of the line which was not purchased for preservation was lifted in stages around 1982/83, including the large bridges at the Hurunui and Pahau rivers.


A public meeting at Waipara in August 1982 saw a steering committee established to investigate the Weka Pass Railway proposal. There had been interest from a number of people in preserving part of this old branch line particularly in the scenic Weka Pass. The impetus came from local Waipara people who saw the tourist potential, and railway enthusiasts, many drawn from the Ferrymead Railway. The Society was formally established in December of that year. The new group began negotiating with NZ Railways and other parties to purchase track, locomotives, rolling stock and other facilities. In May 1983 the first major public event the "Mayfair" was held and featured the operation of locomotives and rolling stock from Ferrymead and McLeans Island Steamscene. December 1983 saw the arrival of the first of the locomotives and rolling stock. The society also negotiated the purchase of the first 30 km of the branch line from Waipara to the south bank of the Hurunui River. In 1984 the society began to operate trains in its own right on the first 2 km of the line, later extended to Frog Rock. Later that year the historic steam locomotive K 88 operated passenger trains on the line. By April 1985 passengers were able to be carried by train to Herberts Crossing where trolleys and an inspection car operated to Waikari. Train running was extended to Waikari by December of that year.

The Railway suffered a major setback in 1986 when heavy rain damaged the line in a number of places. It was decided to close the line for major repairs. Also at this time the future of the line beyond Waikari, at which it was bisected by the state highway where the track had been removed, was reassessed. Over the next two years the members decided to lift all of the track beyond Waikari. Major repair works and earthworks were also carried out between Waipara and Waikari to remedy longstanding problems resulting from ground movement and slipping. Extensive track repairs included the use of salvaged materials from the lifted portion of line. By April 1987 trains were again running to the 5.5 km peg. The railway's first station at Glenmark (Waipara) was then under construction. Track removal beyond Waikari began in 1986 at Medbury and continued back to Waikari where this work was finally completed in 1991.


The second decade of the Weka Pass Railway has been one largely of consolidation of the previous work, rather than major developments. One of its biggest achievements was the restoration of steam locomotive A 428 which was completed in 1993. An ongoing activity during that era has been the continued track refurbishment which saw the line reopened in stages, reaching Frog Rock in 1991 and Herberts Crossing in 1992. A massive reconstruction of the formation and track at Waikari, together with the purchase and erection of another station building, saw the line finally reopened in 1999, at which time it was also formally opened. The 1990s also saw the development of the popular and successful Waipara Vintage Festivals, which have been held every two years since 1995 and have featured locomotives and rolling stock from around New Zealand.


Track and Buildings

The Weka Pass Railway owns approximately 13 km of mainline track between Waipara and its terminus at Waikari. Station buildings, yards and associated facilities have been constructed at Glenmark (Waipara) and Waikari, the latter including a turntable. There is also a depot located in the old NZR Waipara railyard where an engine shed, carriage repair depot and hall are located along with various storage sidings. The railway also has a connection to New Zealand Railways Corporation's South Island Main Trunk via the Waipara crossing loop. Signalling equipment has been installed at Waipara station along with tablet machines. A system using telephones and VHF radio communication with their own repeater controls the operations of trains on the line.

Locomotives and Rolling Stock

The railway presently owns five locomotives, all formerly owned by New Zealand Railways. Two operational and one parts-only DG class diesel electric locomotives have been the mainstay of train operations since the beginning of the railway. For shunting and work train use, a smaller DSA class diesel mechanical shunter was purchased in 1992. The Society's only steam locomotive, A 428, was leased from its owners in Greymouth (now in perpetuity) in 1983 and fully restored ten years later.

A large collection of rolling stock is now a feature of the Weka Pass Railway. This includes 11 passenger vehicles (two constructed from former stock wagons), and approximately 30 goods wagons, some of which are used for track works. Some are owned by the railway and others leased from Rail Heritage Trust. The railway also owns a 10 ton diesel rail crane and several motor trolleys.