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Vintage railcars back on track

Silver Fern railcars at Opaki in 2018 on a special charter trip. PHOTO/NZME

All three iconic Silver Fern railcars finally arrived at their new home in Pahiatua on Fridfay, at the Pahiatua Railcar Society’s yards west of the town.

Silver Fern railcars making their way to their new home in Pahiatua though Masterton Station. PHOTO/GRACE PRIOR

The railcars, which travelled through Wairarapa, had been stored in Christchurch for quite some time, Pahiatua Railcar Society president Don Selby said.

The railcars are most famous for their service on the North Island Main Trunk daylight passenger train between Auckland and Wellington from December 14, 1972, to December 8, 1991.

The Silver Fern offered airline-style service on board.

Drinks, snacks, and a newspaper were supplied to passengers.

It had been announced at the beginning of September that the three Silver Fern railcars were purchased by the Pahiatua Railcar Society and would be arriving “in the next few weeks”, but it ended up taking about three and a half months for them to arrive.

Selby said they were first moved from Christchurch to Picton, waiting for space on the Aratere – the only ship which has railway tracks fitted in New Zealand.

“Only one railcar could be sent at a time as there is only one set of tie-downs for them as they are quite large at 47.5 metres overall and weigh in at 107 tonnes,” Selby said.

Selby said transportation was further slowed down when the Aratere had a week off for maintenance which caused a backlog of railway wagons.

“Thirdly, a fitter had to accompany them, and there was limited availability,” Selby said.

Finally, during November there was quite a lot of bad weather which caused big swells in Cook Strait and the marine authorities would not allow the railcars to be loaded in these conditions because such a heavy unit breaking loose could easily result in the loss of a ship, Selby said.

“In the last few weeks, all three railcars were grouped together in Wellington. They were hauled by a locomotive up to Pahiatua on the Wairarapa line, a trip over four hours,” Selby said.

Pahiatua Railcar Society made extensive preparations for the arrival of the railcars. This involved considerable work with heavy equipment on drainage improvements along with bulk earthworks, a lot metalling and additional supplies of used rail, sleepers and track fittings sourced and fitting by voluntary labour, Selby said.

The result was a “sizeable increase with a new three-track yard of considerable length and a major new internal fence around a compound in which to store the car,” Selby said.

“At the same time a large quantity of spare parts acquired in the deal, involving major costs. Around 1000 hours of very hard voluntary labour has been carried out so far,” Selby said.

“Next, all three railcars require quite a bit of work to get them up to operational standards – they have to be fully certified by inspecting engineers and rigorous safety standards maintained.”

He said the district now had “the nucleus of a major new tourism asset which is going to take a bit of time and quite a lot of money to get ready for service”.

Selby said that when the trains were progressively ready, there would be many ways they could be utilised to ensure their goals are met.

“The society has built up a well-equipped base in quite a strategic location and has years of experience running trips throughout the North Island,” Selby said.

“It has a great volunteer team comprising experienced fitters and restorers, along with other operational staff and an efficient marketing division, tied together by an efficient management and administration group.”

Selby said they had a group of five experienced railcar drivers, “all of whom are full-time locomotive engineers [drivers] with KiwiRail as members”.

He said what the association needed the most was “a lot of backing and commitment from the local district in the
immediate future”.


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