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Full steam ahead: Catching the Heartland Flyer from Paekākāriki to Woodville

Jenny Nicholls travels the old way from Paekākāriki to Woodville.

Siegfried Sassoon could be standing next to me, on the platform at Paekākāriki station as the visitor from another time wheezes in majestically, belching plumes of black and white. And then a wag shouts, “ELECTRIC’S BETTER!” and drags us back to the 21st century. The wit is a Metlink guard on the suburban train that has crept into the opposite platform much more modestly, disgorging a tweed-hatted throng with camera lenses as long as human femurs.

He is right, of course. But the crowd pouring from the clean, efficient FP/FT Matangi class electric multiple unit have come to worship its ancestor, a soot-spewing Ja class 4-8-2 locomotive fuelled by tonnes of West Coast coal and the labour of men whose sweat sparkles like diamonds in a coal seam.

Between 1940 and 1956, New Zealand Rail boasted 91 of these huge J and Ja class locomotives. Most came from Scotland, but 35 were built at the Hillside Railway Workshops in Dunedin. One of these was Ja1271, our ride for the day. Built in 1956, this juggernaut was one of the last steam locomotives made for NZR.

The numerals 4-8-2 refer to its wheel arrangement: four leading wheels, eight powered and coupled driving wheels, and two trailing wheels. This powerhouse configuration is known as a “Mountain” type, possibly because the first version ever made anywhere – the X class, in 1908 – was built in the Addington Workshops in Christchurch to haul freight through the North Island’s Volcanic Plateau.

“Mountain” or “monster”… both seem fair metaphors for a beast that will consume around five tonnes of coal and 25,000 litres of water just getting us to Woodville and back. The train leaves the historic station at Paekākāriki at 9.10am for one of Steam Incorporated’s popular excursions: the “Heartland Flyer”. Our route takes us through the Manawatū Gorge, a spectacular, winding river gap in the Ruahine and Tararua ranges. From our carriage windows there will be a good view, across the river, of nature vs tarmac – what remains of the buttressed main road through the gorge, irrevocably lost to traffic after being closed by slips in 2017.

KiwiRail drivers Grant Allen (“Sparky”), left, and Stephen Brabender (“Brabs”) keep a Ja class steam locomotive flying though the Manawatū countryside.

Guard Graeme Clover checks tickets.

Steam Incorporated representative Jack Dolman helps Brabender keep a watchful eye on the track ahead.

Liam Miller from Levin with his father Matt.

Passenger Savannah Hooper (right) looks out a carriage window dating from the 1900s.

Allen (left) and Brabender swap engineer and fireman roles throughout the journey.

Teenage volunteers Theo Tresidder (left) and Tommy Secker.

The Heartland Flyer's squadron of volunteers from Steam Incorporated.

A view at the Woodville end of the Manawatū Gorge, now permanently closed to road traffic. Steam Incorporated has restored many vintage carriages, most painted the “Midland Red” shown here – a favourite NZR carriage colour since the 1920s.

Like all stars, Ja1271 gets frequent photo ops on the excursion to Woodville. Built at Hillside Railway Workshops, Dunedin, in 1956, the coal-fired steam locomotive was one of the last made for New Zealand Railways.

The train will pass through Paraparaumu, Waikanae, Ōtaki, Levin and Palmerston North. At Shannon, there’s a longer stop, to allow us to explore the country town, check out the station museum and photograph the train. Photographing the train is taken very seriously by the excursion organisers, who organise two staged photo-opps during the day. This involves driving the locomotive slowly toward our flock of iPhones and camera lenses, like a star advancing toward paparazzi on the red carpet.

In the cab are the only paid staff onboard, two drivers seconded from KiwiRail: Grant Allen (“Sparky”) and Stephen Brabender (“Brabs”). The rest of the 20 or so staff it takes to run the train are volunteers.

Sparky and Brabs are as happy as boys in a sooty sandpit, despite having to take turns being fireman – which means keeping the firebox stoked with coal in the hot, confined space of a swaying cab swirling with cinders. It’s Sparky’s turn first, and he barely breaks a sweat. “It’s surprisingly easy,” he says. “It makes a change from the Northerner!”

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Joining them in the cab is Jack Dolman, the “owner’s rep” from Steam Inc, who seems to know every nut, pipe and piston in the 63-year-old locomotive. The three are dressed in period navy slouch caps and overalls, and look absurdly photogenic.

Being press, I am honoured with a brief visit to the cab after signing Form B4 208 V3.1, a suitably old-school document filled with a list of sensible instructions. Look both ways before getting on or off the “MPU” (Motive Power Unit). High heels or jandals? Don’t even think about it. And there was that line in bold: “Do Not Distract the Locomotive Engineer.”

KiwiRail drivers Grant Allen (“Sparky”), left, and Stephen Brabender (“Brabs”).

An “engineer” is what we call drivers on modern trains, and like Sparky and Brab’s KiwiRail jackets their everyday title has been relegated to the locker. Today, Brabs is a train driver, and his speed limit is an impressive 70kph. I watch him as he leans out his window to see past the endless boiler in front, his eyes on railway lines rushing toward him, his left hand lightly holding a long lever or turning a hissing bronze tap.

With his right hand he tugs, periodically, the long horizontal chain above his head. This is the warning whistle, that thrilling, spine-tinglingly nostalgic, unearthly hoot that paralyses rabbits and sends cattle flying. Our snorting, fizzing, speeding creature of iron and steam has a voice.

The cab is steampunk heaven. The polished copper and brass pipes and taps and valves and chunky, round flickering gauges and dials, wreathed in steam are the guts of the beast. The round firebox doors, shaped like ladybird’s wings, open wide for rhythmic feeds of coal from Sparky’s shovel. Everything is moving and sighing and clanking. It seems amazing that such a huge train can travel this fast, propelled by one man and his shovel.

At Shannon I clamber back into my carriage, barred by Form B4 208 from being in the cab during the tunnels of the Manawatū Gorge. Fat, sooty scarves of smoke stream past my window.

Our carriages and the guard van date from the 1900s and the 1930s, and are painted in NZR’s favourite carriage colour since the 20s, a tint called “Midland Red”. Like Ja1271, they have been restored by Steam Incorporated, which also owns the neat, corrugated-iron-clad workshops behind the Paekākāriki railway station.

This remarkably successful society of train buffs dates back to the official end of scheduled steam services in New Zealand. After NZR quit steam in 1971, a few far-sighted enthusiasts clubbed together to save what they could. Thanks to decades of toil and dedication, steam has returned to the “main line” in the form of their sumptuously restored locomotives. The group also owns guard vans, rolling stock, and enough vintage carriages to seat 500. Their locomotive collection includes two oil-fired steam models from the 30s, and three mid-century diesel-electric locomotives.

One of the most poignant in their collection is the Ab608 “Passchendaele”, built at Addington the year Sassoon wrote his poem, in 1915. Minister of Railways Gordon Coates gave this locomotive its name in 1925, to commemorate the battle in Belgium, when its horror must have still been fresh in the collective memory.

At Woodville, Dolman and the other mechanical volunteers climb over the locomotive, checking bearings and lubrication and temperature. What are they looking for?

“Well… comes down to instinct,” says Dolman carefully. “It’s quite hard to vocalise. It’s just what you feel. It’s the sound of things, the temperature of things.”

It is striking, not just how intuitively skilled these boys are at working among vintage pistons and heritage boilers – but how young they are. They and their fellow volunteers still “touch and test, and listen to the wheels”.            

For upcoming excursions and bookings, visit steaminc.org.nz.

Video by Ethan Calder. 

This article was first published in the April 2019 issue of North & South.

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