Wrecked Steam Train Rises Again
It was a dark winter’s night in the early hours of July 16, 1956 and AB745 was hauling a full load of freight from Wanganui to New Plymouth. The newly overhauled steam train had been flying along when a report came through from the driver of a passenger train about some unevenness of the track near a crossing at Hawera. It had been raining for several days and the site of the suspect track was prone to flooding. The driver throttled back as he approached and braked. Suddenly the engine began to lurch as the track subsided underneath and 84 tonnes of metal tumbled down the bank, pulling the freight cars with it. The fireman jumped clear, but the driver clung desperately to his levers, on a wild 50ft (15m) ride down.
Both men survived but the pride of the line was wrecked, a pile of twisted metal at the bottom of a steep bank. Considered too expensive to salvage, it was buried where it lay – an ignominious grave for an engine expertly crafted by the North British Locomotive Company in Glasgow and put into service in New Zealand in May 1922. It had powered thousands of people to their destinations pulling the Taranaki Flyer express from New Plymouth to Wellington.
The engine lay undisturbed until November 2001, when it was purchased for $1 by the Hootsville Charitable Trust, and in 2002 salvage work began. It was a big project after 46 years underground, but the dedicated group of steam train enthusiasts was determined to rescue the engine.
By then AB745 was one of only two surviving British built steam engines in the country. The raised wreck was a sorry sight, and it was taken to Waitara where it was kept for a few years. In 2007, the Taranaki Flyer Society was formed and AB745 was transported to its new home at the old railway goods shed at Stratford, where work could finally begin to restore it to its former glory – and to get it back on the tracks.
Restoration Committee Chairman and Project Manager Harry Hessell takes up the story: “When I first saw the engine, my first thought was ‘oh my gawd, what have I taken on here!’ But I knew it could be done. Bob Anderson was a great example of what can be achieved - he dug an old locomotive out of a river in the South Island, went to night school to learn how to weld and restored the engine over five years. At least our engine was dry! People used to say, ‘oh, that old hunk of rust!’ whenever the engine was mentioned, but now everyone has woken up – they can see that it is a special locomotive slowly coming back to life. There is a lot of interest in its progress.”
Harry is in his element leading the dedicated team of volunteers carefully restoring the Taranaki Flyer. He worked at the Auckland Museum of Transport and Technology in the 70s, restoring “anything and everything- the only thing I hadn’t restored was a train!” He went from MOTAT to curator of Paeroa Maritime Museum, restoring boats and saving them from the scrap yard. The next focus was on a very special boat, the Jane Gifford at Waiuku, where Harry was Operations Manager and Sail Master for three years on the historic sailing scow. More boat restoration work followed for Harry, in Franklin and Tairua. “I went to Taranaki to retire and what do you know – ended up restoring a train,” Harry laughs.
Harry is proud of his volunteer team, all bound together by their love for the old engine and a determination to see it ride the tracks again.
“The society has 21 members and around eight at a time are at the shed regularly. None has to be expert, just methodical. We have a retired watchmaker, used to working with tiny instruments, who now works with a crescent spanner nearly as big as him. There’s a retired nurse who loves taking on all the dirty jobs and getting her hands greasy. Our newest recruit is a 14 year old farm boy who is so enthusiastic about the Flyer, he’s contacted TV One and they will be filming a Close Up programme about it. People come to have a look, and before you know it, they’re wielding a hammer!”
Support from other rail organisations has boosted the project. Huntly’s Bush Tramway, Plimmerton’s Main Line Steam, Paekakariki Steam Incorporated and Feilding Steam have all offered parts, labour and donations. Railway memorabilia are also gratefully accepted for the New Zealand Railway display cabinet at the Stratford shed.
The saving grace for AB745 was her boiler – overhauled and ‘A’ certified just before the accident, it passed inspection with flying colours, saving the society up to $500,000. The restoration plan is methodical - wheel connecting rods taken off and inspected – one cracked; pistons taken apart and in fairly good condition; take out all the boiler flue tubes; use donated ‘bogie’ wheel sets from Huntly to place under the boiler and push under gantries (the main driving wheels weigh over two tonnes each); strip everything down, x-ray and check over, paint; start reassembly. The cab was wrenched off when the engine was salvaged and the boiler is missing its funnel.
The restoration is estimated as a five to seven year project costing $1 million. Financial help has already come in from Taranaki Electrical Trust and Taranaki Savings Bank.
“Our aim is to restore the Flyer so she can be hired out to go mainline,” says Harry. “There are a lot of rules and regulations involved in that, but we have had a lot of support from Kiwi Rail. It will be a great tourist attraction, running from Stratford, through Tangarakau and on to Taumarunui. It’s beautiful country through there and what better way to see it than from a carriage pulled by this wonderful historic steam engine, brought back to life after being buried and forgotten for nearly 50 years.”