Locomotive embarking on another journey

8 January, 2023

Photo: Lisa Fleck

Story republished from:  Southland Times – Louisa Steyl

Names and love hearts carved into a steam locomotive cab some 50 years ago tell the story of just one of this 140-year-old steam engine’s lives.

Some couples who played on the F150 when she was installed in the Newfield Park Playground in Invercargill might still be together, Lindsay Buckingham muses.

Buckingham is the chairman of the Southern Steam Train Charitable Trust, which has begun the mammoth task of restoring the locomotive to its former glory.

Take the boiler, for example – the heart of the loco. Using chalk, the outside had to be divided into 1500 small squares and each one had to be measured with an ultrasound machine to check the thickness of the steel.

Parts of the structure would have to be repaired or replaced to build the thickness back up before it could be signed off by a boiler inspector, Buckingham said.

But initial indications suggest everything is fixable, “so no showstoppers, basically”.

Photo Supplied

The chassis has been completely stripped and will be sandblasted and coated before being pieced back together.

The three-year project will cost about $700,000, but this means the trust could pay local businesses to do the work rather than relying on volunteer hours.

“If we were relying on volunteers, it would take 30 years,” Buckingham said.

Most of the F150 is sitting at E-Type Engineering, which has been working on the boiler and chassis since July.

Workshop manager Ethan Todd said the first few months were spent stripping and deciphering what would need to be rebuilt.

“I was pretty amazed with the age of it and the nick it was in.

“It’s amazing when you look at the date stamps.”

The F150 was designed by Henry Dubbs and built in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1881 before it was transported to New Zealand to begin service in Greymouth in 1882.

It was transferred to Christchurch in 1924 and then to Invercargill in 1955 when there was still 256km of railway track in Southland being used for passenger trains, which ran from Dunedin, Tokonui and Lumsden into Invercargill and Bluff.

Back then, Waikiwi even had its own railway station. It was bowled in 1961.

By the time the F150 was withdrawn from service in 1958, there was just 201km of track being used for passenger rail; which would drop to 170km the following year.

It was stored in the Invercargill railway yard for a while, and then in 1961 the loco was donated to the Invercargill City Council and placed in the Newfield Park Playground alongside a WW2 Valentine tank.

But, 13 years later it was moved again – this time to Dunedin after being donated to the Ocean Beach Railway.

In 1986, the F150 was leased to Plains Railway in Ashburton where it was dismantled with the intention of restoration but the project went cold.

“We recovered it in bits and pieces,” Buckingham said.

“It’s special that we got it back to Invercargill, and it will be in Invercargill going forward.”

Buckingham’s own love of trains came from his childhood when he used to “get into trouble” playing around tracks.

“We used to go down and collect blasting wires and hook tracks up, not knowing we were building circuits.

“We learned we could make the signals come alive. But we only did it twice until a little van from NZ Railways came along, and we all scarpered into the grass,” he recalled.

His older brother was also heavily interested in locomotives and, as a young man, Buckingham spent five years working for NZ Railways.

“I got to play with a real train set.”

But he’s keen to point out the F150 restoration project – made possible with funding from Community Trust South, the ILT Foundation, and the Lottery Environment and Heritage Fund – is for the benefit of the Southland community at large.

“It’s not just a bunch of boys playing with toys.”

Once restored, the trust hopes to run the F150 from Invercagill to Bluff about three times a year, although this will depend on whether they can get approval from KiwiRail.

“Ultimately we want our own little section of railway,” Buckingham said.

That way, the trust can train its own drivers and run private heritage rail trips every weekend.

There were about 30 groups in New Zealand already doing this, Buckingham said, and the trust believed the section of track from Lorneville to Makarewa would be ideal.

Considering Invercargill was already home to attractions like Motorcycle Mecca and Transport World, Buckingham said: “We see it (train restoration) as another piece of the jigsaw that makes this place the centre of heritage wheels.”