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Located on SH94, halfway between Gore and Riversdale, the Mandeville settlement is so tiny that if you blinked you'd miss it, but on the day of my visit a beautifully restored train stands by the roadside, attracting the attention of passersby, many stopping to take photos. Consisting of the Rogers K92 steam locomotive and A294 passenger carriage, the train and the railway line itself have a long and interesting history.
In late 19th century, the proposal to build the Waimea Plains Branch Railway caused similar controversy and opposition as the recent bid to build a tunnel or a monorail to shorten the trip between Queenstown and Milford.
Connecting Gore to Elbow (now Lumsden), this 59km railway line would considerably shorten the trip between Dunedin and Kingston, which was seen by Invercargill businessmen as an attempt to bypass their town, thus cutting off a significant revenue stream from the trade between Southland and Queenstown.
This railway line started as a private enterprise to serve the interests of mainly Dunedin-based wealthy and influential landowners, founders of the New Zealand Agricultural Company that owned over 300,000 acres of arable land between Gore and Lumsden. This included politicians Matthew Holmes, Horace Bastings, William Larnach (owner of Larnach Castle), Julius Vogel (ODT founder) and George Bell (in 1860s sub-editor of the ODT, later owner and editor of various newspapers).
The plan was to divide the land into farms and sell them. To make this offer more attractive to potential buyers, the idea of a private railway providing access to the farms came about, as there were no roads yet in this area. And so the Waimea Plains Line was built and a grand opening held on July 31, 1880.
The K92 locomotive was built in 1877 in Paterson, New Jersey, in the United States as part of an order by the New Zealand Railways. The eight Rogers locomotives arrived in the country in 1878.
Initially used on the express service between Christchurch and Dunedin, they were later operated in the Southland region, on the Invercargill-Kingston and the Waimea Plains Line. At Kingston the trains connected with the Earnslaw to transfer passengers and freight. For many years, this was the primary means of transport from Otago and Southland to Queenstown, as the road along Lake Wakatipu did not open until 1936.
It was while working on the Waimea Line that these K Class locomotives acquired the name of "Kingston Flyer" due to their ability to attain high speeds even when pulling heavy loads.
There she remained, until Te Anau railway enthusiasts from the Fiordland Vintage Machinery Club retrieved the engine in 1985. Carran Contractors did the lifting of the engine and Northern Southland Transport trucked it to Te Anau.
Chris Carran, of Carran Contracting, remembers the job well.
"It took three days to dig it out. We weren't exactly sure where it was and we needed to know where to dig. There were other locomotives and wagons dumped there, so we needed to make sure we got the right one and they were completely covered with water and mud," he said.
The restoration, led by Herbie Hall, took thousands of hours and more than 10 years. At the end of this period the steam engine was returned to working order. In 1997, due to financial and organisational problems, K92 was moved to Taieri Gorge Railway workshop in Dunedin for storage and to undergo further restoration. It was subsequently sold to the Waimea Plains Railway Charitable Trust formed in 1998 by Colin Smith to recreate a working heritage railway precinct on a portion of the original Waimea Plains Line.
"Nothing short of a visionary," is how George Gardner, the self-proclaimed whistle blower, describes Colin Smith, of Mandeville.
Mr Gardner is a vintage train enthusiast who regularly travels from his home in Greymouth to Mandeville to help the Waimea Plains Railway Trust with open days. Although he doesn't like the title, whistle blowing is his role on the days the Rogers K92 locomotive operates and he is fittingly equipped with an antique whistle that dates back to Victorian times.
Mr Smith, who developed the Croydon Aviation Heritage Centre and owns the Croydon Aircraft Company, took on establishing the heritage railway precinct as his next project. He said acquiring the locomotive was the catalyst that got things moving and praised the restoration work the Fiordland Vintage Machinery Club did on the K92.
The new owners moved the locomotive to Gore for two more years of work, resulting in the engine being certified for service.
Since 2009 K92 has been based in Mandeville while other railway assets have been acquired to help create the Heritage Rail Precinct, including water vats from Washdyke and Milton, the original Carriage and Wagon Building from Hillside, Dunedin (Gulley Building), the only remaining imported American 50 Sellers Turntable, and several period carriages from the late 1870s, '80s and '90s.
The next project is to build a shed for storing the K92 locomotive and the restored train carriages. The Trust received a lotteries grant that will finance the first half of the undertaking, which is expected be completed before winter.
In October 2018, K92 had its first official running day, taking passengers in the A294 carriage on a section of line within the railyard area. This was the first opportunity for the trust to implement a revenue stream. Until then, the restoration work and purchases of additional items had been financed by donations and grants.
"This remaining section of the original Waimea Plains Railway is now beginning to portray an important period of early European settlement in northern Southland, and the influence the Otago province had," Mr Smith said.
Inside the cabin of the K92 engine, the train driver moved levers and turned knobs as the fireman kept feeding wood into the furnace. The smell of smoke and steam filled the air. The bell rang and there was a whistle, then the train began to roll and for the next few minutes I was transported into the 19th century.
• The next running day open to the public will take place on February 23-24.