Full steam ahead: the Kingston Flyer

The return of the Kingston Flyer reminds us what it is about steam trains that stops us in our tracks.

FAR DOWN THE LINE, A GLEAMING SMOKESTACK BELCHES AS CARS SCREECH TO A HALT, THEIR OCCUPANTS SCRAMBLING FOR CAMERAS AND PHONES. A MOURNFUL WHISTLE HERALDS ANCIENT CARRIAGES FULL OF BEAMING FACES AS IT PULLS INTO THE CHARMING, AND WEE, FAIRLIGHT STATION. THE KINGSTON FLYER IS BACK IN BUSINESS. IT’S BEEN A LONG TIME COMING.

A HUNDRED YEARS AND MORE AGO

The Invercargill-Kingston railway opened in 1878, followed not long after by the line from Gore. It was the Gold Rush, and thousands were heading south. The Devil’s Staircase road route was still a distant dream, so the tedious train-plus-steamboat service was the only direct route between Queenstown and Southland – a boat to the settlement of Kingston at southern tip of Lake Whakatipu, and then a slow train to the stations beyond. In the early 1900s, however, speedy Yankee K locomotives were introduced to the Gore to Kingston line, almost halving the five- hour journey. Relieved travellers started calling this service the Kingston Flyer.

Reliving the age of steam.

​Passengers aside, the Flyer’s freight cars carried coal, fertiliser, machinery, grain and animals. It was a vital lifeline for farmers and regional townships. Each little siding had a station – or at least a goods shed – and some had much more. Garston, for example, boasted sheep and cattle loading yards.

Garston farmer Peter Naylor remembers how railwaymen lived in communities all along the line. Nearby Athol boasted the first jigger in Southland – a hand-driven affair with a red flag signalling that men were working. “Sometimes we got to go home from school on the jigger. The school bus only went so far before it dropped my sister and me off. The guys would pass on the jigger and say, ‘you kids want a ride home?’ They’d take us down the line and drop us opposite the house,” he recalls.

By the 1950s, however, a transition to diesel trains was already underway across New Zealand, and buses run by the New Zealand Railways Road Services were taking over many routes. The Kingston Flyer persisted as a peak periods-only service until Easter of 1957, when it was mothballed.

However, on December 21, 1971, the Kingston Flyer’s boiler was fired up once again for its new role: as a visitor attraction. It was, according to the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, “a rare example of a state- owned railway entering the heritage and preservation fields,” and received global media attention.

The train made two daily trips between Kington and Lumsden using AB Pacific locomotives and wooden carriages that dated to as far back as 1898. Russell Glendinning was appointed to drive them. It was a brilliant move. Russell was obsessed with steam engines – as a schoolboy in the settlement of Maclennan in The Catlins, he would get up at 4am to help the local train guard do the shunt before he went to school. He’d spent 20 years working on trains all over Southland by the time the Flyer came calling. Indeed, chatting to Russell put the icing on the cake for many a passenger. And there were many. He and his beloved train took more than 39,000 passengers on the Lumsden to Kingston ride over eight years, and Russell is remembered to this day as Mr Kingston Flyer.

Sadly, when flooding in April of 1979 damaged sections of the track beyond repair, the powers-that-be tore up the lines and moved the Flyer to Invercargill, where it served for a time on the Invercargill to Bluff and Wairio routes. That experiment failed. It was decided to bring the Flyer back and run it on a shorter section of track, along the 14-kilometre rail corridor from Kingston to the tiny Fairlight Train Station and back. So it was that in 1982 the two AB locomotives and their seven carriages made the long journey back to Kingston – by road!

“Have a Crunchie, hokey pokey bar. Crazy Crunchie, hokey pokey bar.” The Great Crunchie Train Robbery ad.

​Getting a train onto a truck is tricky, but taking it off proved far more challenging. When the transporters arrived at Fairlight, the ground was a quagmire and the second truck stuck fast. Tractors and bulldozers couldn’t budge it. In the end, they used the first locomotive to free the transporter and line it up with the railway lines so the engine could roll off. The next stage in the Kingston Flyer saga began.

TAKING CENTRE STAGE

For the next twenty years, the Flyer chugged from Kingston to the Fairlight siding and back, complete with driver, fireman and guards. Paula McAuliffe reckons being a guard on the Kingston Flyer was the best job she’s ever done because “almost everybody was in a good mood and there to enjoy themselves.”

During that time, the train also starred in films, TV shows and countless advertisements. “We did at least four Bollywood movies as well,” Paula says. “That was a hoot! Especially filming the extravagant musical numbers. The clothing was beautiful, but we got tired of hearing the same music over and over again. We’d go down to Fairlight and film down there, then run backwards and forwards with them dancing in the carriages and beside the train.” The producers were all for having the actors dance on top of the carriages, too, but the authorities drew the line at that.

You can catch Bollywood-adjacent Flyer action on YouTube to this day. Check out the video for ‘Deepavali Deepavali’ from the 2005 Tamil action film Sivakasi to watch a man in pink bell-bottoms shimmy with all he has while the train belches steam behind him. Or enjoy the more pensive ‘Cheliya Cheliya’ from the movie Kushi for some great closeups of the Flyer’s interior.

Kiwis will also remember the Kingston Flyer taking centre stage for the exterior shots in New Zealand’s longest-running TV ad, the ‘Great Crunchie Train Robbery’ 1975 promo for Cadbury Crunchie chocolate bars.

It features future New Zealand acting royalty in the form of Bruno Lawrence as a random ‘man with no shirt’ and Stuart Devenie (MNZM) as a priest/undercover cop-or-felon. There’s World War II aerial combat footage. A tunnel blows up. It’s amazing.

At the other end of the scale, the Flyer’s famous Thomas the Tank Engine Weekends weren’t so lavish, but were just as fun, according to Paula. “They were full on weekends, with Thomas’ face on the train and someone playing the Fat Controller. The kids loved it. Down at Fairlight we’d have [the magician] Wayne McEwan doing tricks and making balloon animals. We had all the carriages on, two runs a day and they were chocka the whole weekend.”

On some Opening Days, things went spectacularly wrong. Neville Simpson was in charge one memorable morning, towing all seven carriages – a longer-than-usual train. “When we left the station the guard’s van was across the points towards the wharf. Unfortunately, someone had changed the points. So when we took off, the train went one way and the guard’s van went up the other track and derailed just as we were crossing the road. We took off without it to keep the train running more or less on time. When we returned from Fairlight, we had to use the engine and the shunter to get the guard’s van back on. It took an hour, with everyone watching. And just as we finished a guy came up and said to me, ‘Oh, I missed most of that display – when’s the next one?’”

Another time, Neville says, “we ran a simulated emergency for the local Fire and Ambulance brigades. We parked a clapped- out Holden across the railway crossing and smashed the train right into it. Then we set the car alight and called the fire brigade and ambulance crews.” There’s never a dull moment when you drive a steam train.

A TALE OF TWO HOLDUPS

As the longevity of the Crunchie ad shows, steam trains and outlaws go together like Bonnie and Clyde. So it’s no surprise that the Flyer experienced a rash of ‘robberies’ in the nineties and noughties at the hands of the Mataura Jack Gang, a band of ruffians complete with horses, cowboy hats and bandanas. In those days, Opening Day often featured a holdup as the train steamed into Fairlight.

Gang stalwart Angus Ross remembers them as an eventful way for the local farmers to be part of the Kingston Flyer experience. “The steam drove the horses crazy, and our biggest job was staying on. The real daredevil thing was jumping onto the train while it was moving. Only a few could manage that feat. It was a real adrenaline rush racing beside it and watching the wheels turning, knowing that if you slipped you’d go under them.”

“Sometimes we’d fill old vaccine guns with water and squirt the kids on the train. After a few times the kids brought water guns along and started firing back at us. Then we’d take them for horse rides while the engine turned around.”

The Mataura Jack Gang was often in demand for charters too. “There was often someone ‘in the know’ on the train who was hiding the gold (aka Crunchie Bars). We’d hold them up at gunpoint till they gave it up, and then we’d hand out Crunchies all round. Sometimes we’d capture the target and take off with them and the gold. We built a set of stocks at Fairlight and occasionally put a few cheeky Aussies into them. They always bought into it and played along.”

But holdups weren’t always a light-hearted romp. Things got a lot more serious when the weather held up the train. An iconic photo in the Garston pub shows the Kingston Flyer buried in snow, surrounded by stern-faced men with long-handled shovels. That was the snow of ‘39 – where snow topped the fences in Garston and drifted up to two metres high on the railway line.

You’d think the train might have taken the day off, but that’s not how they rolled back then. Instead, the engine rammed through ‘til the wheels skidded and snow reached the smokestack. Then the track gangs stepped in to shovel it clear. It took several days to get from Lumsden to Kingston, But in those days snow often stuck around for weeks, so they couldn’t risk waiting for nature to do the job.

BACK ON TRACK AFTER YEARS OF NEGLECT

Maintaining a heritage steam train takes a heap of time, money and hard graft. Over the years, at least four Kingston Flyer owners reluctantly admitted defeat and by 2013 the ABs and their precious carriages drooped in their shunting yard. Rain, wind, sun and snow had rotted the boards. Leaking roofs, nesting birds, vandals and souvenir hunters caused carnage.

In 2017 a consortium purchased the train as Kingston Flyer Ltd and Neville Simpson managed to fight through the yard’s head- high weeds to take stock of the situation. It could hardly have been worse: derelict engines, rotten carriages, a pillaged workshop and 14 kilometres of track choked with broom and broken sleepers.

Neville gathered a small team with the skills and dedication needed for the long slog to clear, clean and repair the track and rolling stock, including Ken McAuliffe. Ken says it took him hundreds of hours to restore four carriages, starting with the prized 120-year- old birdcage. “We had to strip all the wood back to bare timber and replace everything rotten. All the windows had to be redone, some by me and the rest by a joiner from Invercargill. The weather was the biggest thing. If it was raining, I stayed home. But there were plenty of days when it was fine, and I’d go down there and freeze. There’s always a cold wind off the lake.”

The physical work was relentless. But can you imagine the red tape involved in getting a new rail licence? As GM of operations Myles Manihera explains, “writing up the safety case was a massive task, because you are treated like KiwiRail. You have all the same processes and procedures, because it’s 87 or so tons of mass moving around, and you’re responsible for people’s lives.”

It’s not just the paperwork. All of those procedures need to be put in place and then pass an annual audit from Waka Kotahi. On top of that, the Flyer needed resource consent from two local authorities before the train could hit the track. All in all, a ton goes on behind the scenes. Myles says there wouldn’t be too many days when he’s not doing urgent train work, even though it currently only runs on Sundays.

Saturdays are the busiest. Neville and the team are lubricating and firing up the locomotive the day I arrive. Someone’s loading coal, the track inspector is spraying the track, and there’s a host of jobs they’re too busy to tell me about.

What is it about steam trains that engenders such dedication, I wonder? This, from Myles: “When you get on board, it’s like going back in time. But it’s the sheer size of them, too. As a kid, that thing’s five times taller than you. It’s the biggest thing you’ve ever seen. And it moves; it makes sounds. It’s got all the senses. It’s got fire, it’s got heat. You can feel it, you can hear it, you can smell it. Yeah. And if you are really unlucky, you could taste it. Steam trains almost feel alive.”

Some people love the history. Others obsess over the engineering. Some want to learn new skills and contribute to a team. But it’s the passengers’ pleasure that keeps Neville going. “The best thing about working on the Kingston Flyer is just to see the fascination of the people and the enjoyment they get and the experience. You know, I don’t work on it because I like steam trains. I just love watching the people look at it and experience it.”

And so the Flyer’s joyful whistle echoes down the track again, if only once a week. Passing by? Catch a ride. Because, as they sing in the Crunchie ad, “life’s a whole long journey, boy, before you grow too old, don’t miss the opportunity to strike a little gold.”

LYN MCNAMEE