The International Steam Pages

Once upon a time, long ago,
1968 NZ Railfans Reunion, Part 1

Wilson Lythgoe has been circulating friends with some steam pictures taken some time back and with his permission and encouragement they are reproduced on these pages and will be added to from time to time. Click here for the index.

Day 1: Friday 12 April 1968.

Weatherwise it had been a wild week leading up to Easter 1968 and the Railfans Reunion. Storms had battered New Zealand causing the inter island ferry Wahine to founder in Wellington Harbour two days earlier with fifty one people losing their lives. It was the worst storm recorded in New Zealand's history with wide spread damage throughout the country. In Southland, where the Reunion was heading, the flooding had been particularly bad.

As a near penniless eighteen year old I could just about afford the train tickets for four days of steam excursions. Luckily, as an ex Southlander, bed and breakfast (and hopefully dinner) was able to be scrounged from friends in both Queenstown and Invercargill.

First train of the Reunion, on that cold and wet Good Friday, was C3 from Dunedin to Cromwell over the fabled, 236km long Otago Central Branch. Back then being young, keen, enthusiastic (and probably quite stupid) I would happily wrap up to take photos in pouring rain. At Little Mount Allan a few hardy souls left the train for their shots of Ab795 & 788 taking water....the tank can just be seen behind the second engine.

At Pukerangi there was a lengthy wait to cross the only other train on the branch that day: Vulcan railcar Rm55 doing the honours on the Alexandra to Dunedin passenger service.

The first photo run of the day saw the train passing over Castle Creek soon after leaving Pukerangi. The scenery is typical Central Otago and the weather.....probably best described as atmospheric!

A well ordered photo line at Middlemarch as the crews water, oil and check their charges.

Ranfurly was the half way mark and time to again service the locos. It was still wet and miserable as 795 took on water and 788 reversed off the turntable. After servicing 788 would run light engine back to Dunedin whilst 795 carried on with the excursion alone.

The weather had improved slightly by the time the train performed for the Poolburn Viaduct photo run.......or at least it was no longer raining.

A few minutes later another photo run in the Poolburn Gorge. There was someone in a bright red coat standing trackside in this photo but with a little bit of modern technology he's no longer there!

Imagine what a bit of sun would have achieved in this photo as the train passed over the Manuherikia No1 Bridge.

From memory there was at least one photo stop in the Cromwell Gorge but the light was so dire I didn't bother. I did attempt one final shot at Cromwell though. After that it was onto the waiting Railway buses for the journey through to Queenstown and our night's accommodation.

To my knowledge this was the last time a steam hauled passenger train ran between Ranfurly and Cromwell. In the following twelve months a number of excursions used steam between Dunedin and Ranfurly but none ventured further. An interesting thought: assuming 795 and its train returned to Dunedin as empty coaching stock the following day did anyone get any pictures of the last steam train to leave Cromwell?

Ab788 & 795 were built by the New Zealand Railways at their Hillside Workshops, in 1926 & 1927 respectively, as Wab class tank engines. Both were converted to Ab tender locomotives in 1947/48 and withdrawn from stock in 1969. Ab795 was returned to service in 1971 for the Kingston Flyer Historical Train Service which continues to run today between Kingston and Fairlight.

The Otago Central Branch closed on 30 April 1990 but the first 64km, through the scenic Taieri Gorge, was purchased by the Dunedin City Council and sees daily tourist trains. Operated by Taieri Gorge Railway Limited ( link dead July 2020) it must surely be one of the World's Great Train Journeys. After the track was lifted the next 150km, from Middlemarch to Clyde, became the Otago Central Rail Trail ( The final 20km of the branch was flooded to make way for the Clyde Dam and no trace of it now exists.

Rob Dickinson