The International Steam Pages

Once upon a time, long ago,
Christchurch to Waiau with Ab798, 1969

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.

On 1 March 1969 the Canterbury Branch of the New Zealand Railway & Locomotive Society ran an excursion from Christchurch to Waiau. The forty one mile long Waiau Branch started at Waipara, north of Christchurch, then headed west over the Weka Pass before turning north towards Waiau. For a young railfan without a car it was an impossible line to visit as the branch train left Waipara early morning well before any public transport reached the area and there was no one I knew nearby I could scrounge a bed from. A railfan excursion was going to be the only way I would be able to visit the branch.

Halfway to Waiau and still on the main line. At Waipara Ab798 paused for water with the driver taking time to check round his loco no doubt with oil can in hand. Railfans wander everywhere in this and other shots of the day. Looking at my photos from over forty years ago I'm quite happy to see people in them, railfans included.....I'm not quite so forgiving these days though. I like having locals in my shots but woe betide any railfan who gets in the way! To me an interesting thing in these old photos is the infrastructure that was part of the scene.....infrastructure that I tended to ignore. For instance there's three water tanks in this picture, a pipe taking the water to the loop on the left, a pedestrian over-bridge and of course those ubiquitous four wheel wagons that were so much part of the New Zealand Railways then.

From Waipara it's a long slow drag up through the Weka Pass to Waikari with almost nine miles of steeply graded line. An Ab could haul between six and seven hundred tons on the flat but through the Weka Pass they were allowed only 260. Photostops were noisy smoke filled affairs.........

First village after the Weka Pass was Waikari. Looking at this picture, and other station shots along the branch, I can only marvel now at the number of wagons on the line. In 1969 the railways were protected from road transport by regulations which did not allow trucks to haul freight, alongside an open railway line, for more than forty miles from a major centre. Waikari and other branch stations were beyond this limit and traffic was obviously quite heavy.

Another photostop, as the train rolled through the North Canterbury countryside. I've always enjoyed the old wooden carriages and their open platforms....a great place to ride when the weather was fine and speed wasn't too high.

The water tank at Culverden was definitely overdue for a coat of paint.

Line end at Waiau and again the large number of wagons in the yard are a reminder of how busy rural lines used to be. Stock, grain, lime and fertiliser would all add their contributions to the branches traffic.

Starting on the journey home Ab798 blasts away from Waiau and past the semaphore protecting the distant station yard.

Time can dull the memory and I never bothered to write on the slide where this bridge was. There were three possibilities but friends quickly came to my crosses the Waitohi River between Harwarden and Medbury. The fledgling Weka Pass Railway bought the track from Waipara to the Hurunui River (approx sixteen miles) from NZR in late 1982 including this bridge. Some time later the NZR wrote to the Weka Pass Railway asking if they could have the Waitohi Bridge spans for reuse. Consequently they were sold back to the Railways.

Arriving back at Christchurch at 5.40pm passengers quickly dispersed for home and dinner apart from the usual few who insist on yet another photo. Everything in this scene has now gone apart from two tracks remaining where the shunting yard used to be.

In 1977 the forty mile limit that helped protect the Railways was increased to around one hundred miles: Waiau was only eighty miles from Christchurch. I can only imagine the convenience of road transport creamed off the bulk of the traffic almost immediately as the branch closed soon after on 15 January 1978. This was not the end of the entire line though as the nine mile long section through the Weka Pass is still in use today by the Weka Pass Railway ( I had the pleasure of riding their steam hauled train for the first time earlier this's a great trip if you're in the area. 

Rob Dickinson