The International Steam Pages

No Steam in the Cook Islands...

Click here for the original 2000 report about 750mm gauge 0-8-0 Px48-1741. Below is the rather sad status report from 2011.

The following is an update 'from the horse's mouth (16th December 2021);

Tim tells me “Nr 1741 is now fully stripped and in the course of a leisurely overhaul; boiler and mechanical components are in good order, but the tropical climate of Rarotonga has not been kind on sheet metal and pipework; current plans are for re-assembly for static display on the island with relocation to the South Island of New Zealand still a longer term possibility.”

Here's a picture of the loco working courtesy of Roger Smith who visited in the early 2000s (added 15th July 2014),

Daniel Garland wrote on 16th August 2011:

"I recently visited the Cook Islands on a family holiday, and had jacked up with the railway's owner Tim Arnold at the FRONZ Conference in Shantytown to visit when I was over. Tim was a very hospitable host - taking me to see the railway during his lunch hour on Tuesday the 9th August (which was Wednesday 10th August here in NZ, due to the International Date Line!) which ended up turning into a very long hour! I must say how thankful I am to Tim for the tour - he is very happy to have people come to see the train so if you happen to be in Rarotonga, by all means make contact with Tim - you won't regret it!

A historical background to the railway is in order, as it is a remarkable tale which isn't very often heard and especially the more recent history is not really told anywhere. Tim was born in England (where he saw the end of Steam), lived in New Zealand (where he was involved with the Bush Tramway Club) before moving to Rarotonga in 1980 which was not intended to be a long term move, however it has proven to be such! Tim also likes mechanical projects, having saved a small crane that was going to be tipped into a hole in the ground as it was only good for scrap. Over a few years he rebuilt it back to working order in his back yard, and later acquired another one of these cranes.

Tim is a lawyer by trade, and on Rarotonga he tends to be the Lawyer for a lot of transport-related companies. In the early 1990's, one of his clients came in to see him and mentioned that he was getting some new containers made in Poland - and would he like a car shipped back in one. Tim replied that he wasn't so interested in a car but if he found a steam locomotive, he'd be interested in that. I understand that this comment was said somewhat in jest, as Tim was most surprised when his client told him he had indeed managed to find a steam locomotive for him - a small Polish 750mm gauge 0-6-0T tank engine. However the client ultimately didn't choose that one for Tim, instead selecting a much larger Px48 Class 0-8-0 tender locomotive of the same gauge. Arrangements were made for it to be shipped to Auckland, where Tim flew out to see it - as the locomotive was an unknown quantity, Tim wanted to inspect it himself and also get the opinion of others to see if it was a restorable prospect. After being looked over by himself and others including Bob Mann from the BTC, the consensus was that the loco was indeed restorable and could be got going again.

So he had a locomotive, but needed a railway to run it on. Rarotonga has never had a railway before, and there were no laws or heath and safety rules regarding railway operations in the Cook Islands - Tim basically could do what he wanted the way he wanted to, which was one of the attractions of going ahead with the railway. He got sleepers, track and track fittings from NZ, and laid a short section of track (about 170m) down on the family property. In the shed he constructed, he set about painstakingly restoring the steam locomotive back to working order - largely accomplished by just himself. This was a fairly hard task as he had to create a lot of tools himself, didn't have access to the kinds of engineering facilities we enjoy here in NZ and unfortunately had to revisit such things as a restored cab roof during restoration as in a few short years the mild steel sheets had rusted out in the rather harsh Island atmosphere, which was replaced with galvanized steel. The locomotive, Polish Px48-1741 had been used as a yard loco for many years, possibly long after it was supposed to have been written off. The air brake pump was seized, the brake blocks quite good on the loco but basically non-existant on the tender which were controlled by the handbrake. It seemed to have had a nasty rear-end collision as well, and the tender was not in great shape. He also had to come up with unique solutions to various problems - he used a lot of kiwi ingenuity to accomplish the restoration. The railway was open for visits a few years before the locomotive was finished, with locals and visitors coming to see the engine and a series of "interpretive panels" telling the story of how the steam locomotive evolved over time. The boiler was registered with SGS in NZ and after going through the mandatory boiler design verification process, gained a boiler number in the NZ system. It also had to be retubed - all done by Tim practically single handedly over the course of a year, with a few problems encountered not found in NZ due to the extra thickness of the tubes that Polish locos used. A superheated locomotive, Tim also made the decision to de-superheat it as it was never going to need the extra power superheating would provide and so the extra maintenance would be unwarranted.

Eventually the locomotive was restored to working condition and run for the public on the short railway. Passengers rode on the locomotive, as there was no carriages of any kind - and being the Cook Islands, it didn't particularly matter where the passengers rode on the loco. Fired by wood, Tim was planning to convert it to oil firing as he'd be able to use the waste oil on the Island. Tim acquired 2 T class cattle wagon underframes, Polish narrow gauge bogies and started building 2 carriages for the train - one covered carriage, and the 2nd would be an open carriage. Tim's back yard railway was not intended to be the long term home of the train either - there was a huge resort being build on the South Western side of Rarotonga by the Sheraton group and they had agreed to let Tim build 1km worth of railway associated with the resort and run the train there. So not only did Tim own a locomotive, but he managed to restore it to working order (and in his words, "had a hell of a lot of fun doing so") and would be able to have a decent railway to run it on at the Sheraton. It looked like a very rosy future for the train, and Tim also acquired a Polish diesel shunter to go with the railway.

But a number of things came into play which has affected the train and the railway. Tim's first marriage broke up, and he moved out of the family home but before he knew it someone else was in the picture and before he knew it he had a new family. Having a railway on the property where his ex-wife lived didn't sit too well with Tim's new wife; the railway needed to be moved at some point, but no longer had a home to go to as the Sheraton Resort was caught up in the Winebox scandal and construction stopped before it was finished. The new owners of the resort and land offered to honour the previous owner's agreement to build 1km of railway if Tim carried out some legalwork on their behalf, which he did and which meant he could start the new railway any time - but he chose not to until the resort was finished as it was all a rather complicated situation. Currently, the resort is unfinished still - and might have different owners again. Needing a new home, a friend had a property on Rarotonga which needed work to stop it from falling over - Tim offered to fix it up in return for living in it. Later on he acquired a new property where he commissioned an Australian company to build a "Totalspan"-type steel frame shed which would become a combination house and workshop, but has ended up doing the construction himself as the company were worse than useless. All of this meant something had to give in Tim's life - and unfortunately that meant the train. 5-6 years ago he got another 2 year boiler ticket for it, and with no-one else on the Island willing or able to carry the railway on, then set about "mothballing" the engine until such time as he might be able to pick it up again.

Fast forward to the present day, and the engine does not make a pretty sight unfortunately. The Island atmosphere is very harsh, and a lot of the upper steelwork such as the tender cab which essentially was rebuilt from scratch is starting to look a bit worse from wear. The once green loco has gained a coat of black paint to help protect it from the elements but that too is finding it hard to stand up to the elements. All of this is a bit heartbreaking for Tim who has seen the loco he painstakingly restored to pristine working order slide backwards into a sorry state of disrepair. Realizing that something needs to be done to stop the decline, and also realizing he was not in any position to try and resurrect the railway in the near future, Tim has set about trying to find a new home for the train in New Zealand and people interested in taking it over. Not an easy proposition given that there is no railway in NZ of the same or similar gauge (750mm - close to 2ft 6in, which is 762mm) but the good news is that it looks very much like the train will be moving to NZ sometime in the next few years, where a new "greenfields" railway will be built - by the sounds of it its going to be on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, near Kingston which is the home of the Kingston Flyer. Can you imagine this - the Kingston Flyer, and not too far away another railway run by an ex-Polish steam locomotive near one of New Zealand's tourism hotspots...

Photos of the Rarotongan Steam Railway seem to be very rare on the internet, or anywhere else so I was looking forward to not only seeing all of the equipment and railway for myself but also get lots of photos. However its not exactly easy to get photos of things in the sheds, and with so much to see there wasn't much time to stand around and take pictures. However I hope you find what few photos I have taken of interest, and there will always be time to take more pictures when the loco is running here in NZ in the future sometime!

Inside the cab of Px48- 1741, with owner and restorer Tim Arnold in the driver's side of the cab. The light in the shed was rather strange - I kept getting weird light glares in the cab and funnily enough they only went largely away when Tim stood in front of the drivers side windows. Screw reverse, and a handle underneath the drivers side sight glass to open the firehole door with - unfortunately some of this equipment has become seized in place due to the atmosphere.

I was unable to capture the whole loco in a single photo - the most I could fit in was by doing a "Dutch Tilt" (left). As a bit of perspective, the locomotive in physical size is about similar to a NZR Rogers K.  Tim overlooking Px48-1741 from the mezzanine walkway inside the shed (right), where a lot of the interpretive panels used to be displayed. As you can see the shed is open ended - which doesn't help with keeping the harsh environment out.

A view of the loco from near the rear (left), showing the tender cab and the diesel shunter coupled up to the front end in the distance. Interestingly the Polish numbered the tenders separately and even gave them separate classifications, this tender type being a Ptx48 type but sharing the same 1741 number of the loco. The back of the tender (right), including the headstock was essentially a new fabrication due to the condition of the old structure. Note the rather heavy duty central buffer, and the carriage Tim was building on a T class underframe - about 2/3 to 3/4 finished when he mothballed the railway.

One of the tender bogies under the tender (left) - the bogie frames have a familiar NZR feel to them, looking not too dissimilar to an Ab or perhaps more so an Aa class, but the tiny flap covering the lubrication hole seems rather foreign. Anything under the running boards seems to be in much better condition than the stuff above, probably because it is more sheltered from the weather. The Cook Island's only railway workshop (right), which includes the largest lathe in Rarotonga - bought into the country by the PWD, and declared surplus during the time Tim was restoring the loco. As the only lathe large enough to carry out some of the work he needed to do, he managed to buy it. Many unique tools live in this workshop! Note the stored pipework from the engine hung from the roof.

Tim with the plates he made up for the loco (left), as it came without most of them. Using some of that ingenuity he employed throughout the restoration, they are made of resin and he made the moulds himself from wood using pictures as a guide - he does have the tender plates and you can't tell the difference between the genuine ones and the fakes unless you get up close or touch them. Lastly, a shot (right) of the little green Polish shunter. This loco still goes and Tim fires it up every so often, and suggested I might like to come back during my stay on the Island to give it a little run. Unfortunately since we were hopping off to another Island the next day this wasn't a possibility. I can't tell if it was an 0-6-0 or an 0-8-0 shunter but it's a proportional double ended loco and sits half out of the shed. The jib that can also be seen is from the 2nd of the cranes Tim had restored - both proved useful in the restoration of Px48-1741.

Rob Dickinson