Pic: BTG050321FERN2 Caption: This gigantic alternator is a refurbished spare for the Silver Fern railcars.
Pic: BTG050321FERN3 Caption: Don Selby, president of Pahiatua Railcar Society, with the V12 diesel engine that powers an alternator for electric drive at the front of each of the Silver Fern railcars.
Pic: BTG050321FERN4 Caption: Each Silver Fern railcar can seat 100 people. If all three are joined up, that's 300 people.
By Steve Carle
For the first time known, all members of one class of New Zealand railway rolling stock (Silver Fern railcars) have been completely retired to be put in for restoration, thanks to the endeavours of the Pahiatua Railcar Society.
They are now stored at the Pahiatua Railway Station at Mangamutu near Pahiatua, with two of the three railcars already having been driven under their own power in the yard.
"Silver Fern railcars went into service in New Zealand in 1971, having been built in Japan," said Don Selby, president of Pahiatua Railcar Society. "A complete contract was drawn up for a brand new design. The railcars ran between Wellington and Auckland replacing the carriage trains and operated on that line for about 20 years.
"They had a few accidents, one alongside Feilding aerodrome where it hit a sheep truck and later one of them derailed while descending the hill at Waiouru, where serious injuries resulted.
The railcars survived these and other incidents - they are pretty well-built. After that service ended, NZ Railways brought in the Northerner. The Silver Fern railcars were grouped up in Auckland, where they ran a service out to the Bay of Plenty. Two were joined together and they ran daily services to Morrinsville – one car went on to Tauranga and the other to Rotorua. That lasted for about 10 years.
"The next 10 years saw them operate on a suburban service between Auckland and Pukekohe. Later one car was leased to Taieri Gorge Railway, which later became Dunedin Railways, where it spent a number of years working out of Dunedin on cruise ship work.
"Another was used on tourist work around the North Island which for a time included a monthly return trip bringing passengers to the Tui Brewery from Wellington. This railcar was eventually transferred to the South Island on various charters including regular cruise ship work near Christchurch. The cruise ship would come into Akaroa and the passengers were transferred by bus to Rolleston, where the railcar ran trips up to Arthur's Pass, until KiwiRail considered an overhaul programme.
"All three were grouped up in Christchurch at the Waltham yard several years ago. The lease on the one operated by Dunedin Railways expired and this was not renewed. Covid-19 finished them off and the planned overhauls were abandoned. They sat there for another 12 months when out of the blue, we got a communique from KiwiRail for us to buy all three Silver Fern Railcars, with three weeks to make up our minds. 'If you don't take them we are scrapping them' it said – no question of anybody else being offered them.
"To the credit of our committee, we passed the resolution to do it by 13 – 0. We had to move very fast, we had to pay a deposit and the balance by December 18. We managed to put that together with assistance from the Rail Heritage Trust and our members putting up money.
"We've spent about $120,000 with major alterations to the yard and the construction of a security fence. We had to find the money in cash pretty quick and we did.
"We built another track from new including a set of points built from scratch by our own track gang, with 12 members led by retired railway ganger and track inspector Peter Martelletti, who lived in Ashhurst. Peter also mowed our lawns for some years as well as working on projects. While not being well, he stuck it out to the completion of the project and has since passed away. His dedication to the society is typical of members.
"Local contractor Brian MacKail used his digger for a fortnight to get the yard ready with one week to spare before the Silver Ferns arrived. They had been moved to Picton where they waited for two months to go over on the rail ferry and were grouped up in Wellington before Christmas and were towed to Pahiatua as one train.
"We are currently assessing them to see what work needs to be done and which one needs to be done first. They all need something – there is nothing major on two of them. Since Christmas there has been a team - including a member who used to drive the Silver Fern railcars and whose knowledge of them is invaluable - working on them nearly every weekend.
"What we need now is some fairly large funding. This project has resulted in a new wave of enthusiasm and we've doubled our assets to around $2 million.
"To support the Pahiatua Railcar Society there is a donation option under the Silver Fern heading at www.railcars.co.nz. All donations are welcome and appreciated," said Don.