Most travellers in the north know Kawakawa as the town with the railway running down the middle of the main street.

Local train buffs see things differently.

"It's actually a railway with a road on each side," says Mike Bradshaw, operations manager for the Bay of Islands Vintage Railway Trust.

Needless to say, the passenger train, hauled by an 83-year-old steam engine named Gabriel, has priority over State Highway 1 traffic in this town.


The sight is an increasingly frequent one - not that motorists seem to mind - with four trains running back and forth daily throughout the school holidays and on weekends year-round.

A decade ago, Gabriel's main-street excursions seemed consigned to history when the line between Kawakawa and Opua was closed for safety reasons.

The first metal railway in the North Island, it joined a sorry list of provincial tracks gathering weeds, while the vintage locomotives and rolling stock were left to rust and rot. Its closure left travellers little excuse to stop in Kawakawa other than to inspect the Hundertwasser toilets.

Now, tourists and visitors are again pausing to climb aboard restored vintage carriages and be taken by Gabriel along the Opua line, rebuilt as far as Taumarere, about 6km out of town. The vintage railway trust, formed in 2006, is almost halfway towards its goal of reopening the scenic railway as far as Opua, 13km away.

Completed in 1884, the rail link was integral to the economic development of the Far and Mid North, providing access to Opua's deepwater port for goods including coal, timber, meat and dairy products. Its fluctuating fortunes reflect the boom-and-bust nature of the north's post-European history: the line outlived some industries but the advent of container shipping and port competition eventually saw Opua bypassed.

The line became a scenic railway in the mid-1980s but maintenance and internal issues led to the venture's collapse.

The line's latest lease on life is tied to the area's future as a tourist destination - particularly heritage tourism. As the centre of early-European and Maori interaction, and with Maori occupation dating back centuries, there's a gradual awakening to the potential in the region's history.

There are plans to link the rail route with a planned coast-to-coast cycleway (part of the national cycleway project) and create a Bay of Islands heritage circuit, taking in Russell, Waitangi and the Anglican mission stations at Paihia, Kerikeri and Waimate North. Tourists could use a combination of pedal power, vintage train - with a cycle-carrying wagon - and the steam ferry Minerva (undergoing restoration at Kerikeri) to get around.

The driving forces behind the railway's revival include the trust's irrepressible fundraiser Frank Leadley and operations manager Bradshaw.

Leadley, who lives in Opua, was principal at Bay of Islands College in Kawakawa for 22 years so is no stranger to fundraising and networking. In five years, about $1.5 million has been raised with donors including Pub Charity, the ASB Community Trust and the Lottery Grants Board.

"I didn't have a lifelong passion for trains or anything but, when there was talk about reviving the railway, I could see it was something I could get my teeth into," says Leadley.

"My kids used to go by train to school in Kawakawa and it was a real disappointment when the railway stopped running - you could see the effects it had on the town."

Bradshaw, a railway engineer, was involved in the previous scenic railway before working overseas on tourist railways in Wales and Argentina. When he returned, he set about restoring Gabriel, the last of five engines of its class built in Bristol in 1927.

"A lot more people are realising the value in having a quirky railway that attracts passengers," he says.

The trust has forged relationships with NorthTec (Northland Polytechnic) and Winz - securing labour for restoration work while teaching practical skills to carpentry students and unemployed youths. At times, up to 20 people are employed but the key to this revival is the pool of volunteers and wider community support.

The tracks have been restored (using Community Service workers to replace sleepers) and the first eight bridges recommissioned as far as Taumarere, where the line crosses the main road to Opua and Paihia. At Kawakawa station, an imposing new maintenance shed allows undercover restoration of vintage carriages dating from 1914, some needing a complete rebuild.

Gabriel was repaired and relaunched in May 2008 and now hauls a steady stream of visitors on restored coaches including classic dining cars and an open-air observation carriage.

The station area is being landscaped to host weddings and events. At Taumarere, the old station has been restored by school students and a picnic area developed.

"The further we've gone with the restoration, the more we can see the economic and social potential for Kawakawa and the Bay of Islands," says Leadley. "We are waking up to the fact that our history is important - we used to think all our heritage was in Europe."

Some big hurdles remain to extend the journey to Opua. The first is a historic curved wooden bridge - one of very few left in the world - which needs upgrading. Known unromantically as the Long Bridge, or simply Bridge No 9, it stretches 230m across the Kawakawa River just past Taumarere. An engineering assessment is the first step but Bradshaw is confident the wooden-piled structure can be fixed.

Other incidentals include clearing an 80m tunnel blocked by slips for which Leadley is negotiating funding.

From Taumarere to Opua the line becomes especially scenic, hugging the Kawakawa River and crossing wetlands, passing stands of native bush and upper harbour inlets. At Opua, there are plans for a station and Maori cultural centre.

"Getting the track through to Opua so people can catch the train from either end is what we must aim for. Like all railways it's very important to go from somewhere to somewhere," says Bradshaw.

Further information: See

* Coal was discovered at Kawakawa in 1864. It was carried by horse and cart to Derrick's Landing on the Kawakawa River, then by barge to Opua to be loaded on to ships.

* The railway line which replaced the horse and cart was the first metal line built in the North Island, opening in 1877. By 1884, the line extended to Opua, with 14 bridges and a tunnel.

* Coal production declined around the turn of last century but the railway remained busy until the 1950s, carrying meat from the Moerewa freezing works and dairy products to Opua for export. It also took milk from the Bay of Islands to the Hikurangi Dairy Company (the forerunner of the world-famous cream trip).

* The Kawakawa-Opua line operated as a scenic railway from the mid-1980s but by 2000 had fallen into disrepair and was closed by the Land Transport Safety Authority. Much of the rolling stock, including 1930s-vintage carriages and the 1927 steam engine Gabriel, was exposed to the elements and deteriorated badly.

* The Bay of Islands Vintage Railway Trust formed in 2005 and the Gabriel was recommissioned in May 2008.

Source: Bay of Islands Vintage Railway