The Kingston Flyer

This train was set up by New Zealand Railways following the permanent demise of steam in 1971. Before that Aussies use to flock across the “ditch” to photograph the South Island Limited, which retained steam power due to steam heating on the carriages. Unfortunately, I had neither the funds, or knowledge to get there before diesels took over.

J + JA on a North Island special Easter 1972

The South Island Limited was normally hauled by a Ja class 4-8-2. There were still plenty around when we were there, albeit not in regular service.

By 1972 I was just 20 years old. I was earning some money as a trainee with Overseas Telecommunications Commission of Australia, and trying to save to photograph more trains. I had two offers at this time. One was to travel to Asia with two mates, and the other a trip to New Zealand with a bunch of distinguished Australian Railway photographers. By chance I had been sent to Darwin for a stint as part of my training. Close to Asia, and the opportunity to earn some extra money as travel allowance. I had never been overseas, and this probably influenced my decision to opt for the safer choice of New Zealand. I flew back from Darwin and the next day to my mother’s horror departed for NZ!

It was my good friend Col Gilbertson, who I had lunch with as recently as last week, who had invited me on this trip. As it happens Robert Kingsford Smith, who organised the Asian steam expedition, was there as well. It is great to still connect after all these years. I have known these two gents for close to 50 years!

When the Kingston Flyer started its run, it ran from Lumsden to Kingston in the South Island of New Zealand, with the TSS Earnslaw steam ship taking passengers across Lake Wakatipu. The steamer still operates Lake Cruises.

The Majestic TSS Earnslaw on Lake Wakatipu in 1972

The idea was you could to a daily excursion from Queenstown on the steam to meet the train at Kingston, travel to Lumsden for lunch and then return for a pleasant day out. From the main southern line, a bus connected from Gore. Regrettably, due to a landslide, the length of the Flyer’s operations shrunk, until it only ran from Kingston to Fairlight in the latter days.

We arrived at Lumsden in our hire cars from Christchurch, a party of 9 Aussie railfans and moved into the Lumsden Hotel. We were impressed with the 2 beautiful Ab Pacifics which had been fully restored for the operation by the New Zealand Railways. Weather was sunny, and it was time for some serious photography.

The crew lovingly cleans and services the loco in late afternoon light at Lumsden

Being April, we didn’t get any snow-capped mountains in the background. The scenery is stunning in this part of the world, and a perfect place to run a railway line. Below is a map I obtained off the internet. It shows several decent mountains near the track. You can see that in the old days this was quite a good train trip, passing great scenery and a decent length. I think only having a short journey hampered revenue in latter years.

Map of the Kingston Flyer route

What is noticeable on the map is how closely the road follows the line for most of the way, very convenient for photographers. We did ride the train, although I don’t remember the friendly crew providing cab rides.

Ab 795 passing spectacular mountain scenery

You have to admit these locos look great, a little like to Wild West of the USA. Most were built by the North British Locomotive Company and with 141 units constructed, were the most prolific class in the country. Their cruising speed is 100 kph, boiler pressure 180 psi, and they started life as express passenger engines on the main line. They were usurped by the Ja class in the 1930s. There are still 7 of the class in existence. Two stored at Kingston (778 and the working 795), two certified for main line working (608 and 663), 699 is currently being overhauled and 745 and 832 are static.

A side shot of the Ab crossing the “cade” road

After a few days following the train, we got to know the crew rather well. I became friends with Kerry James, the fireman, and he spent several weeks with me chasing trains in South Africa in 1975. This is a photo I took of him at the time.

I remember one night at the Lumsden Hotel, we had all been drinking a bit and there was a pool table where you paid for the game to challenge the champs. The same two men had been winning all night and Kerry challenged me to join him and take them on. They were not amused when we won and kept the table for a while after that!

Kerry went on the drive the giant Ore trains at Mt Hamersley before his trip to South Africa. I have been unable to find him in recent years, so he could be anywhere in the world.

The picture shows Kerry at the gate at Sir Lowry’s Pass in South Africa. We would obtain a key from the Station Master at Steenbras and use it to chase trains using the SAR access roads. This was very handy.

Leaving Lumsden early in the morning meant great lighting. In any case this part of the world is so far south that you get great colour on the train.

Ab 795 leaving Lumsden on the “Flyer”

The photo below represents just how close the line went to some rather large hills. It must have been amazing in snow.

Regrettably wash aways ruined thus beautiful journey and shortened the route. In 1979, the line was closed beyond Garston and in 1982 services ran the 14kms from Fairlight to Kingston. Unfortunately, the train lost its charm and the ability to carry through passengers.

By 2012, there were safety concerns and trains ceased running. Since then the railway is up for sale for some $NZ2.5 million, so if you have some spare cash, you can get an operational steam passenger line. Of course there will be some extensive maintenance, and it would cost a fortune to get the train running to Lumsden again.

Ab 795 Departs Kingston

One only hopes that one day in the not too distant future some brave entrepreneur purchases the railway so we can again see sights like the Kingston Flyer departing Kingston bound for Lumsden after picking up passengers from the TSS Earnslaw on their way to Christchurch.


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