The International Steam Pages


Once upon a time, long ago,
By Steam Train and Lake Steamer
an excursion from Dunedin to Kingston, Queenstown & Kinloch, 30 November 1968.

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.


Early in 1967 the Minister of Railways had announced that the Railways Department was taking a close look at the economics of all its services. By August it had further been announced that the future of the Waimea Plains and Kingston branch lines, as well as the Lake Wakatipu Steamer Service, was 'under consideration, and to be discussed with representatives of ratepayers and organisations in the areas affected at a conference.' In other words the Railways wanted quit of them all. Matters must have moved slowly though as all three services continued to operate into 1968 although in August tenders had been called called for the purchase of the lake steamer Earnslaw and related land based infrastructure.

Quoting from RJ Meyers' book 'All Aboard: the ships and trains that served Lake Wakatipu': "Then on Saturday 30 November, the Otago Branch of the New Zealand Railway and Locomotive Society ran a special excursion from Dunedin to the lake. The train left Dunedin at 12.01am and, after travelling the 174 miles (280km) via the Waimea Plains, it arrived at Kingston at 6.40am, whence coaches took the excursionists to Queenstown where they spent six hours cruising on the Earnslaw to the Head of the Lake and back. The return rail journey left Kingston at 4pm and arrived back in Dunedin at 11.33pm after photo stops to capture on film what was thought at the time to be the last steam hauled train on the Kingston line."

To catch the train from Dunedin at 12.01am a group from Christchurch travelled south on the railcar that left Christchurch at 5.35pm. It was going to be a long trip with very little sleep before reaching our Dunedin hotel the following night but I was young, indestructible and needed little sleep back then. We were allocated two seats each on the train though to make the journey a little more comfortable.

Early morning found Ab721 nestling up to the mountains after arrival at the branch line terminus at Kingston. 721 had been built by North British in 1921, entered service the following year, and would be written off in March 1969 as dieselisation neared completion in the South Island.

Waiting buses took us on the short journey to Queenstown where we boarded the Earnslaw for the journey to the head of the lake. In this shot, with the New Zealand Railways flag proudly flying in the breeze, the steamer nears Mount Nicholas station. (For the benefit of non Kiwi readers farms in New Zealand's high country are called stations......confusing, eh!)

Later in the morning the Earnslaw paused at Elfin Bay and performed what could have been the first photo run of her career. With excursionists on dry land the steamer left the wharf and circled out into the Lake before returning to the wharf.

New Zealand at its scenic best! A stopover at Kinloch presented another good photo opportunity.

Late afternoon and Ab721 was ready and waiting at Kingston to start the long journey back to Dunedin.

The first photo stop was on the 1 in 64 climb out of Kingston..........

: .....followed by another passing through Fairlight. Although still in use today by The Kingston Flyer Vintage Steam Train both the Fairlight and Kingston station buildings, shown in my photos, have long since been replaced by other buildings.

The ALL TRAINS STOP sign at the Mararoa Junction points. Mararoa Junction consisted solely of a set of points where the Mossburn Branch joined the Kingston Branch for the run into Lumsden. If I remember correctly the points were set for Mossburn and all trains to or from Kingston stopped to allow the guard to change them before the train could proceed.

With the points open the guard and a local wait for the train to pass through the junction. Once through the guard will close the points and the train will be on it's way again. Close study of the photo shows the line to Mossburn can just be seen running to the left between the points lever and the branch zero peg. Was there any other junction in New Zealand with such minimal facilities?

Ab721 approached Lumsden with what seems to be a fair amount of gusto although I'm pretty sure the branch was restricted to twenty miles an hour.

Less than two weeks after the excursion the Minister of Railways announced that a successful tenderer had been found and the Earnslaw would pass into private hands from 1 January 1969. The Minister also said that the steamer had been running at a steadily increasing loss for several years, reaching a peak of $43,000 in the 1967-68 financial year. After a shaky start private enterprise has been the saviour of the Earnslaw though as today the old girl still cruises Lake Wakatipu and recently celebrated her centenary. Fifty six years operated by the railways and now just over forty four with private enterprise at the helm the Earnslaw is certainly a stayer.

Even the Kingston Branch has managed to survive after a fashion with fourteen kilometres still existing and in use today. The section between Fairlight and Kingston is home to the Kingston Flyer Vintage Steam Train which operates the service using two Ab class locomotives. 


Rob Dickinson

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