Peek down many a winding road or long straight in the Hurunui district, and you’ll notice a healthy scattering of local businesses. There’s no doubt, these will include a solid layer of volunteer input
Weka Pass Railway is a fine example.
A familiar face at the Weka Pass Railway, Paul Markholm was just a teenager when he started lending a hand at the Ferrymead railway line, and tinkered away there for more than 25 years.
“Everyone just pitched in and built the railway,” he recalls.
The first trains ran on those lines in 1967, the tracks built from old closed branch lines and the rebuild began in 1964.
“Ferrymead itself was the first one in New Zealand, it operated from 1863-1867, before the Lyttelton tunnel was opened.”
In 1982 a group of railway enthusiasts got together and chatted about restoring the Waiau Branch line, which had closed in 1978.
In actual fact, the Waiau Branch Line was closed in 1975, but wind blown logs from a storm in the Balmoral Forest that year reopened it, subsequently keeping resulting in its extended closure until January, 1978.
In the early eighties Paul was still involved with the Ferrymead Branch Line, but it was coming up to a couple of decades there, so in 1985 he shifted across to the Waiau Branch Line, to explore further locomotive restoration opportunities.
Thus began his career at Weka Pass Railway Incorporated, which had its first train running in 1983; the tracks were already there, in a used state. Sleepers, carriages and locomotives completed the picture.
“I joined to do railway track maintenance, and locomotive and carriage repairs.”
In 1983 Weka Pass Railway purchased two diesel locomotives (1955) and four carriages from New Zealand Railways.
At the same time there was a 1909 steam locomotive in Greymouth, saved for preservation by a group of New Zealand Railway engine drivers.
Paul recalled it had been there for 10 years or more, and the Weka Pass Railway committee did some investigation and it was moved to North Canterbury for a full restoration. It took five years, and began in 1988.
“In 1990 we got a Lottery Board grant, and worked on it full time until 1993 - it’s one of the trains today. Recreating a typical NZ branch liner of the 1950s and 1960s is a a job for the ultimate train enthusiast, of which Paul fitted the bill perfectly.
“I’m a self taught railway guy, a railway nutter.”
Educating those who ride on the Weka Pass Railway is a favourite part of his job.
“I like to teach them a bit about how the railway works. I remember once when a young Fijian jumped on the locomotive, and asked ‘What’s that black stuff, is it rocks?’ I said ‘No it’s coal, it burns and makes the fire go.’ He was quite amazed.”
Paul’s job must look quite glamorous at times.
“Lots of the passengers say they’d like to be train drivers.”
Weka Pass Railway runs on the first and third Sundays of each month, and also runs for charter.
“It was popular when it started, and it’s popular now.”
Paul said it’s the saving of history, and has retained good old-fashioned values.
“Wind was always a problem, we’ve had plenty of howling winds and rain, but we just carry on. Not so nice in the steam locomotive if you’re going up the hill the sou-west rain comes right in the back window!”
He said for older people, it’s a reliving of the past.
“Some really say ‘it took me back to my youth, we used to travel on the train everyday for school. A lot of people come up and say ‘my father, brother, etc worked on the railways.’ Some recall stories like ‘how he put the engine through the back wall of an engine shed,’ or something like that.”
Until the motor cars started taking over, the passenger trains were still on the line between Waiau and Christchurch until 1939.
The Weka Pass Railway is the longest private line in New Zealand, covering 12.5km from Waipara to Waikari.
There are between 30-35 volunteers, who do everything; sweeping the floors, clean the loos, driving the train, fix the train, organising the workshop. Paul does a bit of everything.
“A Jack of all trades, you have to be.”
Paul said the pleasure used to be all about driving the trains, but now he gets more of a kick out of the groundwork, doing the repairs and maintenance.
“And I’ve made lots of lifetime friends. Some are not here now, but over the years we’ve had a lot of hard work and fun together.”