Today, there are nearly thirty rail museum sites in New Zealand, in places ranging from Auckland to Kingston, where steam engines are preserved in working order. At most of these sites, it is possible to enjoy a ride behind one of these ever-fascinating machines. But in 1960 when the Ocean Beach Railway was founded, no body in this country had attempted to preserve a steam locomotive as a working exhibit.
It all began here in Dunedin when the late Stan Rockliff persuaded a small group of members of the New Zealand Railway and Locomotive Society – Otago Branch that they should make an effort to preserve a small locomotive that the Otago Harbour Board was offering for sale. This was one of the last survivors of an extensive stud of locos formerly owned by the Public Works Department and used in the construction of dams for hydro-electric power stations, railways and harbour reclamations up and down the country.
Despite receiving a higher offer from a scrap merchant, the group’s tender of $20 was successful, which meant that they then had to find a home for their new acquisition. After some negotiations, permission was obtained from the Ocean Beach Domain Board to lay 60 yards of track at Kettle Park alongside the Otago Model Engineering Society’s grounds.
This seemed an appropriate site, not only because of its proximity to a kindred Society, but also because it was only a few hundred yards from part of the original Ocean Beach Railway. This former line had been built in 1876 to link Andersons Bay, Musselburgh, and Forbury Park to the City. This line ran from Crawford Street and followed the edge of the harbour along what is now Timaru Street to a junction located near Portobello Road; from which one branch continued around the shoreline to Andersons Bay while the other followed Royal Crescent and Victoria Road to Forbury Park. Passenger services soon succumbed to competition from the trams but much of the track was retained to serve the Show-grounds at Tahuna Park. Some 400 yards of this track was uplifted from the foreshore after 85 years to become part of the new Ocean Beach Railway.
The first passengers were carried during Festival Week 1963 in a four-wheeled wagon hastily fitted with high sides but without seats and affectionately known as ‘Tumbril’. That 2,700 passengers were prepared to ride in such a primitive vehicle showed clearly that a passenger-carrying steam railway was going to be a popular attraction. It was also clear that the public hoped for something more than a 400 yard ride, and so the goal emerged of a railway linking the two beach resorts of St Kilda and St Clair. Because of a 20 foot bank at the south end of the line it was not possible to continue on the original alignment and it was realised that sooner or later a new formation would have to be built in order to surmount this obstacle.
By this time the concept had been firmly established that the Ocean Beach Railway should be a working railway museum trying to recreate something of the atmosphere of an N.Z.R. country branch line in the first decade of last century. In accordance with this, and mindful of the realities of maintaining steam engines in working order, a policy was adopted of acquiring only small locomotives; the N.Z.R. ‘F’ class being regarded as the largest that could be managed.
During the 1960’s a number of locomotives were retired from service with Harbour Boards, Lime Works and other industrial concerns. Although these locos could not all be restored immediately, or even housed properly, it was
necessary to secure them at once or watch them be scrapped and vanish forever. Similarly, the N.Z.R. began to scrap older wagons and wooden carriages so these too had to be accepted long before there were the resources to restore them to the conditions of their heydays.
The provision of adequate covered working and storage areas has always been a problem. At first, all servicing had to be
done in the open, but the weather, and vandals made this a frustrating business. The vandals were largely excluded by building an eight-foot fence around the working area and construction of an engine shed was begun as soon as money could be found. This building has twice been extended but is still not large enough to house all the locomotives as well as providing workshop space. The frightening rate at which carriages deteriorate in the open has shown that another shed large enough to accommodate all the passenger cars plus the out-of-service locos is urgently required. The subsequent construction of a carriage shed has reduced the problem but a number of valuable exhibits remain outside.
Earning the money to maintain and develop the railway takes several thousand man-hours each year, thus reducing thetime available for members to spend on the Ocean Beach Railway itself. Revenue from passenger carrying pays the operating expenses but can make only a small contribution towards the cost of capital works, leaving a substantial sum to be raised annually in other ways. Grants have also been received from time to time from various Trusts. The Society gratefully acknowledges this assistance.