The Plains Vintage Railway & Historical Museum History
The story of The Plains Vintage Railway and Historical Museum begins nearly 130 years ago, in May 1878. It was in this year that the first section of the branch line railway that would in time become the 'Mt Somers Branch'
and later, operating on the first approximately 3 kilometres - to the old Frasers Road railway crossing - The Plains Railway was laid. The branch was different from a great many of the other branch-line railways built by the
New Zealand Government Railways at the time, in that its sole purpose was not the opening up of the land for agricultural activities, but instead for the cartage of lignite coal and lime from deposits behind Mt Somers - an
extinct volcano, on the edge of the Southern Alps. The branch was opened in sections, to Westerfield at 13.39 kilometres in April 1880, to Anama at 30.9 kilometres in October 1882 and onto Cavendish at 35.02 kilometres from
the junction at Tinwald in March of 1884. The line originally terminated here, on the south bank of the Ashburton River. However, the decision was made to extend the line 2.58 kilometres to the township of Mt Somers, a bridge
was built over the Ashburton River and the line opened in October 1885. The termination of the line at this point, still relied on cartage of coal and lime to Mt Somer's township, from the bush tramway built behind the Mountain.
For this reason the line was extended a further 5.5 kilometres to Springburn which opened in September 1889, bringing the branches total length to 43.17 kilometres.
The branch operated a daily 'mixed train' - that is to say a train carrying both goods and passengers - for almost half a century, before roading improvements saw the decline in passenger numbers leading to the closure of the line to passengers in 1933. The branch continued to see less and less traffic, until World War II. A military camp was opened at Westerfield which saw military passenger services and and increase in general freight for the duration of the war. However, this traffic increased proved to be a spike, and after the war the traffic returned to its pre-war levels. This led to trains being run from Ashburton, instead of the branches western terminus of Springburn, and a reduction in services to two per week down from daily. Closure of the Mt Somers - Springburn section was first mentioned in 1930, and in 1957 the Railways Department closed this section to all traffic. The continual decrease in traffic saw the entire line closed to traffic in January 1968, however wheat trains continued to run from a small country station named 'Valetta' until April of the same year.
Work on tearing up the line started at the Mt Somers end, and made its way down the remaining track towards Tinwald not long before 1970. With the closing of the Mt Somers/Springburn branch in 1968 a small group of local enthusiasts who belonged to the local model engineers decided to try and save a small portion of the branch line with the intention to run a steam train on it for the locals and visitors. A public meeting was held and the "Ashburton Railway & Preservation Society Incorporated" was officially formed on the 4th June 1971, with the goal to preserve and operate a vintage train as well as to display some of the local agricultural history of Mid Canterbury. After negotiations with New Zealand Railways, a 50 chain portion was purchased, and later a further portion of the line, bringing the total distance to a mile from Tinwald, to Frasers Road, about 2.5km. The section from the South Island Main Trunk to the Plains Railway's section, including the mainline turnout, was retained by the Railways Department, later Tranz Rail and now Kiwi Rail.
With the track secured the Society then secured a lease on the Dubs 'A' Class 0-4-0, ex-NZR No. 64 Locomotive that was on static display in the local domain, and also secured a parcel of land in the domain adjacent to the former
branch line. Restoration started on the loco after it was moved to the local John Deere Agency, on Dobson Street which was owned by Society Member Mr A Bowis, where it remained for 18 months, until work was completed. The Society
at this time, also gained a motorised trolley jigger, an un-restored 'A' class carriage (36 seater 'A' 184, built at Addington Workshops in 1913), a wooden sided M Wagon, and were negotiating the purchase of the last steam locomotive
in service through Ashburton (Ja 1260) which pulled the Friday and Sunday evening "midnight" express service from Christchurch to Invercargill, from the NZR. Other donated and loaned exhibits were housed in Ashburton's Pioneer Hall.
A two road Engine Shed, complete with a concrete inspection pit, was built from donated and recycled Materials from an old Railway shed on West Street.
The Minister of Railways at the time was Mr Tom McGuigan officially opened "The Plains Railway", by driving the last golden spike into the line in 1973. A ceremonial trip was then run with all the official guests on board, including the Deputy Mayor Mr L R McNally, Member of Parliament R Talbot, and Society President John French, travelling in the 1913 Carriage towed by the then 100 year old Dubs Locomotive. Tom McGuigan is quoted as saying, "Not everything can or even should be preserved, but there are certain things which are highly significant of an event or an era. The steam train is a fine example of such things, not only because of the large and important role it played in this country's development, but also because it was - and indeed remains - something which fascinates people of all ages". The Gala Opening was attended by hundreds of visitors, who enjoyed a ride on the train, traction engines and a hand-powered jigger, along with other restored vehicles.
Alongside the railway The Plains also operates vintage and historic farm machinery to grow crops on the agricultural land owned by the Museum. This machinery includes traction engines, harversters, ploughs and even an old style Threshing Machine.