“This is Gisborne Air Traffic Control Calling Locomotive 165…”

“…Locomotive 165 returning your call, Gisborne Air Traffic Control.”  Locomotive 165 is a WA class steam locomotive built in the Dunedin railway workshop on New Zealand’s South Island in 1897, 6 years before the Wright Brothers first flight at kitty Hawk. Yet the locomotive needs to check in with Gisborne Air Traffic Control.

It is amazing to me that a complex piece of equipment with so many moving parts, operating under high pressure and running along a saltwater coastline is still running, but Tank Engine 165 is.  It even amazes me more that it has to get clearance from Air Traffic Control, but it does. 

The Gisborne City Vintage Railway is the only railroad right-of-way in the world, according to the railway, that crosses an active runway of a commercial airport.  But that it does.  The airport was built to train avenger pilots during World War II.  It would be too expensive to move the track to the end of the runway which is at the shore of the “Bay of Poverty” and a nuisance to run it around the terminal so during three round trips a day the locomotive needs clearance from Air Traffic Control.

Because of tendering operations, we were late to the train, but the train waited and left Gisborne (Gizzy) a half hour late.  Normally the train passes over the runway before the Air New Zealand plane arrives but it was already at the airport when we arrived. A three-way discussion between the train, the plane and air traffic control resulted in the plane delaying takeoff to let the train pass.  The reason, to give the plane passengers a chance to take pictures of a train crossing the runway.

The locomotive operated in Gisborne and on other lines until it was withdrawn from service in 1959, ending its first career, as a yard engine.  In 1962 NZ railways sold the engine to Gisborne for 200 pounds, the price of scrap. It was part of an exhibit at a local fair.  After the fair it was moved to a children’s playground, right on a saltwater shore, and painted red for kids to climb over.  It rusted badly.

In 1985 group of train enthusiasts bought the engine, sand blasted it to remove rust and took it apart bolt by bolt, putting the parts in oil, inventoried the parts, found out what was missing and what needed to be replaced and started rebuilding the engine.  The biggest problem was the boiler, which needed to be completely replaced.  It took 14 years but in 1999 Engine 165 was running again on its 42-inch narrow gauge rail. 

The Gisborne Vintage Railroad Society also got control of 17 kilometers of rail right of way (The original railroad had been damaged in a storm) from Gisborne to Murawai, and in 1999 the Gisborne Vintage Steam Railway Company started running steam excursions.

The engine burns anthracite coal.  The train attracts enthusiasts from around the world and sends sheep running.  On our ride one guy ran his horse along the track racing the train, which is limited to 40 KPH on straightaways and 10 KPH over bridges. When we got to the end of the line in Murawai we got out and the engine changed positions while we watched a troupe of school kids perform traditional Māori dances.  I spent more time talking to the engineer and fireman than watching the kids.

We were allowed, even encouraged, to ride on the open platforms at the ends of the cars.  One car was a vintage 1930s coach and the others were coaches from the ’80 made in Korea or Japan for the Auckland commuter runs. 

On the way back the engine was moved to the other end of the train but not turned around, it ran backwards, and we could stand on the platform of the lead coach and breathe in the anthracite while watching the engine work in reverse.

When the train ride was done, we had planned to visit the Māori cultural center where Sitkan Tommy Joseph taught and carved for a while, but because of this is a three day holiday weekend it was closed so we contented ourselves with a local beer and conversation.

Gisborne is the easternmost city in New Zealand and touts that it is the first place in New Zealand to greet the sun each day.  It is New Zealand’s New Year’s Eve capital with parties to greet the first sunrise of the new year.

2 thoughts on ““This is Gisborne Air Traffic Control Calling Locomotive 165…”

  1. Thank you for sharing that Rich. Enjoyed reading. Glad you are both well again and can experience your tours together. Paul and Sue

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