The little railway that could!

Over summer, as we hit the highways only to sit in those inevitable traffic jams, one can’t help but wonder whether there’s a better way to see the sights.

Fortunately, Glenbrook Vintage Railway, just down the track, has plenty to offer Aucklanders keen for a short escape to the country… and back in time, as JON RAWLINSON discovered.

Alan Carline (left) and John St Julian – not yet ready to call time on the railway. Photo Wayne Martin

I’m a Thomas the Tank Engine fan and have been since childhood when a certain former musician used to tell me (on the telly) all about this lovable loco’s adventures.

But, unless Ringo Starr accepts my invitation to Glenbrook Vintage Railway’s next ‘Day out with Thomas’, I think I’ll go off the Beatles a bit!

Providing an experience faithful (or as near as possible) to the world of Thomas (aka a 1950s Bagnall) has been a labour of love for volunteer, John St Julian, since Glenbrook Vintage Railway (GVR) began running these events.

“The faces have to be just right and if we have a name on an engine, it needs to be covered up. They even send people over to check everything is being run as it should. The events are costly to run, but they are very popular,” he explains.

“The trouble is we’re already well known (in a way). When you mention GVR, people say -oh, I must take the kids there – which is fine, but we have a lot more to offer.”

One new addition is a parlour (bar) car, which launched last Queen’s Birthday Weekend. It’s designed to offer a first class experience suited to adults and families as well as big kids like me and soon enough, it will be coupled with a dining car.

“The parlour car has been half the job. I’ve been the main instigator of this twin project but Al [Alan Carline] has done most of the physical work on the carriages. I’m very keen to see it succeed,” says John.

“The idea is that people will have drinkies in the parlour car then move into the dining car for a meal, then back for coffee. This should allow us to admit a wider range of visitors.”

Expected to join the historic railway’s regular schedule next year, the dining car will serve three or four courses of restaurant-quality meals as passengers steam through the countryside, 1920s style.

Extra revenue, which should roll in as a result, will be put to good use by the Railway Enthusiasts Society (which operates GVR), in preserving a little slice of our past.

Earlier this year, a turntable was also added to Glenbrook Station. “We’re now looking to add a roundhouse, which is a traditional loco shed. We have locomotives and wagons everywhere so this will mean having more on display.”

The roundhouse will be as faithful a recreation as possible, yet will be more accessible to visitors than those of days gone by, says John.

More recent additions, two 1950sí diesel locomotives, will also help raise funds to further shunt plans in the right direction, including more excursions on the mainline.

“Our steam excursions can’t travel as far because of crewing issues. There are very few steam-qualified drivers these days and they can run out of hours, whereas there are plenty more guys qualified to drive diesels,” adds John.

In the meantime, Thomas also continues to play his part at pulling in the punters. So, Ringo (or can I call you Richard?) just in case you do read EastLife, give us a ring, or reply to our emails; I’m sure plenty of Starr-struck children as well as Thomas and all others aboard would be happy to make room for one more.

A need For steam

They may not work on the railroad all the livelong day, but John St Julian and Alan Carline have both been helping keep the wheels at the Glenbrook Vintage Railway (GVR) in spin for many years.

Following the closure of the old Waiuku branch line in the late 1960s, the Railway Enthusiasts Society set about preserving its steam heritage at GVR. At the time, Alan was there and, 40 years later, he still is!

GVR’s rolling stock dates back to the 1880s, although the oldest engine no longer runs; in a way, Alan doesn’t run either…when it comes to driving, that is.

“I mainly work on the carriages these days. My reflexes have slowed a bit so I thought I’d give the young jokers a go,” he smiles. “When I was at school, I loved metalwork; if I didn’t like a class I’d just go over to the workshop instead. I wanted to go on locos but my mother said: “we’re not having another one in the family!”.

Yet, when GVR’s first engine rolled out of the station in 1977, the former builder answered the call of the steam whistle.

Just a year later, John St Julian – who had also long harboured a head full of dreams of steam – joined Alan at the railway. “I’m a steam nut from way back,” John reveals. “I was raised right beside the main northern line out of Sydney so I saw all sorts of trains (mainly steam) when I was a young fellow.

“I used to ride all over NSW. When you went into the bush, the crews were easy going and most of the firemen were willing to throw you the shovel, but the drivers weren’t too keen on giving up the controls!”

In 1971, John was transferred to Christchurch, where he became involved with the Ferrymead Railway and acquired his ‘driver’s ticket.’ Following a further transfer in 1978 he joined the team at GVR.

Although a hectic work schedule from the mid ë80s kept John too busy (ironically) with travel to volunteer, he returned to the railway after retiring in 2005.

“I’ve travelled on about 20 heritage railways overseas. But rather than try and re-invent the wheel I found it best to learn from other people, so I picked up plenty of good ideas,” he says.

“My input into this place has mainly been mechanical and engineering. For me, it’s often more fun fixing things than driving. Steam locos are like people, they each have their own personality – they have good days and bad, and they respond to good treatment. It’s really rewarding when you get an engine running well.”