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Ticket to ride...Waimea Plains Railway Trust chairman Colin Smith is one of a team who would like to build a heritage rail precinct at Mandeville to add to the attractions available there which include the Croydon Aviation Heritage Centre. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Is there public support to develop a facility at Mandeville where people can experience a piece of Southland’s rail history?

A feasibility study commissioned by the Waimea Plains Railway Trust will attempt to answer this question.

Trust chairman Colin Smith said group members planned to build a heritage rail precinct on the site which would include about 2.5km of rail track.

“It is based on what was actually happening here 140 years ago and it’s something that the younger generation seem to be able to connect with,” Mr Smith said.

Originally, Mandeville had been a station on the Gore-to-Lumsden line, which was built privately by the Waimea Plains Railway Company in 1880.

The directors were also part of the New Zealand Agricultural Company.

“That company owned all the land out here from Gore right through to beyond Garston,” Mr Smith said.

“They wanted the government of the day to put the railway line through and the government refused.”

The company planned to subdivide the land and sell it to farmers.

“The railway was the key to the subdivisions being serviced because there was no real road.”

In 1996, when the trust was formed, a goods shed was the only remnant of the station’s former days, but members believed Mandeville was the best place to recreate a heritage site.

“The key to that was we were able to acquire the original locomotive.”

There were four locomotives used on the line and the Rogers K92 the trust owned today was one of the four original Kingston Flyers.

Trust members gathered carriages, wagons and fixtures from the period from 1890 to 1910 for the project.

“It has taken us 20 years to find everything,” Mr Smith said.

Now the project was at the stage where it needed money to finish the development.

“This feasibility study was a means of being able to gauge the province’s interest because Southland is one of the few provinces that doesn’t have an operational vintage railway.”

There were two stages to the planned development, he said.

The first involved finishing the half-completed building to house the rolling stock.

Some of the carriages and wagons were in the process of being restored.

The trust had bought a building in Dunedin and then demolished it to collect iron trusses that dated back to 1876, and other items.

The second part was to build the railway track.

At present the locomotive ran up and down a short piece of track, about 400m long.

“We’re able to operate the length of the yard but we’re not going anywhere.”

A trip around the airfield was far more exciting.

In the two years the train had been giving people rides during summer it had been very popular.

Some weekends, more than 600 people had rides, Mr Smith said.

The rail precinct would be part of a package that included a cafe, gift shop, the Croydon Aviation Heritage Centre and Croydon Aircraft Company.

Gore District Council arts and heritage curator Jim Geddes said the Waimea Line was historically important and fundamental to the pastoral development of the district.

“Some of the settlements on the Waimea Plains owe their existence to surveys initiated by [the New Zealand Agricultural Company] in order to attract investment in the railway itself.

“So it’s a significant part of our heritage.”

The project had historical integrity because the Rogers K92 locomotive ran on the line and combined with the other facilities it was an asset to the area.

“It helps build cultural capacity within the district.”

Given the public response to open days at Mandeville there was interest in the project.

“The new Covid environment has demonstrated a big interest in New Zealanders reconnecting with their heritage, and domestic tourist numbers to niche activities and boutique experiences are growing.”

The trust’s feasibility study includes a community survey which runs until Friday, published in last week’s The Ensign.