This photo shows the Ferrymead Railway site as it was in the 1970s. Photograph by A H Burney.

The Canterbury Railway Society Inc is the successor of the Canterbury Branch of the New Zealand Railway and Locomotive Society. The Society has its roots in the formation of New Zealand’s first railway preservation organisation, the New Zealand Railway and Locomotive Society, in 1944 by Tom McGavin. After the new organisation came into existence, a number of local groups formed of NZRLS members were established in various parts of the country. Some of these later formed into Branches of the NZRLS., particularly the Auckland Branch (now the Railway Enthusiasts Society), the Wellington Branch (now the Silverstream Railway), and the Otago Branch (now the Ocean Beach Railway).

The Canterbury Branch NZRLS was started in the 1950s. Its main activities in those early years was operation of passenger excursions on the New Zealand Railways. This was an era in which passenger excursions were far more common than they are today.
The idea of becoming involved in railway preservation in New Zealand did not become a reality for any group in New Zealand until the 1960s, when New Zealand Railways accelerated the pace of replacing steam traction with diesel locomotives, resulting in wholesale scrapping of its steam locomotive fleet. At that time, there was a nationwide move to save railway equipment which resulted in the large-scale purchase of locomotives and rolling stock and the establishment of the major preservation sites in New Zealand.

In Christchurch a number of organisations interested in forming a transport and technology museum banded together to form the Ferrymead Trust. Work at the Ferrymead site was begun in 1964 by the Canterbury Branch NZRLS and the Tramway Historical Society, which planned to operate trams within the complex.

The Canterbury Branch started construction of the Ferrymead Railway with the necessary infrastructure and facilities including the workshop, engine shed, stations, signalling systems and other facilities. The Railway began to operate trains during 1972 and was officially opened in 1977. In 1978, the track was extended to permit a temporary connection with the New Zealand Railways main line near Heathcote, and this permitted the largest locomotives, the Vulcan railcars and other rolling stock to enter the Ferrymead site. Read an article from 1967 on Ferrymead Railway plans
Meanwhile the Park itself was rapidly developing with the establishment of the various other groups and construction of the replica historic village at Moorhouse. The Railway was now operating steam passenger services on Sundays. The acquisition of three Vulcan railcars from NZR in 1978 enabled Saturday services to begin and the railcars to substitute for steam power at other times.

The construction of Railway facilities and the delivery of rolling stock and equipment continued with more vehicles arriving by rail. During the late 70s, members of the Canterbury Branch began construction of the electrified section of railway as the Electric Locomotive Subcommittee. A number of excursion trains were also operated either by the Society or by individual members through the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1983, the withdrawal by NZR of the Dg class diesel-electric locomotives resulted in a group of Canterbury Branch NZRLS members forming a separate society, the Diesel Traction Group, to preserve one of these. Dg 772 was delivered to Ferrymead along with Ed 103, an electric locomotive joining the collection established by the Electric Locomotive Subcommittee of the Canterbury Branch. It was joined in 1985 by the small diesel shunter Tr 22, and in 1987 by De 511 and 1429 from Dunedin.

During the mid 1980s, planning was underway for the “Ferrymead 125” commemoration of railways in New Zealand. This resulted in a frenetic pace of work in the years, months and weeks leading up to the Festival in October 1988. A permanent turnout was installed by Railways connecting the Ferrymead Railway to the NZR track so that shuttle services could be operated between Christchurch and Ferrymead, also allowing locomotives and rolling stock to leave the site for operation on NZR tracks during the Festival. This included Dg 772 and De 511 which ran a passenger excursion to Springfield. All working locomotives and rolling stock at Ferrymead also participated in the Grand Cavalcade of Locomotives and Rolling Stock which took place in the Christchurch yards.

The electric locomotive collection at Ferrymead received a boost just after the Festival with the delivery of a Dm class electric multiple unit and D trailer from Wellington. This was further augmented with the construction of a Ferrymead electric traction substation to power trams, trolleybuses and the railway. The official opening was celebrated at the end of 1988. Electric locomotive Ec 7 operated for passengers on a section of the Ferrymead track.

Changes in the NZRLS’s membership rules in 1984 resulted in the elimination of membership of Local Branches of the NZRLS. When the requirement for full membership of the parent society began to be enforced there was a move for the Canterbury Branch to follow the lead of the former Auckland, Wellington and Otago Branches and form a separate Society. Constitutional amendments were passed in 1990 which resulted in the Branch becoming the independent Canterbury Railway Society.

After 1988 the pace of work on the Railway slowed down considerably although a new Thursday group of members began to meet to restore carriages. In 1990 there was a national commemoration of New Zealand’s establishment and a Vulcan Railcar tour of the South Island was held in October using Rm 56 and Rm 51.Another official 1990 event was the Canterbury Steam and Rail Festival held at Easter. Restructuring of New Zealand Railways which had begun in the early 80s resulted in the closure of various local railway facilities and produced further opportunities for the Canterbury Railway Society to acquire additional equipment.

Changes in employment law and its consequent effect on New Zealand society after 1990 had major consequences for nearly every railway preservation organisation in New Zealand in terms of voluntary labour supply. The economic recession of 1991 also had its effect upon the Society. Ferrymead Heritage Park was also in financial trouble as a result of the economic downturn and a dropoff in Park visitors. Nevertheless during the early 1990s, the Carriage Restoration Group began the restoration of car van Af 863 for service. Another locomotive to arrive at the site was Di 1820 which was purchased by the Diesel Traction Group and delivered in 1993.

The other major event of the early 90s was the privatisation of New Zealand Railways to become Tranz Rail Ltd. It was during this period that excursion train operation for many smaller groups became uneconomic. The Canterbury Railway Society was not immune and stopped providing such activities. Operation of excursions became the preserve mainly of two or three larger organisations with their own passenger carriage and/or locomotive fleets.

Continuing financial woes for the Ferrymead Trust saw the intervention of the Christchurch City Council in 1995. The Council assumed responsibility for the Trust’s debts and Park management in exchange for deed of the Park land. By this time the Land Transport Safety Authority had also plans to require all preservation railway operations to adopt formal codes of operating rules and regulations and safety schemes.
Today the CRS has nearly 150 volunteer members donating their time and effort to continue the tradition of preserving New Zealand’s rail heritage. The Ferrymead Railway is the major project of the Canterbury Railway Society (Inc).

If you would like to join the Canterbury Railway Society team CLICK HERE.