Courage and initiative Education Generosity People

Putting people on the right track

Volunteer Cooper Rowsell adds a fishplate to a section of railway track being replaced in Oamaru. Photo: Kel Fowler

Restoring and running vintage trains around the popular Victorian Precinct and harbour is just one of Oamaru Steam and Rail’s achievements.

Between cups of tea and chats to get to know volunteers, the restoration society also sets schoolkids, and older men and women, on the right track.

General manager Harry Andrew (71) says that for years, school students have worked at the society’s workshop, some gaining credits for NCEA qualifications and all learning engineering and life skills.

One young teenager who struggles at school is learning “all the tricks of the trade” and to drive trains. He’s progressed remarkably.

“Even the rector asked what the hell I did to him,” Harry notes with delight.

By the time this boy turns 16, he’ll be able to drive a locomotive from the workshop to the wharf at the end of the line. By age 18, he’ll be allowed to drive the entire train with passengers.

Another boy is dyslexic and finds it hard to write. The first teenager helps this one fill in his log, showing the hours he’s worked and knowledge gained.

Yet another lad who was “totally dyslexic” is now a qualified welder and has completed a Bachelor of Engineering degree. He still volunteers.

The Saturday the Daily Encourager visited, a group of boys had cleaned out a sump full of mud and were on to fixing tracks. Harry has learned to trust them.

You can’t be too hard on them; you just keep an eye on them.”


From probation to volunteering

For 27 years, the Department of Corrections has brought men and women on probation to work on the trains and tracks. Harry chats with them first.

“I’m not a counsellor or anything,” he says. While talking, he finds a ‘carrot’ to encourage them to work and some have enjoyed the experience so much that they volunteer after their probation.

Oamaru Steam and Rail General Manager, Harry Andrew, beside a restored 1947 guard’s van. To the left rear is how the carriage looked before restoration. Photo: Kel Fowler

However, some offenders abuse him and don’t want to work.

“The ones that tell you to go get f-d all the time, they’re the ones that’ll go to jail.”

Others bring their wife and children for a train ride and show their families what they’ve been doing on the railway.

One woman who loved polishing and cleaning a steam locomotive every week has now finished her probation and has moved on to find a good job.

Donation of track

In 1992, New Zealand Rail donated about 4 km of the old harbour track line, trains and its workshop to Oamaru Steam and Rail, which formed in 1986.

Stock which has been lovingly upgraded to run on Sundays includes: a 1962 Stephenson & Hawthorns locomotive; a 1940s freight wagon converted into an open carriage; a 1904 passenger carriage which spent its working life as a Dunedin school train; a 1924 railway carriage which travelled between Greymouth and Christchurch; and a 1940s guard’s van which serviced the South Island.

A vintage train returns to its Oamaru workshop with guard Carolyn Lister keeping an eye out, while to the left, volunteers pause from their work. Photo: Kel Fowler

The society and Harry own other locomotives and carriages which have been restored or are waiting their turn.

Harry has been the General Manager since 1999, is an engineer by trade and holds a “high-grade steam ticket”. He says they keep the railway maintained to NZ Transport Agency standards and the agency is their boss.

Faithful volunteers across all ages

Society volunteers are aged between 13 and 80. Faithfully every Sunday since 1999, they’ve run a passenger train from the historic precinct to the harbour, and the money raised funds the railway.

Volunteers labour at the workshop on Wednesdays and Saturdays, with one Dunedin enthusiast driving a 226 km round-trip at weekends. Between eight and 15 people are usually there working, plus “a few come and go for cups of tea”.

When the volunteers realised they were ageing, they trained younger people. As they measure and mark out jobs, the older men naturally teach the kids English and maths.

Working on the railroad…volunteers (from left) Ashok Ormandy, Ken McCallum, Dion Voyce and with the hammer, Cooper Rowsell. Photo: Kel Fowler

“We have people from all walks of life here come and join our railway. You don’t need to have a trade,” Harry says. “Just come and help.”

Some children are shy, others may have been “knocked around” at home or school. Harry reckons it’s important to sit and listen to them.

“No one gets hit on here, I’m very strict on that, no one gets teased here,” he says, adding that “I think I’m the only one that gets teased!”

Harry says the schoolkids are volunteers like everyone else, and definitely part of Oamaru Steam and Rail.

“They are part of us; they are us.”

The teenagers show initiative and take responsibility: “It’s their railway to come.”

Harry stands and surveys the thriving railway.

“My dream would be…to have it registered for my great-grandkids’ grandkids, that it will be there forever and a day.”

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For more information:

Oamaru Steam and Rail website and Facebook


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