Esplanade Scenic Railway celebrates 50 years

Published on 01 November 2019

Heritage photo shows families queuing up to ride the miniature train in the Esplanade on its opening day.

"We drew a huge crowd on opening day, there were people everywhere. There'd never been anything like this in Palmy before, and remember, it was the sixties – there wasn’t that much to do in Palmy (back then)!”

That's Terry Jowett's recollection of the big day. He's member number 24 and he helped build the original track. The locomotive and five carriages were replicas of NZ Railway's DA Locomotive but at quarter of the scale. They were engineered by Berry Engineering, which was based where the Plaza is now, and paid for by a loan from Palmerston North City Council. The railway proved so popular the loan was paid back in about a year.

At the controls of the first ride on 1 November 1969 was the President of the Miniature Railway Society, Mr MK Bury. Other dignitaries and railway members were also on board. The track covered a 400m journey through native bush. While the bush is what sets Palmy's railway apart now, in 1969 it wasn't a choice. Part of the condition of operating was that no trees were to be cut down.

Opening day not only drew big crowds from Palmy, it got the attention of the nation. Television host Relda Familton, who fronted the Town and Around show, filmed a story. The ribbon was cut by Miriam Stoodley, who won the honour for her colouring competition entry, and the Mayor, Des Black. The mayor remarked how the railway was the brainchild of Superintendent of Parks and Reserves, Dougald MacKenzie and Mr Harry Palmer. He also noted the railway came a short time after the city's railway moved from the now Railway Reserve to Milson.

Then-Mayor Des Black pondered: Could it be that after so many years, citizens were so used to have a railway in their midst, that it left a void in their hearts?

In 2018, 62,000 people used the railway. This year it looks like visits will hit 70,000. This is despite the operating hours being almost the same as 50 years ago! The railway is open only on Saturdays, Sundays, public holidays and during school holidays.

While it may be nostalgic to Palmerstonians, half of its riders come from elsewhere. This makes sense since it's in the top four things to do in Palmy on Trip Advisor. A 2019 survey of users revealed half were from Palmy, 13% from the wider region, 28% from the rest of the North Island, 3% from the South Island and 6% from other countries.

Still drawing crowds after 50 years

Grant Taylor thinks its success lies with its location. "The Esplanade is such a fun place to be, it's got a great playground, He Ara Kotahi, the Junior Road Safety Park, the river and playgrounds. The Esplanade is the crown jewel of Palmerston North and the railway is the crown jewel of the crown jewel."

Grant's been a member of the Railway Society since 2011 and is the current president. He spends his days driving full time for KiwiRail and downsizes to the miniature locos on the weekends.

The railway now has three trains. Two are on the tracks most weekends, and for special occasions. On themed nights they put on the third.

Regular themed nights

  • Halloween Night Trains
  • Mother and Father Christmas at the Railway
  • Explore Esplanade Day
  • Easter Bunny at the Railway
  • Mother's Day and Father's Day
  • Polar Express

Despite 50 years going past, one of the locomotives is the same one that hit the track back in 1969. Albeit with almost entirely new parts.

Grant says upgrades to the railway have made it what it is today. This includes extending the track in the 90s twice to its now 2.2km length and building a new station and depot in 2018.

What's next for the railway?

For the next few years, the society is focusing on safety improvements at the depot, and along the tracks.

They've agreed that the journey, which takes around 20 minutes, is about right for families. Grant Taylor has a few ideas for what he'd like to see next.

"I'm keen to see more women and a better cultural mix [as Railway Society members]. We've got to reflect the society we are. Palmy is a diverse culture so the railway has to be too."

Membership is still going strong. There are 85 members and a recent recruitment campaign looks set to bring in another 14 people.

More to membership than driving the train

All members must be able to do all the jobs. This includes:

  • Collecting tickets
  • Guarding (the person who sits at the back of the train)
  • Fixing the locomotives
  • Driving

It's not hard to entice people either. The youngest members are 15, the eldest is 93.

"The common thing is they all like meeting people, seeing the little and the big kids having so much fun. It doesn't matter if they are nine months or 90 years, seeing them smile is what's worth it."