It was a case of heightened anticipation down at Levin Station last night. Cars were stopping to see just what was happening – after all, it’s not often a steam train is spotted on the Main Trunk Line. And there she was, in all her glory, huffing and puffing at the station with an admiring group gathered around.
Steam Incorporated were running the Honky Tonk Starlight Express early evening trip from Levin to Palmerston North and return. The locomotive AB608 Passchendaele was built at the Addington Railway Workshops in Christchurch in 1915, and was pulling three historic carriages and a brake van.
And looks what’s coming – it’s the Northern Explorer Auckland to Wellington train coming into Levin, pulled by a diesel engine. What a contrast, the old and the new. The passengers aboard were thrilled to see “our” engine puffing away, and waved enthusiastically to all of us standing on the station as their train travelled southwards
We had arrived bright and early for our 6.00pm departure, so we had plenty of time to have a good look around. We could see the fire box blazing brightly and the engine driver kindly allowed me to clamber up into the loco and snap a few photos. How kind, I was most impressed, and I’m sure you wouldn’t get that sort of service on a commercial train trip. There is certainly not much room to spare – the engine driver sits of the tiny seat on the right and has to peer out the window.
Then it was “All Aboard” and we went to claim our seats. Every one came well prepared with plenty of warm clothing, and we had been warned that the vintage carriages do not have heating, which, we were told, is part of their character.
The trip took us up the Main Trunk Line, stopping at Shannon, and Palmerston North. During the one hour stopover at Palmy musician Wayne Mason belted out honky tonk music on an old piano which was bolted to the floor of the guards van. Wayne is just one of the keen volunteer members aboard the evening train, while others were doing duty as Car Stewards.
While the passengers enjoyed the music, and queued up at the coffee cart to get their coffee fix, we waited while the loco was unhooked, turned around and hooked up to the other end of the train. Then the hard working volunteers had work to do. The water tank needed replenishing, and we watched as a little chemical was first poured into the very big hose (to counteract boiler scale to aid the boiler to last longer) before it was hooked up and the water tap turned on. And all those wheels needed another touch of oil.
Then it was back on-board again for the return trip. We walked over a brass plate on the floor. Robin knew exactly what it was – a pivot point for the wheels underneath. I was most impressed, how did he know that, I wondered?
There was a bit of drinking taking place over the other side of the carriage, quite a bit of singing, and general fun and laughter as we steamed through the night. With a freight train heading towards us on the line, we were safely stopped for a while on a siding at Koputaroa, a few miles north of Levin. We waited, and waited some more, till the extra long freight train finally rolled past and we continued on the homewards journey. Plenty of time while we were waiting to take an on-board selfy photo.
Arriving safely at Levin, we gathered up our belongings and disembarked. What a great trip – we love trains, and vintage trains are certainly something quite special.