Train robbers of the late 1800s would recognise much in the workshop of Whakatane man John Lawson.
Building a model version of a 260 Mogul locomotive, John is seven years into his project of recreating a train reminiscent of America’s Wild West, one that will eventually run at Whakatane’s River Edge Park.
Building the locomotive is a lengthy process. Having begun in 2010, John says his project is now 80 percent done and he hopes it will be ready for a debut at the park close to Christmas.
As a former power plant manager at Norske Skog Tasman (then known as Carter Holt Harvey Tasman), John retired from the role with a host of skills to bring to a workshop project. “I wasn’t sure what my retirement project would be,” he says, “but I knew I wanted one”. With an abundance of skills in both engineering and steam, a traction engine was first on the agenda but before that got under way, John’s eye was caught by trains.
“I’m not sure why, because I’d never had an interest in trains before,” he says. Building one has grown into a big part of his retirement, and experiencing the full-size versions has also become a feature. John and wife Nola’s travels have included journeys on some of the world’s most famous railways; the Yukon Express in Alaska, Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer, the Royal Rajasthan in India and the Peruvian Rail-train to Machu Picchu among them.
The process of building a fully operational model locomotive starts, says John, “with a set of plans, and not much more”. The many metal materials required, firstly need to be obtained.
Arriving as blank castings and laser-cut frames, John says the casting and framework then need to be machined into shape before the intricate and labour-intensive process of drilling, lathing and assembling begins. Piece by piece, each part of the engine is individually built. The small, but all-important Duplex water-pump that will feed the boiler of John’s locomotive, for instance, started out as a single block of brass. Alone, the pump took more than 100 hours to create, he says.
It is clearly a labour of love for John. Nola says he’s in the workshop three or four days a week, and he’s always whistling. “It’s his happy place.”
John’s involvement with Whakatane’s River Edge Park Miniature Railway, and the Model Engineering Association of New Zealand began five years ago. As a member of the association, John is present at the railway most of the days it runs. Stringent safety regulations regarding the engines’ boilers, and the ride-cars, require the railway to have a representative from the association present and John is that man. “Sometimes I drive and sometimes I’m doing maintenance, but I’m always carrying out safety checks,” he says.
By the end of the year, John hopes his locomotive will undergo its initial trials at the park before going on to be the newest train in the fleet. Right now he’s working on the exterior but there’s still some way to go. The boiler, currently under a protective wrap, is yet to be encased in non-flammable felted wool, before the outer body is completed, painted, and installed. The finished locomotive will be sporting a distinctive wooden housing around the cab, reflecting the traditional Mogul style. In this case, the wood being kauri planks gifted by his father.
The River Edge Park Miniature Railway has been operating in Whakatane since 2002 after a group of local enthusiasts formed the Eastern Bay Model Engineers Society. The group is hoping to build another 500 metres of track at the park, along with additional features. Resource consent has been obtained, though John says a lot of fundraising is still required before the project can get under way.
The railway operates on the first Sunday of every month, and each Sunday of primary school holidays and long weekends.