By Kevin O’Sullivan
This month Wanganui Lions Club celebrated 50 years of running the miniature Tot Town Railway at Kowhai Park in Wanganui. The railway was built in 1963 with a huge amount of volunteer input. The train itself was built by the workers at the then Railway Workshops Aramoho Plant Zone.
Believe it or not, the whole railway was completed for a total cost of 10 shillings ($1 in today’s currency). The rails and sleepers were donated by a local business and the labour was all voluntary. On the first day of construction 50 Lions and another 50 members of the public turned out with shovels and spades to level the ground.
On 12 March 1963 the railway was opened complete with a little shop and ticket office. The International President of Lions International, Curtis Lovill of Maine, USA, officiated at the opening, which was televised by TV1 and shown on the 9pm news that night.
Wanganui Lions Club members have been driving the train each weekend and school holidays ever since. Hundreds of thousands of people have ridden on the train over the years and now we get grandparents who rode the train as children, bringing their grandchildren for a ride. To give you an idea how popular our little train is, over the school holidays this summer we collected $11,000.
The train has generated many tens of thousands of dollars income over the years. Many new features have been added to the play park because of it. Wanganui Lions also use the money to donate money to local causes.
In 2007 the old train was getting a little tired so a new one was commissioned. At a cost of over $100,000 the new one was introduced, thanks to generous donations by Powerco Trust.
The old train is still kept at the back of the station and is put back on the tracks on special occasions.
This has been an incredibly successful project running for 50 years and manned and run by a dedicated group of Wanganui Lions members.
Thanks to health and safety procedures and thorough training for new drivers the railway is very safe. We’ve been pretty accident-free over the years. We’ve only ever had the odd derailment due to people putting things on the track, but we have a ‘cow catcher’ on the front now to sweep away anything that may be on the track ahead, so it shouldn’t happen again. The new engine also has its speed governed so it can’t be driven too fast.
At the 50th anniversary celebration both the old and the new trains were run in tandem - only the second time the two engines have run together. The cost of a ride was a gold coin donation, with profits donated to St John Ambulance.
Wanganui Lions also ran a sausage sizzle, had a bouncy castle and a lolly scramble, along with face painting for the kids. The afternoon was capped off with an official cake-cutting ceremony and afternoon tea for the Deputy Mayor and other dignitaries.
District Governor-elect Leo Danz and local MP Chester Borrows were also in attendance.
Wanganui Lions are hopeful that the little train will continue to keep running and raising money for the community for another 50 years. Many people had joined the Lions Club for the purpose of getting involved with the train and we now have a roster of about 30 drivers, but more are always welcome.
Photos: Top: The new train laden with happy customers.
Above: The original engine built in 1963.
Right: A lolly scramble from the top of the dinosaur slide - one of many quirky attractions at Kowhai Park.