Refiring the Single Engine Fairlie R28 - a steam locomotive restoration project

R28 steaming days gone by

Now safely undercover in Reefton, ‘R28’, our ‘Single Engine Fairlie’, is the sole survivor of a batch of locomotives built in England during 1878-9. New Zealand Railways, barely born back then, operated it throughout Otago and Canterbury until 1934. On-sold several times for harbour work in Timaru and collier work in Reefton, R28 finally retired in 1948. Later, gifted to the people of Reefton, interest in its restoration gained momentum driven by a unique sense and enthusiasm for its engineering and international significance.


Mr Crompton, Reefton’s Station Master, can be thanked for appreciating any ongoing worth in the lifeless and rusting steel hulk of R28. His 1960 attempt led to its gifting to the then Inangahua County Council (ICC), on behalf of the people of Reefton. By 1961 it had a caregiver, the ‘Single Engine Fairlie Group’ and was run by rail to the Reefton playground in Church St. Attraction as a child’s plaything helped R28 survive, unlike other, engines of its time, sent to the scrap merchants.

Ongoing deterioration required it to be moved undercover in 1982 where, protected from the rain and climbing children's feet, it now displays in the recreation area between Reefton’s main street and the Inangahua River.

The significance of the R Class locomotives for New Zealand

Fairlie Onehunga-Apart from being the last of its type in New Zealand, and one of three worldwide, R28 represents the importance of the Fairlie patented bogie system and the single engine to the New Zealand Government Railways (NZGR).

NZGR (1880) was very new post the introduction of the single engine Fairlies and tax payer resources had to golong distances across large areas of sparse population. For economy, light narrowly-spaced rails needed to be used over extensive rough country, demanding many small short steep grades and tight curves. The ability of the Fairlie’s driving wheels to pivot under the engine for tighter track curves to be traversed and greater stability to be achieved on the narrow gauge (3’ 6” or 1067mm) system.  This same gauge is still used today albeit with heavier rails and far straighter lines.

Positioned under the boiler, the driving wheels took most of the engine's weight, creating more friction with the rails allowing more power to be transmitted with greater control. 

Most Fairlie locomotives were manufactured ‘double ended’, with an engine and bogie each end, and fireboxes midriff.  This enabled them to travel in reverse equally well, and without the need to be turned around, fewer turnstiles were needed saving on costs and much time when shunting.

However NZR’s locomotives also needed to also travel long distances at reasonable speed. Larger coal bunkers, water tanks and trailing tenders were required while retaining the special performance of the Fairlie. Thus ‘halves’ of the Double Fairlie were built by the Avonside Engine Company of Bristol, England, and so much more usable on our main trunk lines.  In essence the Fairlie’s patent, the articulation of the driving wheels was the precursor of the the driving arrangement that we see on modern diesel electric locomotives.  Most often these locomotives have a power or driving bogies in the front (leading) and rear (trailing) that pivots or articulates.

Full steam again to the R28 - the fire in our bellies

NatLib-FL16688054-Steam locomotive 28, R class (Fairlie's patent). This is R28 with its Addington  (Christchurch) railway workshops boiler that was fitted in the Hillside (Dunedin) railway workshops in 1915.  Godber, Albert Percy, 1875-1949 :Collection of albums, prints and negatives. Ref: APG-1124-1/2-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. http://natlib.govt.nz/records/22409114

‘The Single Engine Fairlie Restoration Project Group’ is passionate to restore New Zealand’s only example of this type of steam engine. Not only do we thrive to restore it for showcasing, we will steam it up for riding on private railways, and, more especially, our local railway. Based at the Reefton rail heritage precinct, R28 will both promote and serve tourism, becoming a far greater, self-sustaining asset to the Buller District.

First, we will find the funds to arrest R28’s further decay and assess our two replacement boiler options. We will draw up a conservation plan and undertake more fundraising so an engineering project manager can be appointed and volunteers mustered. To assist, we plan to launch the ‘Friends of R28’ support group, encourage major contributors and attract sponsors. Restoration work would then commence at the Reefton Railway (Steam) Engine Shed, or the Reefton Mens' Shed (the former Waiuta mine workshop building located in Bridge Street, with various component work jobbed out to West Coast and Canterbury engineering firms.

R28 is to achieve operational status by March/April 2018, free to travel the nation’s rail network, carrying many enthusiastic people on not just joy rides and discoveries, but sentimental journeys into the past.

R28 will have been refired!

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