The latest stage in a long journey for the heavy tank engine Wab 794 took place on Saturday 22 March 1997, when it officially arrived in Feilding for restoration work by the Feilding and District Steam Rail Society. To mark the occasion, Wab 794 was towed from Palmerston North by preserved 0-6-OT locomotive F 163 in a train that included a “30 class” 25kV electric locomotive and carriages with guests. Quite a contrast. The engine had come north on its own wheels from Ferrymead with surprisingly little publicity, passing through Wellington off the rail ferry on Thursday, 20 February. A lease agreement had been signed between owners New Zealand Railway & Locomotive Society (NZRLS) and the Feilding society on 1 February.
Feilding and District Steam Rail Society has leased 794 for a term of 25 years, with right of renewal. Both NZRLS and the Canterbury Railway Society (formerly Canterbury Branch, NZRLS), who have looked after the engine since 1978, are pleased to see the engine move. The Feilding society has built a wide measure of community support for its project of overhauling and working a steam locomotive out of Feilding. Their target is to complete the overhaul within 2 to 3 years, then to run trains within the general limits of Wanganui and Woodville, serving the Manawatu community. They already have two passenger cars which have been worked on, bringing them up to standard, over recent months.
Wab 794 has worked in the Manawatu area before, being allocated to Wanganui for a period in the mid-1950’s. It is one of two of this class of heavy tank engine that have survived. The engine worked twenty-eight and a half years for New Zealand Railways and a further nine years for the Ohai Railway Board in Southland. It has been on static display under cover at Ferrymead (Christchurch) for the last twenty-nine years, except for being towed in the parade of engines during the Ferrymead 125 celebrations in 1988. A total of 30 of these were built by NZR. No. 794 was one of a batch of ten built 1926-27 at Hillside workshops for use between Dunedin and Oamaru, on the South Island Main Trunk line. Except for No. 790, the others were converted to Ab class tender engines 1947-48 for continuing use in the South Island. Wab 790 was converted likewise in 1957 after a period of work in the North Island.
Hillside workshops completed 794 in May 1927, NZR’s makers number 251. Traffic had been building up and there was a need for more powerful engines on the line north from Dunedin which has 1 in 50 grades in combination with 7.5 chain (150 metres) radius curves. Because of the side tanks and the water they carried, the Wab class had loads of 14 tons on the driving axles, some 17% more than the equivalent Ab class tender engine. Consequently the boiler pressure was increased by 11%, to 200 pounds per square inch, giving the Wab a useful increase hauling capacity.
The ten of them were the prime sloggers on the Dunedin-Oamaru route until March 1940, when ten J class 4-8-2 tender engines arrived from Scotland. These displaced the big tank engines to a considerable extent. Alternative work in the South Island for the Wab class was limited because of their high axle loads and concentrated weight of 71.5 tons. Bridges and track capable of taking them limited their availability. The likeliest alternative duties, in Canterbury, were being handled by Kb and G class tender locomotives, both of which had much greater fuel and water capacity.
Meanwhile, wartime traffic had been building up in the North Island, so in June 1942 two of the South Island Wab’s, Nos. 794 and 790, were transferred to Wellington to work suburban and other trains. No. 794 is noted for its involvement in the derailment of a suburban train at Haywards in November, 1943, an accident largely contributed to by a lower standard of maintenance prevailing under wartime conditions. After recovery, the engine went to Woburn workshops for repairs that were particularly thorough. It was totally stripped down into components so the frames could be straightened and annealed before reassemble.
As electrification of the Hutt Valley suburban lines progressed towards completion in 1954, engine 794 was transferred to Wanganui, to help on the heavily graded lines in that area. Its stay was only a short one, for the introduction of diesel-electric locomotives on the North Island Main Trunk line was soon to displace K class engines to Wanganui and Taranaki, which in turn displaced the older engines of classes X and Wab with their more restricted usefulness.
At that time the Ohai Railway Board, operator of a line from the terminus of the NZR’s Wairio branch line to the Ohai coalfield, was looking for a locomotive to take over the work done by their X442. Wab 794 was chosen and shipped to Hillside workshops for overhaul. The official sale date to the Board was 31 August 1955. The engine had run 837,400 miles for NZR (1.35 million kilometres). Changing circumstances led the Ohai Board to buy two 200 h p Drewry 0-6-0 diesel-mechanical locomotives later in the decade, these displacing the steam engines to stand-by duties. This arrangement continued until 1968. Last recorded working of 794 for the Board was its use with X 442 to haul a passenger train organised by the Otago Branch, NZRLS, on 21 November,1964.
Early in 1965 the Board offered these two steam locomotives to NZRLS, X 442 to the Canterbury Branch and Wab 794 to the Otago Branch. (The Otago Branch was already actively working on their railway preservation project, Ocean Beach Railway.) The latter group could not accept so big an engine on their site, so the Canterbury Branch offered to take both on the site they were working to establish at Ferrymead. The following year’s Local Legislation Act authorised the Ohai Railway Board to donate its two steam locomotives to NZRLS for the purposes of their maintenance and preservation as historical articles.
Because of weight restrictions on two bridges en route, the two were towed from Wairio to Dunedin on goods trains in March 1968. Well known engine-driver and now manager of Kingston Flyer Ltd., Russell Glendinning, did much of the work to make sure the transfer moves took place safely. A week later, Wab 794 was steamed for its most recent time, to haul X 442 from Dunedin to Timaru for secure storage (15 March). Russell was the last man to drive No. 794 on the main line. Its move to be placed on site at Ferrymead did not take place until 1 October,1978. Since then it has emerged once, to join the parade of power at the Ferrymead 125 celebrations of October 1988.
Originally the Feilding and District Steam Rail Society was established with the objective of negotiating a lease on Wab 800, then held at the Te Awamutu site of Waikato Branch, NZRLS. This lease was not to be. An approach was then made to the central Board of NZRLS, who responded favourably, leading to signature of the present lease on 1 February. The rest you now know: Wab 794 is now in Feilding for restoration to work.
Rob Merrifield April 1997.