National Railway Museum Stumbles

The National Railway Museum of New Zealand was launched at Ferrymead Heritage Park in October 2005 at a groundbreaking ceremony by Sir Neil Cossons, who came over from the UK as part of a “heritage week” around New Zealand. The idea of the museum seems to be strongly implied by its title, to follow in the footsteps of similar organisations in other parts of the world, such as in the UK and Australia. A great idea, right? Well err…. unfortunately the execution of the NRMNZ has not been well thought out to date and has had a much harder row to hoe than even its contemporaries, the existing 50 or so individual members of the current Federation of Rail Organisations New Zealand (formed originally as the National Federation of Rail Societies back in the 1970s).

The idea for the NRMNZ came out of the Ferrymead Railway and long held views in this organisation that some sort of proper displays and archives focus was needed, separate from the mainly operational focus of the FR itself. But a lot of what came into the creation of the NRMNZ comes out of Ferrymead’s own superior view of itself, which is related to its historical status as the first public railway to be built in the whole of NZ. This is a bit like how the Roman Catholic Church sees itself in relation to the wide range of different churches that exist today. For example, at the celebration of the 125th anniversary of NZ Railways held in 1988, the event was invariably known as “Ferrymead 125” within FHP, and “Rail 125” outside it. Most of the other FRONZ membership organisations manage to have displays and operations kept within the same organisation; so only at Ferrymead would it be held there was some benefit to be obtained by creating a separate organisation. Furthermore, the intention was to keep this firmly under Ferrymead control; the constitution of NRMNZ as originally created gives Ferrymead Railway’s parent organisation, the Canterbury Railway Society, power to approve five members of the executive committee. Since the committee would have a maximum of nine members, this effectively gave CRS control of the NRMNZ executive. In 2020, a move was made to eliminate CRS control of NRMNZ by altering certain clauses in the NRMNZ constitution to remove the pre-eminence of CRS in appointing members. This makes NRMNZ a fully separate organisation for the first time.

So the very first question is, if this is such a great idea, why is the organisation effectively constituted separately from, yet controlled by, an existing society? If it was a branch of an existing society, it should be constituted as a subcommittee of that society. If it was going to be a separate organisation completely, then it follows it should operate completely independently. This was finally realised after 17 years in operation and is now the case at a constitutional level. However it is also a common sense scenario that the NRMNZ should be located on its own site. This was never considered from the beginning of the project and could not occur as it stands today because the NRMNZ has sunk well over $500,000 into projects at its current site that is unrecoverable as these projects are only of value to another railway museum and are firmly attached to the ground. The problem of being co-located with other rail heritage projects at Ferrymead is that they are in competition for funding. Given how much reliance the rail heritage sector has on external finance for most of its activities, this is no small thing, and has become more of a concern due to the lengthy delays experienced by NRMNZ in getting its project up and running.

The next question for something like a national rail museum is a good operating model. Does an organisation such as this have its own collection or does it work with the existing groups that have rolling stock around the country to showcase their existing activities? CTB doesn’t have a firm view either way which is the best way to operate. NRMNZ has created their own collection of rolling stock to date, but so far do not have any steam locomotives, as it is mostly newer items they were able to pick up, with most steam locomotives held by existing organisations. There is the possibility they could display some of the Ferrymead Railway’s static collection in the future as long as the two organisations can cooperate more. Ultimately the biggest question for the NRMNZ is where it should be located. Auckland has probably the best existing museum rail museum at MOTAT which is funded by Auckland Council. This resulted from a wise decision taken many years ago for MOTAT to be set up as a branch of the existing local body owned museums, an opportunity that was also offered to Ferrymead via the Christchurch City Council many years ago not once but twice, but declined each time. MOTAT could easily claim they have a much better opportunity to set up a national rail museum now or in the future with the professional funding and support they have.

The third important point is that NRMNZ doesn’t have any kind of display building yet after 17 years of operation. This results from poorly conceived focus on its priorities. One should have thought that there were opportunities for the use of existing buildings such as the Hall of Wheels or Locomotive Shelter until such a time as their own building came into play. However it appears that the focus from the start went into their own site with the assumption that the building they wanted should be the highest priority. This is where Ferrymead pretentiousness in relation to its historical origins, as alluded to above, has really come into play in a bad way. The first plan for the building was for a full roundhouse, which is essentially a circular structure with outer bays that are all connected to a turntable in the centre. The main problem with this design is that the turntable itself is an expensive piece of engineering which is essentially a sunk, unrecoverable cost. New Zealand as a whole only ever had two roundhouses, because railway turntables due to their high cost can only ever be justified where space is limited, and a whole steam shed based around a turntable likewise. Steam sheds in NZ with conventional layouts and track connections are much more commonplace. Mainline Steam are planning to build a roundhouse at Mercer for their collection, but they do have significant independent funding for this project.

Anyway NRMNZ had to revise the original plans for a full roundhouse, which was going to cost millions, down to a half or three quarter size edition (at the moment it’s unclear which of these is correct) because grant funders were not going to stump up such a large sum in one go for a single project. After years of applications, enough money was received to get a building project started. But the choice of priorities was all completely wrong. The best way to have proceeded at that point would have been to erect a few bays of the proposed building and connect the track with conventional points, leaving the turntable for another time. Instead, NRMNZ sunk all of their money into installing the turntable, which means they didn’t get any proper building erected at all. It should have been obvious that the turntable would be the most expensive part of construction as it requires some very substantial bearings to support its great weight, these in turn need massive foundations to hold them up, especially in the middle. Whereas in a building the weight of the structure can be spread out over its large perimeter, the turntable has all of the weight concentrated into just three small locations, so whilst the ring rail in a 70 foot diameter turntable pit does have a substantial length of about 440 feet, every part of that ring rail has to be engineered so that a significant amount of the turntable weight (plus any rail vehicle on it) can be supported by just a few feet of it. So a turntable is a very expensive structure to construct. As all the money from this grant, which was a six figure amount, went into the construction of the turntable, which might best be described as part of the foundations, there was nothing left for any actual building itself.

From the time that the project was first established until the completion of the turntable was eight years. Another nine years have gone past since then, and whilst the last two have been a problem for many groups, the fact that cannot be ignored is that there has only been a small amount of progress since that time towards the NRMNZ building project. In 2020 a little bit of common sense started to prevail when a plan was put together to break down the entire structure into segments or modules to be completed piece by piece. This is probably the only realistic option to complete anything like the full roundhouse in the foreseeable future. The second idea that has started to come about is creating displays in another building on the site. An old FHP building was taken over and work has been done to set it up. However the main problem is that this building cannot house any rolling stock because it is only a regular building and does not have any track going into it, or any large access doors that can bring any big objects inside. The history of practically every rail heritage project in NZ is you focus on some sort of building as a top priority so you can get your rolling stock under cover. It can take many years to achieve this but most groups have got it right and have succeeded in getting a rail shed or two in place within the first decade of being established. NRMNZ is the notable outlier in that after almost twenty years they still haven’t got one, and this is quite a stark comparison with CRS next door who in their first two decades got practically all the buildings that exist today erected.

It is entirely likely that NRMNZ will be able to get some of their building built in the next ten years but the real problem is that the whole structure is so large and expensive that it is going to take 50 years to complete. The key problem is that rail heritage around New Zealand as a whole has been in decline for the last few decades. Groups are finding it more difficult to stay in operation due to ongoing membership and funding attrition. The inevitable likelihood is that some groups will have to amalgamate. There have already been suggestions of that being essential between some of the groups at Ferrymead. In those circumstances it is hard to understand the recent separation of NRMNZ from the CRS. The alternative suggestion of re-amalgamating it back into CRS had a lot more merit as it is clear that membership and resources are being spread across two separate organisations with similar objectives. This issue is likely to be exacerbated in years to come as the squeeze on resources becomes more pronounced.

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