Steam train company could face big blaze bill

Steam train company could face big blaze bill

27 January 2015

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New Zealand — The company behind a steam train trip that sparked 21 fires in North Otago could face a firefighting bill of more than $100,000.

The blazes destroyed crops, threatened homes and temporarily closed State Highway 1 between Weston and Maheno.

Dunedin Railways believed they took the necessary fire precautions for the trip from Dunedin to Oamaru and back, despite a heavier load.

An investigation has started into how the vintage train sparked 21 fires over a 12-kilometre stretch south of Oamaru on Saturday afternoon.

Firefighters have monitored the area since then and went to another flare-up last night.

The coal-fired steam locomotive, carrying more than 400 passengers, normally hauled seven to 10 carriages.

Saturday’s trip sold out within a month so the company decided to oversell it and run 14 carriages, Dunedin Railways operations manager Grant Craig said.

“We spoke to rural fire then. They were fully informed right up to the day before,” he said.

Because of the heavier load, diesel engines were attached to the back of the steam train to help drive it on the first, hilly leg from Dunedin to Karitane.

They were then detached and the steam train carried the full load to Oamaru without incident. The diesel engines and a 6000-litre water-tank wagon followed 30 minutes behind.

“Everything worked fine on the way up,” Craig said.

“The [steam] engine was working hard and didn’t create a fire. We’re unsure what happened on the way back.”

Passengers preferred taking photos of the train trip without diesel engines, he said.

The diesel engines were re-attached to the back of the train to help drive the return trip. The water tank was left in Oamaru.

Emergency services received a call at 2.35pm after a fire broke out at a rail overbridge, 20 minutes after the train departed.

The train driver realised fires had started when the locomotive reached Maheno.

“Because of the fire [and] to stop any other issues, we ran the diesels to the front and shut the steam engine off,” Craig said.

The steam engine, built in 1939, recently underwent a $1 million restoration.

“The ash can and fire box were clean and tidy as far as we know,” he said.

“All that should go up the chimney is steam.

“All my staff are gutted because we put in a lot of planning. Ninety-nine point nine per cent of the time these engines run around without a problem. It’s just a shame it’s all gone to custard.”

Dunedin Railways, part-owned by the Dunedin City Council, could be billed for the firefighting efforts. The company was insured, Craig said.

Otago Rural Fire Authority principal rural fire officer Stephanie Rotarangi said the firefighting cost was still being tallied but would probably exceed $100,000.

Sixteen fire engines, two helicopters and firefighters from several small communities fought the blazes.

The investigation would focus on the cause of the fires and how they spread. It would cover the train’s operation and what precautions were taken, Rotarangi said.

Rural fire provided Dunedin Railways with prevention advice ahead the trip but it was the train operator’s job to ensure no fire escaped, she said.

“The weekend’s steam engine fires show even the best laid plans of machine operators can go awry,” Rotarangi said.

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