by Chris Tobin
Bryan Blanchard has three great passions in life, besides his wife and family of course.
They are trains, old movies, and radio.
Now retired (“I’m coming up 79”), he is a happy man because he has plenty of time to indulge in all three.
If there is a choice as to the pecking order in which he lists these passions it’s probable trains would figure at the top.
In the late 1960s, when the age of steam was going out and the old trains about to take their last runs, Mr Blanchard would be offered the chance to go along for the ride and he took up the opportunities, no matter how trying the circumstances.
Such is his love of trains, when he and wife Marian were honeymooning on the West Coast, he couldn’t resist the chance to take a train trip.
His young newlywed bride was left in one of the passenger carriages while he joined the driver as they travelled on the Greymouth-Rewanui train.
“I did the last steam train from Palmerston and back and the last railcar from Alexandra to Wingatui, riding up with the driver,” are just a couple of such trips he remembers.
This love of trains, he thinks, derives from his boyhood and excursions on trains with an uncle, a train guard and a Gallipoli and Western front veteran.
Then he had an aunty living in Coronation St in Spreydon, Christchurch, and he loved to travel on a tram into the city, and take tram rides to Sumner, and to New Brighton.
Interviewing him you get the impression he’s a walking encyclopedia, or in modern parlance, a Mr Google, on trains and their history around this part of the world.
Last month he and Marian were awarded a special award for excellence at the Federation of Rail Organisations New Zealand conference in Timaru, recognising their work for the Pleasant Point Railway and Museum.
As far as the museum is concerned, the Blanchards were there at the start.
In March 1968, then a courting couple, they were on the last train trip from Fairlie to Timaru which was undertaken with a great deal of hoopla.
At Albury, Mr Blanchard asked if he could ride out front in the cab with the driver.
Approval given, he had a front-row view as the train pulled into Pleasant Point with whistles blowing, bagpipes wailing and people cheering.
The same happened in Timaru.
“There were heaps of people on the platform in Timaru; Bill Timmings from 3XC was doing a broadcast. Ray Challis and George Turner were the two drivers.”
With that chapter of history closed, workmen started ripping up the rail line from Fairlie.
Three Fairlie farmers had tried to stop this happening and went to court, but were unsuccessful.
By this time a group of enthusiasts, Mr Blanchard included, had come up with the idea of establishing a rail museum in Pleasant Point.
A station and goods shed were acquired, but they had to get an engine and asked NZ Railways.
“We were offered 699 and accepted. They wanted $850 for it but in the end they gave it to us for $600.
“We had a big fundraiser at Sunderlands and managed to get the money to pay for it. Initially it was going to be a static display.”
The train arrived in Timaru but required a lot of work to clean and the question was how to get it to Pleasant Point.
“We had to get it cleaned before Pacific Scrap ripped up the line from Point to Timaru. It became a race against time.
“Three of us were cleaning the engine at nights after work in the loco shed and I got to know the staff and foreman who gave me the keys for the facilities we wanted. I asked if they’d take the engine to Point for us.”
The rail staff agreed.
“We got it to Point and were piped in by the pipe band.”
But there was no time to celebrate.
The Pacific Scrap workmen were in town and told the engine crew to head back to Timaru in their train because they wanted to continue pulling up the track.
“Five minutes after we arrived the track was being ripped up.”
With their greatest asset firmly ensconced in Pleasant Point, the band of rail enthusiasts embarked on improving and adding to the facilities.
Oftentimes fortuitous events happened, often due to the goodwill of railways staff.
Rails and sleepers were saved before being sent away for scrap; local firms and volunteers pitched in to help.
“Over the years we’ve been very grateful for those who have helped us, the guys at the railways, Addington, Linwood and Hillside workshops.”
On one occasion they bought a rail wagon in Christchurch and railways were going to charge them heavily to transport it south.
This problem was soon solved.
“One night the shunters put it on the back of a goods train. When they got to Timaru the shunter guys there whipped it off and painted off the number of the wagon so it couldn’t be traced.”
Another example of how rail staff helped the museum in their endeavours came after Mr Blanchard was in Blenheim and asked if they had any bolts, nuts and bolt rails.
“Two months later I was rung and told a wagon had been shunted in from Spring Creek; the wagon was full of rail stuff.
“The guy said to get it out quick before awkward questions were asked.”
The museum’s water tower came to Pleasant Point under similar circumstances.
“I got a call that the water tower at Hinds was supposed to go to the Coast. Keith Garth from NZ Rail said in a report it was badly damaged when it had been dismantled, which was a fib.”
The water tower made its way to Pleasant Point.
The rail museum has become an important asset for South Canterbury but it is still challenging.
“A lot of work goes into it by a very dedicated group of members; sadly a lot have passed on.
“That’s the problem with rail museums; they’re struggling because there’s not the interest there used to be.
“We hope in the future it will keep going.”
Besides rail, Mr Blanchard is station director of Hospital Radio and at the rail museum has managed a movie theatre since it started in 1991.
He looks after the museum souvenir shop as well and he and Mrs Blanchard compile a three-monthly gazette.
“I type it up and Marian puts the script to the nine photos that go into each issue.”