#2 – Signal Box

A Signal Box Returns to PAEKAKARIKI
From “PLATFORM” – Issue #19 September 2008 – FRONZ

Story & Photos by Christine Johnson

For months and months, Paekākāriki people have been working hard alongside our heritage building carpenter, to complete the restoration of the south end signalbox. We set a target date of completion to speed things up, for a formal opening on the same date as OnTrack’s Parliamentary Special. From there it was all go! We met the target, and the opening was a great success, with so many people crowding onto the station platform, that they could not be contained within OnTrack’s safety areas. Trains remained in operation on one side of the platform only and safety marshals quickly acted to ensure that people were safely clear in time for a passing freight train during the opening ceremony. Witnessed by Parliamentary Special passengers, its train chasers, and many locals, the signalbox was officially opened by MP Winnie Laban and Kapiti Mayor, Jenny Rowan. It was a great and very memorable occasion for Paekākāriki, and signified the end of a long and tough project.

The restoration of the signalbox has been a long and very arduous task, spanning well over a decade. Just saving the Category 1 building from possible demolition was a major undertaking in itself, but one which was well worth the effort. Built in 1910, Paekākāriki’s south end signalbox controlled the movement of trains travelling through Paekākāriki until 1985, when it was closed and deemed surplus by NZR. From there it languished empty on the station platform for 3 years. In 1988, Kapiti Coast District Council realised the historic values of the building, and rather than allowing it to be demolished, purchased the signal box for $400 and removed it to Steam Inc’s site. In an arrangement with KCDC, Steam Inc had the responsibility for restoration of the building. Due to a change in their administration and priorities, the signal box was not restored by Steam Inc and sat forlorn in their yard for some years.


Once the community-based Paekākāriki Station Trust had completed construction of their museum in the heritage railway station, it was decided that the next project should be to save the unwanted signalbox. Complicating matters by now, was that NZ’s privatised national rail system had resulted in a much less friendly & contributory organisation toward rail heritage. Tranz Rail would not allow the Station Trust to shift the signal box from Steam Inc, over to the Trust’s leased land, beside the railway station. Therefore, the building remained on Steam Inc’s site until they asked the Station Trust to remove the building from their land. The Station Trust was completely powerless to do anything about this, and consequently, the Trust found itself in a dilemma. Finally, in June 2002, Tranz Rail approved relocation of the signalbox onto their land, within the Station Trust’s leased area, subject to approval being issued by Transfield. In September 2002, a resource consent was issued by KCDC, to shift the signalbox. Community fundraising was commenced by the Station Trust,to enable the shift. However, things were still not very straightforward, with rail-generated problems still being ongoing, and it took months and months for Transfield to give the necessary approval for the shift. Enter the problems with outsourcing! Matters became even more complicated, when Steam Inc wrote the Station Trust in May 2003, expressing embarrassment at the continued presence of the signalbox on its land. There was a genuine concern, that Steam Inc would dispose of the signal box themselves.

The signalbox was a NZHPT Category One building, and to save it from possible demolition, the Station Trust made arrangements for Ohakune to transport it to their railway station, if all else failed. The Ohakune group was willing to take the signalbox at their own expense in order to save it.


Then, when it seemed that Paekākāriki was going to lose its signalbox, approval to shift it was finally received from Transfield. The signalbox was shifted to a new position, in the rail yards, in August 2003. Because of the hurried manner it was moved in, the box was not placed on any foundations, and merely sat structurally unprotected, on uneven ground and ballast. Apart from the unsatisfactory situation of not sitting on any foundations, the signalbox was subject to its basement being deluged by floodwaters and silt in the 2003 floods. Clearly the site was not a suitable one. The signalbox was by now in a bad way. The Heritage Architect advised that although suffering from much rot, the building was still structurally sound, but work had to commence as soon as possible to save it from further deterioration.

While funding applications were being made, a submission was made to the new Government owner of rail, ONTRACK, to place the building back onto the railway station platform, once it was fully restored. A response from OnTrack’s Head Office was never received. Several months later, an approach was made to OnTrack’s Regional Manager, who quickly approved in principle, the resiting of the signal box back to the railway station, once restored. With assistance from the Rail Heritage Trust of NZ, the national rail operators now appreciated the value of the historic railway structures. Euan and team have been of immense help to the signalbox project and its shows just how valuable NZRHT is, especially to communities like ourselves. NZRHT is an asset in itself which must be protected for future generations.


The Paekākāriki Station Precinct Trust was well aware that the village had lost considerable amounts of its railway heritage and was determined to save what little was left, the railway station and then the signalbox. Paekākāriki’s north signalbox was lost from the village, when Steam Inc donated it to the Ohakune Station group. It took a major effort, spanning many years, by the Station Trust to save the south end signal box and then to see it restored and shifted back to its original location at the railway station.

Rather than being a railfan effort, this project has been a huge community effort in its entirety, involving many members of the immediate Paekākāriki community, plus members of the greater Kapiti and Wellington region, assisted by Local and Central Government agencies and National Rail Operators. Many community volunteers assisted with painting, fencing and security. Community fund raising concerts and evenings were organised within Paekākāriki to raise funds for sundry items. When restoration of the signalbox was about to commence, a much loved, but unprotected heritage structure, the Paekākāriki Hotel was demolished by its owners. This was a tremendous loss to the village and represented a loss of even more local heritage, to make way for modern development. Community members literally overnight formed teams to work in shifts, so they could save as much timber as they possibly could from the demolished Hotel, to use on the signalbox. Thehotel was a similar vintage to the signalbox, with Rimu T&G timber being the same width. The timber was destined to be burnt by the owner, but after representations by community members, he made it available to the village’s two heritage projects.

The removal of good Rimu from the hotel, was a true rural community effort, with even children being present to help out in some way, to save as they possibly could, for recycling onto the signalbox. The Paekākāriki Hotel did not have a heritage category on it, and the loss of it at such short notice further strengthened the community’s resolve to restore the signalbox. Community volunteers took the timber to the railway station and later de-nailed and scraped it down, ready for placement on the box. The restored Paekākāriki South Signalbox was transported back to the Platform in an overnight operation that avoided any disruption to scheduled commuter services. January 2008.


The Kapiti Coast District Council gave major assistance and support to the Paekākāriki community for the signalbox restoration project. Many individuals and organisations donated money or items towards the project. Lottery Grants Board Environment and Heritage, was the major funder of the signalbox project. The saving of, restoration and relocation of the signal box has been a huge and very notable community effort.

Following the restoration of the signalbox, national rail operator, Tranz Metro painted the railway station in matching heritage colours. Located beside State Highway 1, Paekākāriki’s heritage railway station and signalbox are an impressive sight for every passing motorist and rail commuter to see and enjoy. Paekākāriki’s community members are very proud of this.

Paekākāriki’s signalbox project tells a tremendous story of how a village community came together, and worked to save a threatened Category 1 building, which was important to local and national heritage. The signal box is the only one in its original location, between Wellington and Otahuhu. It was a first, in that a heritage structure was allowed to be shifted back to its original location in the rail corridor. Despite initial opposition, the community fought back and gained the assistance of the statutory bodies, along with the approval of rail operators. Once advised of the age and heritage values of the railway station and signalbox, Tranz Metro (Late TOLL Rail NZ) and the local railway staff also became very keen and also leant their support towards the project. So did ONTRACK. A once common, but now relatively rare structure has been saved for future generations to see and to enjoy.


Paekākāriki station in itself is an unusual one. It is on a very long island platform, and contains a heritage museum in a still operating railway station. The length of the platform dates back to the 20-car NIMT expresses. The signalbox has added to the station’s historic value. Paekākāriki’s example more than adequately demonstrates how a modern system and heritage values can work together. It shows that the old railway stations do not have to be bulldozed or shifted, to make way for new developments, to meet a modern rail system.

This project also demonstrates how fighting to save New Zealand’s heritage buildings is a worthwhile project and, despite much adversity, one that that can be achieved with a collective community spirit. It also demonstrates how a small, village community can successfully work alongside much higher statutory authorities for an excellent outcome. The Paekākāriki signalbox is a project which can be used to demonstrate to other New Zealand communities, “how it can be done.”