Wairio Station Terminus heritage value questioned by owners KiwiRail

The Wairio Terminus.

The Wairio Terminus.

Western Southland locals are urging officials to take steps to preserve a newly designated heritage railway site in the district.

Local resident and amateur historian Alanna Barrett had long believed the Wairio Station Terminus complex of buildings, that dominate the small rural town 3.5km south of Nightcaps, was worthy of recognition as an "historic place" under Heritage New Zealand (HNZ) criteria.

And after submitting an application for assessment by HNZ in November, she was delighted to be borne out by an official acknowledgement for the site of the organisation's highest, Category 1 historic place status, last week.

The Wairio Terminus.

The Wairio Terminus.

Now Barrett wants to see owners KiwiRail and local authority Southland District Council take action to prevent further deterioration of the site's buildings, which date from 1882 to 1947.

"We're very grateful to Heritage New Zealand for this thorough and well researched report. We're happy Wairio has been recognised for the important part it's played in local and New Zealand history, and look forward to KiwiRail giving full support to this heritage site, and Southland District Council bringing it into its District Plan," Barrett said.

However, a KiwiRail spokesperson said the rail operator had been "somewhat surprised" by the level of heritage status conferred on the site by HNZ.

"KiwiRail was surprised at the level of heritage status proposed. In our discussions with the Rail Heritage Trust of New Zealand, the structures were not considered to be of the level of significance suggested by Heritage New Zealand.

"We have no plans for the site at this stage, and there are concerns around the condition of the structures and their asbestos cladding," they said.

Only the company's premier heritage sites were considered for investment, and then only if a return on investment could be recognised.

"We've only a limited number of historic sites in our portfolio. If a building has an economic use and can be leased or retained for an operational reason then we will do so - such as Wellington Railway Station. This is done on a case-by-case basis.

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"No consideration has been given to Wairio Station as fitting into this category, [and there are] no plans to carry out remedial work on the site at this stage, [with] no budget to do so."

Although Southland District Council accepted HNZ's assessment of the site, it wouldn't be coming to the rescue either, mayor Gary Tong said.

"This council has a history of taking on responsibility of buildings where a committee or the like folds. That then leaves the ratepayer in a position of maintaining that building. This no longer occurs, and it would be unlikely for us to take on a significant project where ownership is outside of any community group."

Past attempts to acquire the site by community groups, such as the now defunct Ohai Railway Heritage Trust, had failed, he said.

"I understand that council, through the Ohai Railway Board formal process, assisted [Ohai Railway Heritage Trust] through administration. Subsequent attempts by others have failed, mainly due to there being very little encouraging support."

But project instigator Barrett disagreed there was a lack of impetus locally.

"With respect to the local people who've been involved with the Ohai Railway Board down the years, Wairio Station does have a future.

"Given this HNZ recommendation, we'll be pursuing a positive outcome for the site."

 - Stuff

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