Rail company fires inquiry completed

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Dunedin Railways has completed its investigation into a series of fires south of Oamaru in January, believed to have been sparked by a visiting steam train, but its findings are yet to be released.

On the afternoon of January 24, a total of 21 blazes ignited over a 12km stretch of railway along State Highway 1 between Oamaru and Maheno.

The first fire was reported at 2.35pm at a rail overbridge at Deborah, about 15 minutes after the train left to return to Dunedin.

It is believed ash from the train, which made the trip from Dunedin to Oamaru without incident in the morning, ignited tinder-dry grass beside the rail track.

At the height of the fire, 16 appliances and three helicopters were involved.

Crops, fences and baleage were destroyed in the blaze.

The final bill for dousing the fire is expected to top $100,000, which does not include any potential claims from property owners who had assets destroyed as a result of the fire.

Investigations were launched after the fire by Dunedin Railways and the Otago Rural Fire Authority.

Dunedin Railways operations manager Grant Craig said the company’s investigation had come to an end, but he would not reveal the outcome.

“I’ve completed my investigation but I can’t comment, due to insurance reasons, on what the exact cause was.

“We’ve passed it on to our insurers and we are in discussions with them. We have to have feedback from them to comment on it. It’s still being investigated by the other groups. I haven’t seen a report from the rural fire service, so it’s not in my hands at the moment,” Mr Craig said.

He did not know when the outcome of the company’s investigation would be made public, he said.

The Otago Rural Fire Authority’s investigation is ongoing.

Mr Craig said it was unlikely the incident would affect future steam train trips between Oamaru and Dunedin.

Another steam train, the AB608 Passchendaele memorial locomotive, is scheduled to visit Oamaru in October, most likely at Labour Weekend as part of World War I centenary commemorations.

By Daniel Birchfield