The Kingston Flyer was introduced in the late 1890s as New Zealand recovered from the Long Depression of the 1880s. During the Long Depression, slow mixed trains that carried both passengers and freight had served the Kingston Branch and Waimea Plains Railway, daily in some years and only a few times per week in others. However, as the economy was revitalised, the Railways Department sought to increase services on the two lines. The government acquired the Waimea Plains Railway and incorporated it into the national network. The Kingston Branch ran north–south between Invercargill and Kingston, while the Waimea Plains Railway diverged from the branch in Lumsden and ran eastwards, meeting the Main South Line in Gore. Mixed services operated to a higher frequency, and dedicated passenger trains were introduced. These services came to be known as the Kingston Flyer, especially the Gore-Kingston services across the Waimea Plains.
The Flyer served Kingston every weekday. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, it ran Kingston-Gore, where it connected with Main South Line expresses between Dunedin and Invercargill. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, it operated Kingston-Invercargill, using the length of the Kingston Branch. In the early years, services were typically operated by K and V class steam locomotives. At peak periods, especially Christmas and Easter, special services had to be operated to cater for demand, with some operating from Dunedin through to Kingston, where they connected with Lake Wakatipu steamboats to Queenstown. For many years, this was the primary means of travelling to Queenstown.
In the 1930s, passenger numbers declined sharply, and the Railways Department looked to cancel its services on the Kingston Branch. That occurred on 4 October 1937, bringing an end to the regular service. An abbreviated service continued to operate until 17 September 1947 across the Waimea Plain to the Kingston Branch junction in Lumsden. The service was replaced at this time by buses operated by the New Zealand Railways Road Services.
The timetables were however retained a 'runs as required' Kingston Flyer, which typically operated at peak holiday periods between Gore and sometimes Dunedin to Kingston. For many years, those expresses and excursions operated in conjunction with steamers on Lake Wakatipu, to provide the primary access to Queenstown. Patronage was initially heavy, but it declined through the 1950s. The final Kingston Flyer service operated during the 1957 Easter holiday period.
In 1971, New Zealand Railways announced that it was going to recommence operating a service named the Kingston Flyer as a heritage service. The last use of steam on a regularly scheduled revenue service in New Zealand was on 26 October 1971, and the new Kingston Flyer began operating two months later on 21 December. It utilised the section of the Kingston Branch between Lumsden and Kingston and proved very popular.
From 1971 until 1979 it operated every summer through to the Easter holiday period and carried over 30,000 people annually. Flooding damage to the line between Lumsden and Garston meant that the last Kingston to Invercargill tourist service ran on 17 April 1979 and the damaged section of track in question was formally closed in November of that year.
In 1982, the Kingston Flyer was returned by NZR to Kingston before the remaining line now part of the Mossburn Branch was closed and removed. The initial intention was to utilise the remaining 20 kilometres of track between Garston and Kingston, but the decision was made to end the line in Fairlight and the additional six kilometres to Garston were closed.
The Kingston Flyer tourist service normally operated seven months of the year, from 1 October to 30 April. Two trains ran daily, excluding Christmas Day. In 1992, NZR's successor, New Zealand Rail Limited (Tranz Rail from 1995), acquired Kingston Flyer Limited, which was then sold again in 2003 by Toll NZ, then owners of Tranz Rail, to a private operator.
The Kingston Flyer was operated privately as a heritage steam railway tourist attraction from 2003 until late 2013. The operation was suspended on several occasions over this time as the Kingston Flyer ownership changed. The Kingston Flyer and all associated land and buildings was sold to a local consortium in 2017 that has retained the name Kingston Flyer Limited. Since this time the local consortium has been working to complete the restoration works required to the locomotives and rolling stock and the maintenance works required to the existing rail tracks to allow for the continued use of the heritage steam railway as a tourist attraction.
Photo: Lumsden mural of Kingston Flyer AB778 (Jock Phillips, Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand).
1878 - The railway line operated as a passenger train from Invercargill to Kingston.1950 - Modern day buses arrived and passenger numbers declined. 1971 - The Kingston Flyer became a tourist train operation.1979 - The steam train stopped its passenger service to Lumsden running only the 14km track from Kingston to Fairlight Station.
2009 - The Kingston Flyer went into recievership.
2011 - David Bryce restored the Kingston Flyer and began a passenger operation to Fairlight Station return.
2015 - The train ceased operation.
2017 - A group of private investors brought the trains and began restorations.
2021 - A commercial license was obtained to carry passengers starting in the summer.