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Going By Train: The Complete New Zealand Railways Story

Going By Train: The Complete New Zealand Railways Story

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Going By Train: The Complete New Zealand Railways Story

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Lançado em:
Oct 1, 2019


Railways played a pivotal part in the development of New Zealand’s economy, towns and cities, and helped shape a distinctive culture. This is a comprehensive account of our railways story, from the earliest days of the colony, through rail’s growth and golden days, slow decline and recent resurgence. Fully illustrated, and written in a very readable style, rail fans and general readers alike will enjoy its wide-ranging topics, generous illustrations, anecdotes and personal accounts.

Lançado em:
Oct 1, 2019

Sobre o autor

Graham Hutchins is a long-time railway enthusiast and a frequent traveller on the New Zealand rail network. Among several books he has written on the subject are Great New Zealand Railway Journeys and Last Train to Paradise. He has also written extensively on rugby, cricket, rock music and a range of other subjects. Graham is a full-time writer and lives in Hamilton.

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Going By Train - Graham Hutchins


IN THE TINY SETTLEMENT OF MOUTOHORA, everyone listened out for the late train from Gisborne. The arrival of the mixed goods, with its smattering of passengers and ongoing supplies for the village, was the most important event of the day. After all, Moutohora was 78 km from Gisborne city: a significant distance in those days.

The train not only provided transport for people between Moutohora and Gisborne but also enabled everyday commodities such as newspapers, bread and other perishables from the city to keep the town in touch and nourished. Return trains carried farmers’ produce down the line for processing or export from Gisborne port.

When the train was late, or it was winter, people carried kerosene lamps to light the way as they descended on the end-of-the-line station. Sometimes, the train would foreshadow its arrival by blasting on its whistle a kilometre or so from town, and its powerful headlight could be seen beaming through the fog and gathering gloom of early evening.

Moutohora didn’t have many residents, but it always seemed that most of the population — babes-in-arms, kids, grown-ups and hobbling older folk — would feel the pull of the train as it chuffed into the station. There were no TVs or electronic devices to keep the residents at home; the sound of the steam engine’s whistle was unimpeded as it summoned everyone to meet at the station.

Despite the photo’s label, this is Otoko Station on the Moutohora line in Poverty Bay. ATL

As the hurricane lamps flickered like glow-worms, tracing the paths of locals heading for the small station down bush tracks and conventional streets, they represented a coming together of residents who, without the railway, would have remained in their homes, isolated from one another. Some made the darkened journey to meet family or friends off the train. Others wended their way to collect newspapers and bread. Others went to the station simply to say hello to neighbours and catch up on the local gossip. In that sense, the railways of New Zealand, even in a tiny, branch-line pocket such as Moutohora, performed a vital social function.

Sometimes, the train was late because the steep gradient between Waikoku and Matawai tested the pulling power of the steam engine, despite the best will of the driver and fireman. The locals at the station didn’t mind; they were on train time. During the decades when railways virtually controlled our lives, the lateness of trains was almost regarded in the same light as overdue births: often inevitable but bearable. Besides, the friendly fire in the grate of the station waiting room warmed and welcomed. Locals rubbed their hands and stretched their necks for a view of the spot where the approaching train would first shed its light.

A significant part of the Moutohora line story related to the part it would play as a vital link in the East Coast main trunk line. Construction workers were due to hack the critical 100 km through the hills to meet the Bay of Plenty line at Taneatua. That was the plan anyway. Moutohora meanwhile bathed in the glory of being the railhead: the end of the line.

The railway exerted more profound influences on larger towns. Te Kuiti was a sleepy hollow in the first half of the twentieth century, but the arrival of two trains at once — the southbound Auckland to Wellington Express at 2.02 a.m., and the northbound Wellington to Auckland Express at 2.05 a.m. — led to a strange stirring in the King Country town. For a brief 10 minutes, as the trains sat and simmered, and contemplated life, passengers rushed to replenish themselves at the refreshment rooms. In-coming new landowners gathered their wits and luggage and stared like possums into the narrowing night. Disgruntled, failed farmers heaved themselves aboard one of the blessed trains, too disappointed at the sacrifices they had made in the attempt to break in an unforgiving land to even look back and curse.

Sometimes, you’d see an elegantly dressed lady clutching at her skirts as she headed for a cuppa. A cuppa! It didn’t seem appropriate for such a fine lady. Yet this was Te Kuiti and everyone was treated the same: Auckland’s flash Remuera and Wellington’s posh Karori were just other Maori place names. Sometimes, tall gentlemen in stately suits would be seen assisting the ladies along the uneven surface of Te Kuiti Station’s platform.

As the 2 a.m. bewitching hour approached, men in boarding houses and hotels within the town centre would dust themselves down and attempt to sober up before beginning their walk to the station. There were always encounters to be had with certain passengers off the trains, deeds to be done, hands to be shaken. There were even accounts of whisky-breathing curmudgeons attempting to sway the intentions of women passengers.

Local Maori, some smoking pipes to match the chuff of the express engines, watched. Some slept on the platform seats, too tired to stay awake. The engines broke free from their trains to visit the water vats to replenish their tanks for the rugged kilometres ahead. Firemen clambered like monkeys to secure hoses. Drivers spoke sparingly to guards and other rail officials. As the smoke from the steam engines disappeared aloft into the fog, and the receding chuffs of the moving chimneys soon became silence once more, Te Kuiti turned over and returned to sleep.

Te Kuiti was bigger than Moutohora. The trains that came together at an ungodly hour were far more important than the mixed goods that represented so much to the isolated locals at Moutohora. For a time, Te Kuiti was just about the most significant crossing town on the main trunk. Moutohora has largely gone now, as has its railway. Te Kuiti survives as a fully functional town. It still welcomes trains on the main trunk line, although its period of influence has passed.

Rora Street, Te Kuiti, in the days when the trains stopped at 2 a.m. ATL

A similar scenario played out all over New Zealand where railway lines impinged. You can imagine that localities or settlements without the umbilicus of the railway might remain isolated, aloof, lonely places. The way the railways not so much guided as propelled the destinies of places such as Moutohora and Te Kuiti is an important story of New Zealand’s development.

Other towns and localities experienced similar circumstances as the railway lines extended their influence. In a young country waiting for mass transit to spread and provide communication, the railways fitted the bill. Their importance could never be underestimated.

Had the railways not come along, had the British not arrived when they did, New Zealand may have developed differently. Had New Zealand been colonized 100 years earlier, there may have been no rail networks. Ports and settlements would have developed in isolation. Provincial governments may have even ended up at loggerheads with one another.

Rail arrived just at the right time in New Zealand’s history, and the railways system was an umbilicus connecting remote settlements across the country. But there were many obstacles to overcome, not least a daunting terrain.

Te Kuiti rail yards and locomotive depot in the golden age of steam. What would Te Kuiti have been like without the railways? DS Coll

Railways played a pivotal part in the development of New Zealand’s economy, towns and cities, and helped shape a distinctive culture. This book provides an account of our railways story, from the earliest days of the colony, through rail’s growth and golden days, slow decline and recent resurgence. It details our railways development from its beginnings to completion of the main trunk, provincial and urban networks and the numerous branch lines reaching far-flung corners of the country. By the 1930s and 40s, railways dominated travel and became part of the national way of life, with trains for all passengers and occasions, including commuters, troops and royals, excursionists and rugby fans, freight, stock and school children.

With competition from road transport, rail’s golden glow began to fade, with line closures, corporatization and reduced investment. But with renewed interest, its time has come again, with growth in tourist and commuter travel, line redevelopment and heritage restoration.

IN 1840, CAPTAIN WILLIAM HOBSON sailed into the Bay of Islands to claim New Zealand as a British colony. The first group of immigrants from Britain had already landed at Wellington, with the intention of forming a settlement. Soon, other settlements were established. By 1862, the non-Maori population of New Zealand had reached 125,000, while that of the Maori people was 55,000.

As the settlements developed, the need for transport became pressing. Britain had invented railways and the ‘Mother Country’ had 40 years’ experience successfully operating fully fledged rail systems: one of the triumphs of the Victorian era. The settlers brought with them from the ‘old country’ a vision of a new world colony in which the railway would be the chosen way to go. Old, crumpled roads for horses and coaches had been seriously superseded and rail had changed the face and pace of Britain. It was logical that, in Britain’s new colony, the settlers would turn to rail networks to link their new ports and settlements.

There was a point of difference, though. The landscape of Britain was relatively low-lying and undulating, while that of New Zealand featured vast stretches of rugged hill country, deep gorges and ravines, towering mountain ranges, vast plateaux and wide, meandering rivers. Setting up a rail network in the new country would present unique and frustrating problems in terms of construction and operation. There were areas where the rail simply could not go, and others where it took forever to push the line through. Such delays to some lines led to non-completion, as later symbols of ‘progress’ — roads and motor cars — overtook and made redundant the need to complete rail links. That was the perception at the time anyway.

The course of the Taieri Gorge Railway typifies the country that confronted New Zealand rail builders. Dense bush, rivers, hills and mountains all presented a challenge. DT

New Zealand’s difficult geography meant that most of the country’s settlements were located on the coast and cut off from one another by dense native bush, massive rivers and rugged hills and mountains. All traffic and transport between settlements was seaborne. Roads were puny and treacherous and did not reach beyond the hinterlands of the various settlements.

As the colony grew, it became obvious that rail, so successful in Britain, would need to be considered. Initially, the different provinces and settlements did not ponder the notion of integrated networks between the provinces. They were too preoccupied, in their cash-strapped state, making each province pay its own way. This meant, in terms of initial rail construction, making plans to build a railway from the province’s main centres to their ports, in order to export produce to Europe and elsewhere.

The Dun Mountain Copper Mining Company’s railway in Nelson is generally regarded as New Zealand’s first line, opening on 3 February 1862. However, a short coal-mining line that served an early mine at Kaitangata in Otago was operational a year earlier, although it was a rather humble affair.

The Nelson Tramway on the left was once the Dun Mountain Railway, the first in New Zealand. ATL

The settlement of Christchurch was the location of our first railway in which steam engines provided the propulsion, unlike the two earlier horse-drawn lines. Christchurch had good reason to confront the establishment of a railway earlier than most. The need of new settlements to get from province to port presented Christchurch with a particular problem. The towering Port Hills separated Christchurch from its port of Lyttelton. A major railway tunnel through the volcanic heart was required if Christchurch was to prosper.

Lyttelton Harbour in 1889. A steam train appears in the left foreground. ATL

Construction on the tunnel began in 1861, but Christchurch meanwhile needed a temporary rail connection to the Heathcote River estuary, where boats could link up around the coast with Lyttelton Harbour. The waters could sometimes be treacherous, and the sooner the Lyttelton Tunnel was completed the better.

The line from Christchurch to Ferrymead on the Heathcote was built on the broad ‘Irish’ gauge of 5 ft 3 in (1600 mm). Its first locomotive was a steam tank engine named ‘Pilgrim’, built in Bristol in England. The engine arrived on the schooner Choice on 6 May 1863 and, after some difficulty, was offloaded at Ferrymead wharf. The engine first steamed in November 1863, when she pulled a ballast train, and entered service on 1 December 1863, the day the line officially opened.

The first steam locomotive to run in New Zealand was Canterbury Railways No. 1, named Pilgrim. The first journey was made on 1 December 1863, hauling the first train over part of the line between Christchurch and Ferrymead (near Heathcote). ATL

The excitement associated with the opening of the Christchurch– Ferrymead line was tangible. It became a feature of railway line openings throughout New Zealand for many years that the town and district would come to a halt to honour the arrival of the railway. It was the greatest show in town and much eating, drinking, dancing and hi-jinks accompanied the ribbon-cutting and endless speech making.

So it was with the opening of the Christchurch line. Dignitaries, including the provincial superintendent and other members of the provincial government, were amongst those who took the first trip to Ferrymead. The opening attracted hundreds of colonists, many of the younger ones probably never having previously travelled on a train.

Four years later, such festivities erupted again when the Lyttelton Tunnel opened and Christchurch at last had its port-to-province rail link. The tunnel was 2.595 km long; even back in Britain, the completion was regarded as a singular achievement.

Less impressive were reports of another railway line located in Southland, which began operating in 1864. Its major problem was that the rails were made of wood, which led to its eventual failure. Using wood was logical in one sense. There was plenty of it around, as the early settlers cleared the land of pesky trees so that farmland could be created for the benefit of the growing population, and there were not many iron and steel foundries to forge conventional railway lines.

The Lyttelton rail tunnel opened in December 1867. This is the Heathcote portal in 2007. WK

The Southland provincial government sanctioned the construction of a railway from the provincial capital of Invercargill to the small settlement of Makarewa, 12 km to the north. The Invercargill–Makarewa line was built along the lines of the British standard gauge of 4 ft 8½ in (1435 mm). As well as opening up the hinterland, the recent discovery of gold in the Lake Wakatipu area was an additional carrot for the promoters of the line. The sooner a railway could be built to Kingston on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, the sooner Invercargill and Southland could glean the benefits of the gold-bearing bonanza.

A gang of railway construction workers on the Southland line, with the crew of a C-class locomotive. ATL

Lumsden on the Invercargill–Kingston line in later years. DS Coll

Road making had been difficult north of Invercargill because of swamp-yielding territory, so a railway was an obvious alternative: but one made of wood! From day one, there was a litany of complications. The same swampy territory that made road building difficult made railway building just as hard. The heavy locomotives damaged the rails. Poor traction was such an issue that passengers sometimes found it quicker to walk beside the train. Then, in the spirit of the brave new colony, passengers were asked to lend their weight to help the skidding train over the tracks. Iron rails eventually replaced the wooden ones. Elsewhere around the country, individual provinces also confronted the need for rail.

New Zealand was beset with provincial jealousies at a time when the new nation needed to consider integrated infrastructure, including a national railways system. So far, the provincial governments had tapped into local money to satisfy local needs and it seemed that it would take a dynamic individual operating at a national level to provide a blueprint of what New Zealand would need in the long term.

That man emerged in the form of Julius Vogel. Such was his influence that he soon became known as the ‘father of New Zealand Railways’. Born in London in 1835, the son of wealthy English-Jewish parents, Vogel came to New Zealand, via Australia, and ended up in Dunedin. He held several positions in the Otago Provincial Council and made it to Parliament in 1863.

Vogel was appointed Colonial Treasurer in William Fox’s Government in 1869. It was a harrowing time to be in power: New Zealand had entered a depression as a result of the Land Wars, declining wool prices and the end of the gold rush. Vogel, however, was a visionary. To him, a depression should be encountered face on by spending, rather than retrenching.

Vogel recommended in his 1870 budget that, over the next 10 years, the government spend £8.5 million on public works, which principally meant roads and railways. Despite opposition and a reduced budget, Vogel’s plan passed into law.

One sticking point, the result of provincial autonomy, was the non-standardization of some rail gauges. The Christchurch–Heathcote line ran on a 5 ft 3 in gauge, and the Invercargill–Makarewa line on a 4 ft 8½ in gauge. When the Otago Provincial Council put forward plans for a railway line from Dunedin to its deep-water port at Port Chalmers, it also proposed using the British standard gauge of 4 ft 8½ in. In 1873, Vogel insisted on a narrower 3 ft 6 in (1067 mm) national gauge.

The Dunedin–Port Chalmers line was the first New Zealand line to use the 3 ft 6 in measurement, and eventually the South Island mavericks converted to Vogel’s choice. New Zealand could have fallen into the trap of Australian railways by not having a standard gauge, which would have led to a non-contiguous series of variable gauges as the lines joined up several years down the track.

Julius Vogel, circa 1860s. He was known as ‘the father of New Zealand railways’. ATL

Vogel had chosen the gauge for New Zealand railways on the recommendation of engineers. Although narrow and lightweight, it was also economical and suitable for the tight curves that would have to be utilized on New Zealand’s often-rugged landscape.

Vogel’s railway progressed at a great pace. Any impediment to his plan was shot down when Parliament abolished the provincial councils in 1876. The Public Works Department (PWD) took over responsibility for rail construction, and the Hall Government set up the New Zealand Railways Department (NZR) in 1880 to run the trains.

As part of Vogel’s plan, between 2400 km and 2600 km of railway would be built during the next 10 years. Parliament passed several significant Acts in 1870. Among these was the Railways Act 1870, under which lines were to be constructed from Auckland to Tuakau, including a branch line to Onehunga; Blenheim to Picton; Dunedin to Clutha; Addington to Rangiora; Selwyn to Rakaia Bridge; and Timaru to Temuka. The Railways Act also set the national standard gauge.

A subsequent Railways Act in 1871 authorized the construction of more railway lines, which accounted for close to 1230 km of track. A further Act in 1872 allowed for the extension inland from ports at Auckland, Waitara, Wanganui, Foxton, Napier, Wellington, Picton, Nelson, Westport, Greymouth, Lyttelton, Timaru, Oamaru, Port Chalmers and Bluff.

By 1880 the major achievement was the completion of the South Island main trunk. Here an express takes advantage of the line in later years. DS Coll

This represented the typical style of expansion for railways in New Zealand. With the ports having been established, railways were extended inland to the immediate regions that would supply the ports with agricultural and other goods for shipment. Once a basic network had been established, the original tendrils would then be linked until, eventually, main trunks and secondary lines were connected. An important part of the New Zealand rail story was that in many cases the linking construction was never completed.

Meanwhile, in 1873, Vogel continued expanding the network. Lines from Dunedin to Moeraki, and from the Waitaki River to Lyttelton, were placed on the drawing board. In the north, it was proposed to extend the Auckland to Mercer line south to the province’s boundary. Discussions also took place regarding the rail requirements of the northern South Island: deciding on the appropriate passage for a main line that would link Nelson with Canterbury and the West Coast, as well as considering the needs of Marlborough.

There were only 74 km of railway line in operation throughout the country when Vogel became the Colonial Treasurer. By 1879, the government railway system had increased to 1902 km.

Considerable development had occurred in the South Island. The Picton to Blenheim line was open and the main trunk was in place as far south as Bluff. The proliferation of branch lines was startling. A branch line ran to Springfield, which would eventually become part of the Midland line. The Mount Somers, Fairlie, Kurow, Ngapara, Outram, Lawrence and Tapanui branches were already inching towards completion. The privately owned Waimea Plains line connected Gore and Lumsden. The Nelson line had been extended to Foxhill, and two sections of the West Coast system — Westport to Ngakawau, and Greymouth to Stillwater — had been completed and were now operational. Southland, despite its travails with wooden tracks, was well served by railways. It already had branch lines from Invercargill south to Bluff and north all the way to Kingston. The Wairio and Tuatapere branches had made significant inroads towards their final destinations.

Celebrations: knees up and a nosh up

When the section of line between Ashburton and Temuka on the South Island main trunk was completed, it meant that it was now possible for trains to cover over 160 km of track between Christchurch and Timaru. It was too good an opportunity for locals and visiting dignitaries to pass up, and a special train groaning with important people travelled from Christchurch to Timaru for a massive banquet.

Much was eaten, too much was imbibed, and then a shouting match broke out. Relations among the celebrants became strained as government representatives, provincial lackeys and local bigmouths all laid claim, strenuously, to being the major force behind the building of the famous line. Before matters could get totally out of hand, members of another force — the police — moved

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