Newspaper Article 1997 – Life on the Napier line


Life on the Napier line

In terms of general history the year 1897 doesn’t mean a lot to most Napier people – but to railway enthusiasts it was the beginning of a new era for the city. One hundred years ago the first Napier Express ran direct from Wellington to Napier via the Wairarapa and was the first “through” New Zealand Rail passenger train. Rail buffs can take a trip down memory lane at a special film showing in Napier this Saturday. Staff reporter ROGER MORONEY outlines some of the colourful moments of the line.

There has always been something special about train travel – as the booked-out historic steam train excursions out of Napier from time to time show.

Like other countries during their pioneer beginnings, New Zealand developed a rail system to open up the land, and 100 years ago the Napier-Wellington direct express line was opened.

To mark the anniversary, the Hawke’s Bay branch of the New Zealand Railway and Locomotive Society is holding a Big Screen Steam film evening at the Century Theatre on Saturday. Co-ordinator and railway buff John Holmes said the evening would consist of a collection of classic movie shorts, with a railways theme, including Railings of the Pacific Wonderland, steam on the Midland line in KB Country, the delivery of a steam train from the West Coast to Auckland and an unforgettable item of train madness from the Marx Brothers – not to mention a nostalgic Look at Life short.

However, as the history books show, truth is often stranger than fiction and some of the incidents which took place through the years on the Napier-Wellington line make for colourful tales on their own.

The railway system moved south from Napier from 1874 and in March, 1891, the Manawatu Gorge Line was opened up and Palmerston North was linked to Napier – with separate passenger trains introduced.

The connection to Wellington at that time was provided by the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company’s trains out of Longburn.

It was on December 11, 1897, that the time straight through to Napier from the capital, over the Rimutaka incline and through the Wairarapa, was opened.

Two days later the first NZR passenger train made the direct journey – although the trip was actually slower than the route through Palmerston North because of the time taken to traverse the Rimutaka incline.

As photos and reports from the early part of the century show, it took up to four small locomotives, called Fells, to drag the trains up the Rimutaka incline, with a special third centre rail which increased traction for the locomotives.

On the descent the brakes really got a workout, and brake shoes were replaced after virtually every journey.

However, there was no hopping from one train to another like the days before the direct journey – the trains ran exclusively on NZR tracks, and were notable in that they included a postal van, hence the train being called the “Napier Mail”, with sorting done during the trip.

In effect, the trains which ran the tracks between Napier and Wellington 100 years were the 19th century version of today’s Bay Express – although conditions were not ideal in those early days.

It was noted in 1897 that the journey, even if it ran to time, “was still the slowest express in the world” and trains in other colonies put it to shame.

“Our railways are the worst managed in the world, the accommodation provided is inferior to that of the South American states, while the fares charged are much higher than prevail in any other colony,” it was written at the time.

There were grumblings that the government did not provide more powerful engines to speed up the “express”, although it was pointed out that some of the bridges along the way would probably not take the strain of bigger engines.

Breakdowns were common, as were derailments through lines buckling. In one incident in the late 1890s a freight train was derailed near Ormondville after a bullock crossed the track in front of the engine. No one was injured although it was the bullock’s demise.

And despite running straight through to Napier, the passenger trains were not exactly over-booked.

On one journey, in late December 1897, there were just three passengers aboard.

One was a member of the House of Representatives, another was a policeman and the third described as “a swagger”.

Interestingly, the only one who paid a fare was the swagger!

Arguably the most serious accident on the Napier-Wellington line occurred at Opapa on September 22, 1925, when the train from wellington derailed spectacularly. Two passengers were killed and the driver badly scalded after the boiler spilt open.

The locomotive unit crashed on the left side of an embankment while the carriages with broken couplings spilled across to the right.

Excessive speed on a corner was the finding.

Seventy years later, on November 12, 1995, the Bay Express derailed at Opapa in similar circumstances, with the loss of one life and a later finding that, as in 1922, excessive speed through a corner was the cause of the derailment.

In April 1974, two DA locomotives pulling a freight train from the south were involved in a spectacular accident when the train attempted to go through the turnout points at speed.

There was thick fog when the train ran through the points at about 80km/h (it should have been 25km/h) and derailed all over the yards. The crew were fortunate to escape with minor injuries.

But one of the most hair-raising experiences was that of engine driver Alan Brabender who was taking the Bay Express passenger train over the Ormondville viaduct in May 1990.

Approaching the middle of the viaduct the train began to sway unnervingly on the track as an earthquake rippled through the region.

Had the train been travelling any faster it could have been derailed into the valley below. Mr Brabender backed the train slowly off the viaduct after the tremors subsided. Track workers later discovered damage to the viaduct and the track bed.

There were other equally memorable but more light-hearted moments in the line’s recent history.

During the 1960s, maintenance to steam facilities and locomotives was cut back, with the result that when a water tank was found to be leaking at Woodville a local plumber was called in to do the job.

From then on, every time the engine crew topped up the tender with water and drew some off to make a brew of tea they found a brownish substance floating around it.

This went on for a few weeks until the engineer, while in Woodville, came across the plumber and asked what he’d used to seal the hole.

To save costs, the plumber had poured two bags of horse dung into the tank as it was known to break up and seal holes!

Photo captions –

A CLASS N locomotive decorated for the coronation of King Edward the 7th in 1902. It was built in 1885 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in the USA and worked the mail trains for many years on the Napier-Wellington line.
Picture: HB Art Gallery and Museum

THE wreckage of the Napier-bound train which derailed at Opapa in 1925 – on a section of track where, 70 years later, the Bay Express also derailed.
Picture: Doug Hill Collection

ABOVE: The Napier mail train leaving Waipawa in the 1890s. The mail van is behind the locomotive with two passenger cars and a guard’s van behind that.
Picture: HB Art Gallery and Museum


The Fells at work…

laboriously hauling the Wellington-to-Napier train up the Rimutaka Incline in the early part of the century.

Pictures: HB Art Gallery and Museum

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Format of the original

Newspaper article

Date published

4 March 1997

Creator / Author

  • Doug Hill
  • Roger Moroney


The Daily Telegraph


Published with permission of Hawke's Bay Today


  • Alan Brabender

Accession number


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