Journey on the Main Trunk Line

DSC09585 19 March 2016: it’s 6:45am and I’m leaving my hotel at the top of Auckland’s Queen Street to walk to the Strand station, where Kiwi Rail’s Northern Explorer departs from. This is a recent move from Britomart Station – the Strand is another 1.5 kilometres on and it’s just as well I walked it yesterday to see how long it would take. To confuse the unwary (or non-Aucklander) there is another building labelled Railway Station between Britomart and the Strand – only now this contains apartments. They were ready for us though, as the concierge had a map to hand out showing the route to the Strand. It’s not well sign-posted.

I’m a bit early – I check in at 7:20 and find my seat. The train leaves on time at 7:45am. Shortly after, the conductor (I’m sure they’re not still called that) collects a portion of our tickets. Someone asks him if there is WiFi on board. “Why would you want WiFi on a long distance train?” Pointing to the windows: “It’s called Windows Live”. He probably gets asked this question a lot and has his answer ready, but I was amused.

train 1

There are commentaries along the way – headphones provided; Mandarin Chinese channel 1; English channels 0 and 2. They are informative and seem pitched well for either New Zealanders or foreign tourists.

8:24am, Papakura station and several more passengers are picked up.  The train only makes seven stops on the way – six after Papakura: Hamilton, Otorohanga, National Park, Ohakune, Palmerston North, Paraparaumu and final destination Wellington.

Things learned from the commentary – in 1858 coal was discovered near the Bombay Hills which necessitated building a rail line into Auckland. The New Zealand wars of the 1860s halted any further move south for a decade and the first section of what was to become the Main Trunk Line (Auckland to Wellington) was completed in 1875. As we passed Mercer, we were treated to a few lines from an A R D Fairburn poem about the refreshment rooms: … ‘the squalid tea of Mercer is not strained’ (no doubt with apologies to Shakespeare’s ‘the quality of mercy is not strained’). The section of rail line between Rangiriri and Ngaruawahia was constructed by military engineers and opened in 1877.

There were a number of track works in the Waikato and several delays, which made us nearly 45 minutes late.

DSC09569Watching lichen grow as we wait for track clearance.

Frankton (near Hamilton) was established as a railway town in 1877 and had its more well-known period in the 1920s when it manufactured pre-fabricated houses for railway workers that were transported (by rail of course) all around the North Island and erected. There are streets of them in the Wellington suburb of Ngaio. The Railways houses factory is a Category 1 historic place.

By 1880 the railway had reached Te Awamutu from the north and by 1878 Marton from the south. The middle section presented the most difficult terrain to be traversed.

11:15am Otorohanga.

Te Kuiti was reached in 1894 and Taumaranui in 1903. The famous Raurimu Spiral is between Taumaranui and National Park. (The link will take you to IPENZ’s – Institute of Professional Engineers – website information on the spiral.) The open viewing carriage was crowded when we went through the spiral (this photo wasn’t taken then!)

The section of the Main Trunk Line from Taumaranui to the Makohine Viaduct is a listed Heritage Area with Heritage New Zealand (North Island Main Trunk Line Historic Area).

The old NZR (New Zealand Rail) train journeys and refreshment rooms gave us a number of poems or songs. In 1957 Peter Cape wrote ‘Taumaranui on the Main Trunk Line’: “… You can get to Taumarunui going North or going South, And you pull in there at midnight and there’s cinders in your mouth, You’ve got cinders in your whiskers and a cinder in your eye, So you pop off to Refreshments for a cuppa tea and pie, in Taumarunui…”. And Hone Tuwhare’s ‘Steam loco on siding’.*  Refreshment rooms ended in the 1970s. I ate my pre-ordered salad in the cafe car.

DSC095961:45pm National Park.

From about 1900 to 1908 when the Main Trunk Line was completed a number of viaducts were constructed. Near the Makatote viaduct is the ‘Last Spike Memorial’ – which is, as its name suggests, the last place to be ‘joined’ – well, actually: “To mark the occasion, the then Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward officiated at a ceremony during which he drove the official last spike of the NIMT, apparently joining the two railheads and the cities of Auckland and Wellington thereby. In fact, work was still being undertaken on the line, and the actual last spike was driven at the Manganui-o-te-ao Viaduct approximately 300 metres away. Regardless, the crowds flocked to mark the occasion which was considered, in itself, to be worthy of recognition by the erection of a monument some time later.” See a photo by clicking the link above.

2:20pm Ohakune. We changed drivers about 10 minutes later with a driver from Palmerston North brought on a freight train.

Near Tangiwai the commentary told us about the Tangiwai disaster when 151 people were killed in a train accident on Christmas Eve, 1953.

2:50pm Waiouru. 3:35pm Taihape: here we passed a steam excursion train from Paekakariki waiting for us to pass before leaving on its return journey. We passed over a few more viaducts before the last one – Makohine, completed in 1902.

Mangaweka is no longer on the Main Trunk Line but you can read about it in an earlier post of mine (click the link).

From Ohakune to Palmerston North was a long run. Marton 4:38pm; Fielding 5pm; Palmerston North 5:15pm. Between there and Paraparaumu (6:30pm) we learnt about construction of the Wellington-Manawatu Railway in the 1880s by a private company (many of the directors had towns named after them – Levin, Bunnythorpe, Shannon, Plimmerton) and about flax milling (there were 50 mills at one time). This Heritage New Zealand listing for the former Tane Hemp Mill gives some background information.

We arrived in Wellington at 7:15pm. Despite the delays in the Waikato, it was an enjoyable trip.


* ‘Steam loco on siding’ is a funny poem – it is included in Hone Tuwhare, Deep River Talk: Collected Poems, Godwit, 1993, page 138. …”Huffily, the southbound engine detaches itself, gleaming. / The southbound engine sidles off to the water tower / for a long drink. It is a black swimmer doing / the sidestroke, huge steel arms pistoning. // Refreshments. … Time out for the wet-lipping of thick railway mugs / of yellow tea.” …(etc)

2 April 2017: I just rediscovered an old photo album. I took this photo of Makatote viaduct in May 1974, so thought I’d put a copy here:

Makototo viaduct my photo May 1974


2 thoughts on “Journey on the Main Trunk Line

  1. Informative and entertaining read Viv, thank you. Karen Belt made me take the train from Auckland to Levin (it used to stop there) when I first arrived in NZ in Dec 1986. I still dine on the horror of an apparently empty land unfolding before my eyes… I’d be interested in doing it now as a once only event, but I’ll wait until they have Wifi:-)


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