On the tracks of the Fell Locomotive

How do you navigate a rail system through steep, twisty and rugged New Zealand terrain? In the case of crossing the Remutaka Range, you needed a special setup – one that you can see in action in one of our archival recordings.

F7389 Fell Locomotive on the Rimutaka Incline.

A range of different engine styles were considered – including a cable pull system and toothed ‘rack’ wheels – by the engineers who designed the Wairarapa Line. They settled on the Fell system. This comprised a standard locomotive with a number of horizontal driving wheels that gripped a central third rail. The centre rail and extra wheels provided much-needed additional grip when ascending or descending the climbs of the Range.

The Rimutaka Incline formed part of this arduous climb – an average climb of 1-in-15 (one unit of elevation gained for each 15 of distance travelled; this was a steep section of track and necessitated the Fell system), and a maximum incline of 6.6%.

The 1918 footage we hold comes from freelance filmmaker L.W. Mence. He filmed scenes in training camps at Featherston and Sling Camp, England. With his attachment to camps, it’s no surprise to see troops walking the track and having a refreshment stop at a railway tearoom.

Another Mence theme is snowball fights. A few balls are thrown from 2:18 in Fell Engine and an extended snowball brawl from 1:23 in Snow Man’s Land. See other Mence footage.

We also have audio recordings from 1955 regarding the opening of the Remutaka Tunnel – which spelled the end of the line for Fell engines operating in New Zealand.

The only surviving Fell locomotive, New Zealand Railways H199, has been preserved and is housed at the Fell Museum in Featherston. Joy Cowley also wrote a much-loved story about H199, Hero of the Hill.

Digital NZ has a large amount of material related to the Fell Engine.

Have you experienced the Rimutaka Incline? What other New Zealand tracks or inclines could we write about?

Ngā Taonga newsletter

Sign up for our regular newsletter about projects we're working on and fascinating items from our collections.