BB class locomotive, number 629 in the Palmerston North railway yard.

On the tracks of archival New Zealand railways

14 Feb 2022
For a long time, rail was the best (or only!) way to get around New Zealand, and the machinery and infrastructure attracted a large following.

There remain many enthusiasts who love to get back on the tracks of our rail history. Thankfully our collections hold records of the machines, rails and people who made it all happen. Here we take a look at a handful. If you know more about what’s depicted in these recordings, please send let us know.

The archive is filled with trains and railways. They share a common track through history – film and audio recording were invented just a few decades after the railways arrived, so most of the lifespan of rail has been captured on media.

‘Truly, modern railway transport is as fascinating as it is useful’ – the narrator of 1939’s Railways of The Pacific Wonderland.

Hero image: BB class locomotive, number 629 in the Palmerston North railway yard. (Roland Penhall, September 1963 - Manawatū Heritage)

The Rimutaka Story

Rail enthusiast Eric Burns filmed trains around the country, and worked as a tram conductor in Auckland. In 1955’s The Rimutaka Story, we ride along on the opening day of the Remutaka Tunnel (the spelling was changed from Rimutaka to Remutaka in 2017). A trip over the old rail track via Summit is shown, giving a good look at the Fell rail system. The engines include the H199 and H204 Fell locomotives, the former of which can be visited at the Fell Locomotive Museum in Featherston. It seems like a joyous occasion, with plenty of folks hanging off the train, running alongside and waving to the many photographers. Not sure how it might fly with today’s health and safety regulations. There’s an awful lot of gorse too!

The Opening Ceremony was held at Speedy’s Crossing in Featherston and included both Prime Minister Sydney Holland and Leader of the Opposition (and future PM) Walter Nash. The train then heads through the tunnel, with afternoon tea at Mangaroa.

'The Rimutaka Story' - Sunlander Films (1955).

Ellis and Burnand Tramway

Burns was also on hand to record a journey along the Ellis and Burnand Tramway, near Ongarue. Similar to The Rimutaka Story, this 1954 film has plenty of spectators and is perhaps a pleasure trip – the tramway closed for good in 1955. The many timber mills through the region gradually closed during the second part of the 20th century. Adventure tourism has taken their place and the Timber Trail and Te Araroa follow the route of the tramway, popular for cycling and walking, respectively.

The 1650 Climax Locomotive pictured is being restored by the Climax 1650 Steam Trust Board and the Bush Tramway Club.

Check out Eric Burns' 1965 'The Self Steering Trailer' promotional film.

Steam train on Ellis & Burnand Tramway near Ongarue - Personal Record Eric Burns (1954).

Railways of the Pacific Wonderland 1939

Rolling back in time, Railways of The Pacific Wonderland shows off the range and might of the rail network, and gives a picturesque overview of scenes around our ‘Pacific Wonderland’. Made by Government Film Studios, this promotional travelogue shows K class locomotives being built in the Wellington railway yard before trains are loaded and wheels get turning. We see K923 and K947 on track.

The action heads up the Main Trunk to Auckland, with a quick trip to Rotorua. After a ferry to Christchurch, it’s down to Dunedin. Travelling through the Otira Tunnel, whose 5¼ miles were the ‘longest in the British Empire’ (until eclipsed by the Rimutaka Tunnel), we arrive at the West Coast. The region’s coal is described as essential to the operation of the railway. Equally essential are the many staff who worked across the rail network – all 25,000 of them!

A tour of New Zealand by steam train - Railways of the Pacific Wonderland (1939).

Palmerston Show: Departure of the Wellington Train

This recording takes a fascinating look at passengers boarding the Wellington train at Palmerston North Station at the turn of last century. Hundreds of smartly dressed people mill about, having been to the Palmerston North A & P show. Thanks to the excellent notes of historian Clive Sowry, we can point to an impressively exact time: ‘probably filmed just before and about 4.55pm on Friday 15 November 1901’. The footage was first shown several days later at Wellington’s Federal Theatre on 20 November.

This item was scanned from the original nitrate film in 2016 and at the end of this item is part of Black Diamond Express, an 1896 recording from the Edison Company, filmed in the United States’ Lehigh Valley Railroad.

People crowd a railway station platform and board the train - Biograph Pictures of the Palmerston Show: Departure of the Wellington Train from Palmerston North Station (1901).

This film was scanned from the original nitrate film in 2016 and at the end of this item is part of Black Diamond Express, an 1896 recording from the Edison Company, filmed in the United States’ Lehigh Valley Railroad.

A colourful old poster depicts a train journey through New Zealand with the words 'Joy of School Holiday, Tripping by Train' on it

'Joy of school holidays, tripping by train', with a KA931 engine (Poster from National Library c1940)

An old steam engine is stationary. There is steam coming out of the top.

KA961 at Paekakariki Locomotive Depot. (Photo by Russ Bidgood, January 1965).

1970s Commercials

Finally, this pair of commercials from the 1970s show a heyday of New Zealand rail. The first comes hot on the heels of Britain joining the European Economic Community (EEC), leading to a major reduction in New Zealand’s exports to the UK. ‘They say that now we’re on our own, we’ve got to export more…’. The ‘first step along the way’ to doing so is rail. The ad runs to the tune of “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” – ‘Glory, glory, load the wagons to the brim!’ This commercial comes from Roger Donaldson’s Aardvark films – Donaldson would go on to direct Sleeping Dogs, The World’s Fastest Indian and many others.

The second ad features a more contemporary tune – the theme of television’s Rawhide. And rather than exports, it’s focused on moving freight around the country: ‘Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’/ Keep these wheels a-rollin’/ Right across the country/ Rail freight’. It ends with the slogan ‘Making New Zealand one country’.

Train Sounds

In 1964, 2XP supervising technician, Mr P.M. Lankshear, recorded sounds in the front coaches, pulled by New Zealand steam engines. One of the engines featured, the KA951, was derailed by a slip in the Manawatu Gorge in 1946, resulting in the deaths of the driver and fireman. (Recorded engines are pictured above and this map shows the routes these engines travelled.)