Once was a rail service

Along the Kapiti Coast

I have ‘borrowed’ this great picture from Peter over on The Strategist – the background to the picture is in Peter’s own post Saturday evening reflection: from a railway carriage – it’s a great little story about boys and their dads.

It’s only January but already this picture is a contender for my picture of the year. Every time I look at it, it brings up a range of images and feelings. The scenic beauty of our little nation – that’s the Kapiti Island Nature Reserve on the horizon – although this is one of the few places now where a passenger trains runs along the coast for any length of time. Once upon a time when the Southerner still ran daily on the ChristchurchInvercargill run, one of the best sections was where the rail wound through hills and along the coast between Oamaru and Dunedin with views much like this. Of course the powers that be decided that we didn’t need a passenger rail link any further south that Christchurch a few years back and so anyone wanting to head south now has to contend with being cramped onto a bus with minimal facilities, getting a rental car or hitching (although the South Island natives are generally friendlier and more hospitable than in the north.

I see the cool Capri on the trailer in the foreground – immediate memories of Bodie and Doyle – must-see TV in the late 70s and early 80s. I like to see icons from past eras being restored and I wonder what story surrounds this car – lovingly restored in a garage over time? Captured memories of frantic back-seat fumblings and youth now gone? Maybe a father-son project while mum and the girls do ballet and horse-riding. Maybe a journey off to a show for the weekend where others display their pride and joys too…?

Most of all I am sad at the way in which successive governments have allowed rail services to be hacked to bits. While there is probably more freight going on rail than every before – the Raurimu Spiral is visible from my window and there are big (for NZ anyway) freights going through every couple of hours – and congestion would be a major problem if we tried to return to the passenger schedules of three or four decades ago, I’d love to see the Overnighter return to the Auckland-Wellington run – even if only as a rail car much like the old Silver Fern. I see that the wikipedia entry on the Silver Fern mentions its fatal crash in 1981 – a friend of mine was the Orderly Officer in Waiouru that night and was telling me about when we had a farewell drink before he departed for a new posting down south only a week or so ago. The day after the accident, a very reserved and polite Englishman approached him, identified himself as an RAF officer and asked if it might be at all possible, if it wasn’t any trouble, to send a signal off to the UK advising that his return from leave would be delayed by a few days due to the accident.  The tone and gist of the signal was “…IN NZ ON HONEYMOON STOP BRIDE KILLED IN TRAIN CRASH STOP REQUEST ADDITIONAL LEAVE FOR ADMIN PURPOSES STOP…” Sad…

I remember meeting the railcar in Oamaru on Friday nights with my parents as various cousins studying in Dunedin or Christchurch would visit for the weekend for home-cooked meals and a decent bed. Later in life, I used to take the train the other way to link up with student mates in those cities for a weekend of chaos. South Island railcar services were withdrawn in the 70s and not replaced by another overnight rail service. In 1983, a fast Invercargill-Christchurch bus service was introduced that did the run in twelve hours – this was in the days of the 80 kmh speed limit and it was soon pointed out pretty bluntly by the Ministry of Transport that it simple was not possibly to meet this schedule AND comply with open road speed limits – the schedule was amended accordingly but I don’t think the speeds every dropped much. I was a regular on this run and as a result discovered, as did Peter in his tale, the rich resources of the railway station bookshops. Here I found such ‘classics’ as Martin Walker’s A Mercenary Calling (not much info on AMazon but I can’t belive the prices this book is going for!), David Gerrold’s War Against the Chtorr and Jerry Pournelle’s Janissaries – the latter two becoming eventual disappointments as, even three decades later, both authors still drag the chain on concluding respective series.

In 1983, the bus would drop me at the corner of Riccarton and Ilam Roads in Christchurch around 6 in the morning and I would stagger (restoring circulation after twelve hours bus-bound – staggering due to other causes would come later in the day) through the mist and rain to Rochester Hall where I always crashed with my mate, Paul. We’d go hard all weekend, then I’d sadly unwind the rubber band on the Sunday or Monday (if I gave myself a long weekend) back to the sunny South…

In other journeys, my trip to Otorohanga yesterday went really well. There is a small business just up the road from Carmen’s work week flat that makes a range of hard-wearing, colourful bags and items of clothing – Danzbags, if you want to Google/Bing for it. They only sell from the factory shop but they have such a great range of items (and NZ made!!) that Carmen got us together so I can do some marketing for them on Trademe and possibly elsewhere if it takes off. Small businesses here (and elsewhere, I guess) are under mega-pressure from big chains like Warehouse that kill off smaller enterprises wherever they set themselves up so I’m more than happy to support them where I can – and, as Carmen has been quick to point out, it keeps me off the streets.

Chiefs supporters should be able to work out the anagram.

I had a lot to do with this type of industry in New Zealand when I was project manager for a range of projects looking at military clothing and personal equipment in the mid-90s and it has been quite interesting getting back into the periphery of this area again, Even something as simple as a pencil case, which I never gave much thought to until I stopped at the Warehouse in Te Kuiti on my way home and saw the absolute crap being sold there and the prices they ask for it…

Support Kiwi made

2 thoughts on “Once was a rail service

  1. I recognize that photo. Thanks for the mention.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the idea of the need for a resurgence of quality passenger services. New Zealand looks positively third world when you see the high quality services that the Europeans and Chinese are investing in.


    • The biggest problem I think is not government or fiscal willpower but one of simple geography – while we can relatively easily double track across the various plains for two way track to avoid interminable delays on a single track, the Central Plateau still represents almost the same obstacle it did just over 100 years ago…maybe we need to set one of those big tunneling machines loose from Ohakune to Te Kuiti. Still where there is a will there is a way and so long as we don’t spend three decades bickering over a tactical route like Transmission Gully we can start to rebuild our rail network where can tomorrow…I wonder how hard it would be to convert a tour bus to rail…


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