Disaster on the Rimutaka Incline

Department of Conservation —  17/09/2015

Now a family-friendly walking and mountain biking track, the Rimutaka Incline was the site of New Zealand’s first rail disaster. Jackie Breen from the Heritage Team tells the story.

On 11 September 1880, the morning train to Wellington rounded Horseshoe Gully – a notoriously exposed section near the summit. Gale force winds gusting up to 200 km/hr swept the two passenger carriages off the tracks.

Train with four Fell locomotives rounding 'Siberia Curve'.

A train in 1955 rounding Horseshoe Gully (Siberia Curve) where the 1880 disaster occurred

The other wagons dangled by their couplings as survivors crawled to the safety of a nearby cutting.

A newspaper reported that passengers “lay around for a time unconscious and those who first recovered their senses described the scene as a fearful one – killed and wounded lying around in all directions covered with blood, and the train above suspended in mid-air, threatening every moment to fall on them”.

Luckily, the engine held on and the brakeman uncoupled his van to roll back down to Cross Creek for help. When help arrived, the wind was so strong that the rescue train had to shelter in a tunnel while men crawled along the track.

This was the first major loss of life on New Zealand’s railways. Rescuers recovered the bodies of three children; another died later from head injuries; and 13 adults were also injured – five of them seriously.

An inquest found no one was to blame. However, large wooden windbreaks were immediately put up to protect trains from severe winds that regularly battered sections of the track. This was the only serious accident on the incline in 77 years of operation.

An artist's gruesome impression of the accident.

An artist’s gruesome impression of the accident

A scenic day out

The incline was once a great scenic mountain journey – until sparks from the locomotives caused fires that burnt off the surrounding bush!

“The Rimutaka Incline was an interesting experience for travellers, and before the hills were denuded of forest, the trip provided a picturesque and awe-inspiring experience. It is now a dull and wearisome journey.” Evening Post, 9 May 1936.

Lynette Clelland, our Science Editor, remembers her dad reminiscing about his boyhood trips on the incline: “He said whenever the trains went into the tunnels smoke would fill the carriages!”

The journey even inspired a children’s book, Freddy the Fell Engine.

The Rimutaka Incline is now one of the 10 most significant railway heritage sites in the world.

It’s also one of the most popular and historic (and photogenic) tracks in the Wellington region.

You can walk, run, mountain bike, camp, swim, fish, picnic, and even take your four-legged friend along the gently graded 18 km trail. Remember to take a torch – Siberia Tunnel is 108 metres long!

I especially like the landmarks’ names like Ladle Bend and Munitions Bend Bridge. Horseshoe Gully, where the accident occurred, is also called Siberia Curve because of the harsh microclimate.

The Rimutaka Rail Trail. Photo: Russell Street | CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Rimutaka Rail Trail is now a family-friendly walking and biking track

Ambitious engineering

The Rimutaka Railway linked Featherstone to Hutt Valley via the Rimutaka summit.

It was part of an ambitious Government policy to build a national rail network. This was to attract immigrants and help the economy by linking agricultural areas with major ports.

However, the rugged Rimutakas was the biggest technological rail challenge in the country. In the 1870s, mountain railways were experimental. The incline was particularly challenging as the climb up the range’s eastern flank rose 265 m over just 4 km.

A tunnel was the preferred option, but was too expensive to do immediately.

The solution was the incline rail track and special Fell mountain locomotives. These had horizontal inner wheels that gripped a raised centre rail, pulling the trains up the steep slope. They had ‘brake vans’ to take trains up and down the slope.

A ‘temporary’ fix

The Rimutaka Incline was completed in 1878. It was only meant to be a temporary fix while funding for the tunnel could be secured. Two world wars and an economic depression caused delays, so the 8.8 km tunnel wasn’t completed until 1955.

For 77 years – long beyond their expected use – maintenance staff kept the original 1877 Fell locomotives operating reliably at full power. That’s some skill!

A Fell engine on the Rimutaka Incline. Photo: DOC

A Fell engine on the Rimutaka Incline

Things to do

  • Walk, run, mountain bike, camp, swim, fish, picnic – there’s something to please you and all the family. More about the Rimutaka Rail Trail on the DOC website.
  • Look out for the points of interest along the trail.
  • Find out more about New Zealand’s rail heritage – DOC manages 32 rail heritage sites that are open to visitors.
  • Visit Fell Locomotive Museum in Featherstone – this houses the rebuilt H 199, the only surviving Fell engine from the six that operated on the incline for 77 years.

If you enjoyed this story then check out last month’s heritage yarn, NZ’s humble telegraph – a communication revolution.

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