LETTER FROM NEW ZEALAND

12:55 in Magazine - article by stationmaster

Swiss-born Bruno Martin, who spent many years in South Africa, now lives in Australia’s Queensland. He was on the point of leaving for a holiday in New Zealand’s South Island when the earthquake struck Christchurch on 22 February. It didn’t put him off:

We had a most enjoyable two weeks – loved every minute of it. The weather was really kind to us, mostly sunshine mixed with a bit of cloud at times and the occasional shower.

Our flight from Brisbane arrived in Christchurch on schedule half an hour after midnight on Sunday 13 March, and we were taken by courtesy coach to the Sudima Hotel at the entrance to the airport to get a few hours’ sleep.

After collecting our hire car later that morning we went for a drive into Christchurch, trying to skirt around the CBD, but didn’t get very far, with every street in to the city centre blocked off (entry by official vehicles only) and when we turned down a side street we encountered even more obstacles (buckled and cracked road surface and signs of liquefaction). We decided it was best to leave and head for the motel accommodation we had booked at Arthur’s Pass.

We caught sight of several damaged buildings and also a huge pile of debris on a vacant lot with the wreck of a car dumped on top. The scale of destruction to the buildings in the centre of Christchurch is immense – it will take not just months, but many years to rebuild.

TranzAlpine following Highway 7 and the Grey River just before reaching Greymouth – on Monday, 14 March 2011.

As would be expected, all train services in and out of Christchurch were suspended after the earthquake. Apparently the rail network and related infrastructure sustained only modest damage however, so that freight operations resumed on the main South Line the day after the earthquake and the main North and Midland Lines on 24 February. Although the TranzAlpine service from Christchurch to Greymouth was reinstated on 7 March, the TranzCoastal from Christchurch to Picton remains suspended until 15 August, ”due to low demand caused by the February earthquake”.

New Zealand’s railways, of course, are on the same gauge (1,067mm) as those in South Africa – and, incidentally, in Queensland.

I had planned to travel the entire trip on the TranzAlpine that runs daily from Christchurch to Greymouth and back, a trip of 224km each way. Instead, after cancelling our hotel bookings in Christchurch, we decided to book two nights at a motel in Arthur’s Pass, so that I could at least do part of the train trip.

“Tracks are for Trains” sign at Arthur’s Pass station.

Departure time from Arthur’s Pass according to the timetable is 10:42, but passengers joining the service are advised to arrive at least 20 minutes before the advertised departure time.
Surprisingly, the train arrived five minutes late and finally departed at 10:55. Passengers from two carriages left the train at Arthur’s Pass and boarded two road coaches waiting at the station, so a couple of backpackers and I had an entire carriage to ourselves.

The TranzAlpine is New Zealand’s longest passenger train: in peak tourist season it can be made up of 15 carriages with seating capacity for 600, including a licensed catering car serving light meals and snacks. When I travelled on Monday 14 March, there were only 6 carriages, a power car with an observation deck and an observation/luggage car hauled by two diesel-electric locos.

After leaving Arthur’s Pass the line enters the Otira tunnel and drops on a 1:33 gradient from 742 metres at the north portal to 483 metres at the south, over a distance of 8,554 metres.

Kingston Flyer steam locomotives, class Ab 795 (4-6-2 built in 1927) & class Ab 778 (4-6-2 built in 1925) sitting forlorn and covered in cobwebs in a fenced off area together with a small diesel shunter and other railway items at Kingston. Photograph taken on Saturday, 19 March 2011.

Work on the tunnel started in May 1908, but by the time the contractor had defaulted in 1912, tunnelling had advanced only a fraction of the distance. When operations were resumed by the government early in 1913 they too were confronted by shale and “rotten rock” which slowed down work to such an extent that during the course of one year the excavation only progressed 865 metres. The break-through came on 21 August 1918 when the bores met only 28mm out of true level and 19mm out of alignment, a remarkable achievement and credit to the skill of the engineers.

TranzAlpine with diesel-electric locos Nos 5039 & 4277 arriving at Arthur’s Pass station, 737 metres above seal level, the highest railway station on the South Island, 129.5km from Christchurch and 94.3km from Greymouth on Monday, 14 March 2011.

At the time of the official opening in May 1923, the Otira ranked as the longest tunnel in the British Empire and the seventh longest in the world. Because of the steep grade it was considered unsuitable for steam traction and it became the first main-line section in New Zealand to see the use of electric locomotives. The first generation of five units were supplied by English Electric, classified as “Eo”, and operated on 1.5Kv DC drawn from the overhead catenary. They were finally retired in 1968 with the arrival of five new locomotives, classified “Ea”, manufactured at Tokyo Shibaura Electrical Company of Japan (Toshiba). Like their predecessors, the Eas were operated as a lash-up of three locomotives to haul loads of 620 tons through the tunnel.

The town of Otira, which owes its existence to the railway, was once home to some 300 residents, mainly train and maintenance crews. Today only six staff members are stationed there.

Until 1968 this was the motive power change-over point from steam to electric traction through the tunnel; thereafter diesel-electric locomotives replaced steam. After privatisation of the New Zealand railways in 1993, the cost of maintaining the 14km electrified section became uneconomic. Experiments were conducted using diesel-electric locomotives and it was then decided to remove the overhead wiring. The last electrically-hauled train operated through the tunnel on 1 November 1997.

Dunedin railway station (the city’s 4th) opened in 1906 and is regarded as the jewel in the crown of the New Zealand Railways. The building was designed by George Troup in the Flemish Renaissance style, similar to that of the Otago University and nearby Law Courts. For this design Troup received the Institution of British Architects’ Award. The large square tower rises to a height of 37 metres and houses three sets of clocks, each facing a side of the city. Photograph taken on Friday, 25 March 2011.

 

 

Operating problems with the diesel-electrics in the long tunnel were largely resolved by installing a sliding door at the Otira portal. This is closed when a train enters and two 1.9-metre diameter fans are turned on to blast in 180 cubic metres of air per second, to ensure the locos are not starved of air.

The line is quite busy – mainly coal trains joining the main-line at Stillwater Junction and running through to the port of Lyttelton (at Christchurch) for export. The coal trains, comprising 30 coal hopper wagons, are hauled by two class DX diesel-electrics as far as Otira, where three “helpers” of the same class are attached to assist with the load of 1,600 tonnes on the steep grade through the tunnel to Arthur’s Pass. The helpers come off there and trundle back through the tunnel to Otira to await their next load. At present some 2 million tons of high-grade coal are exported annually through Lyttelton to Japan, Asia and South America.

As we descended through lush rain forest (annual rainfall about 6 metres) – which gives way to farmland nearer the coast – we experienced some impressively fast running on the straight stretches. The carriages have double-glazed panoramic windows, but I spent most of the ride in the observation car at the rear of the train.

The hour-long stopover in Greymouth passed very quickly. Soon the call “all aboard” was heard and the train departed some five minutes after the advertised time. The was a five-minute signal stop at Stillwater Junction. After that, the train picked up speed and headed back to Arthur’s Pass where I left the train.

Travelling south of Queenstown on our way to Te Anau I pulled in at Kingston to see what had become of the Kingston Flyer. This train has been mothballed since the service was terminated in August 2009 due to financial problems.

The two steam locos (Ab class nos 778 and 795) sit forlorn in a fenced-off area while the seven wooden passenger coaches and guard’s van, exposed to the elements and covered in cobwebs, are parked in two rakes near the station (café still open for business) At the other end of the line, some 7km away, Fairlight station is still in good condition.

In Dunedin I took a trip on the Taieri Gorge Railway: a four-hour return trip from Dunedin to Pukerangi. There is also a
longer trip in the morning that goes on for a further 19km to Middlemarch.

Dunedin railway station: above the balcony are two glass stained windows, each depicting an approaching train, and from whichever angle one looks, it appears the engine is approaching with its headlight burning. Photograph taken on Friday, 25 March 2011.

When the government closed the Otago Central Railway in 1990, the Dunedin City Council boughtthe 64km section from Wingatui Junction to Middlemarch with NZ$1.2 million raised from the community and thus became the longest privately-owned railway in New Zealand. Trains run daily with additional services during the peak tourist season (October-April). The section of line through the Taieri Gorge is breathtaking with sheer drops to the river 100 metres below, threading through nine tunnels with very tight clearances and passing over several lofty bridges and viaducts. Flat Stream Viaduct is 121m long and 34m high. In addition to the service to Taieri Gorge, there are also a twice weekly run from Dunedin to Palmerston, (mainly October-April) which is marketed as the “Seasider”, and follows the scenic route along the coast for 66km to the north. The rest of the branch line has been turned into a 150km rail trail.

Taieri Gorge Railway – Loco DJ 3228 with a rake of carriages parked at Dunedin Railway station ready for the daily 2.30 pm excursion train to Pukerangi. Photograph taken on Sunday, 27 March 2011.

 

Other than that I photographed one freight train at Dunedin station and saw a sole diesel-electric hauling a “low-loader” wagon on the line from Invercargill to the Bluff.

Taieri Gorge Railway, advertised as “one of the world’s great train trips”, is captured crossing the Flat Stream Viaduct, 121 metres long and 34 metres high. Photograph taken on Friday, 25 March 2011.