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The North Island main trunk line

Page 5 – Refreshments

'The refresh'

There were dining cars on main trunk expresses from 1909, but these were removed as a wartime measure in 1917 and not reinstated for more than half a century. Over the next three or four decades, the brief dash into the railway refreshment rooms – with their uniformed 'girls' offering rows of pies, sandwiches and cakes, and steaming tea in thick railway cups – became one of the central rituals of New Zealand life, a teetotal companion to the 'six o'clock swill' in pubs.

The 'unseemly scramble' for refreshments at New Zealand railway stations was often compared to a rugby scrum. In the late 1940s the Dominion complained that:

Long before the train has stopped the more agile travellers, men and boys, swing onto the platforms and when the elderly folk, mothers with children, and those who are reluctant to alight from a moving train finally reach the refreshment counter, it is already two to five deep with customers.

A story in the New Zealand Farmer magazine in 1947 advised a hesitant traveller to 'Use your King Country elbows, Bill.' The Taumarunui refreshment rooms were immortalised by Peter Cape's folk song 'Taumarunui on the main trunk line'. Another song, 'Wellington express' by Barry Lineham, suggested that:

No battlefield is grimmer, where battered heroes die
Than the bloody railway battle for a cupper and a pie.
In a scrum All Blacks would envy
Only hardy souls remain
To grab a bun and sandwich is the saviour of the train

Railway refreshment rooms suffered from numerous complaints about the quality of their food and drink. One visitor described the tea as 'a mixture between a bad disinfectant or a mouth-wash that had deteriorated'; another complained of 'half-hot pie crusts, surrounding the appendages of sundry animals, named and unnamed'. But generally the quality of food and service was as good as, if not better than, that found in most other restaurants or hotels in New Zealand at the time.

By the 1950s and 1960s, with reduced services and newer, faster trains requiring fewer stops, many refreshment rooms faced closure. Marton closed in 1954, Mercer in 1958 and the iconic Frankton and Taumarunui rooms in 1975, bringing to an end one of New Zealand's most distinctive dining experiences.

How to cite this page

Refreshments, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated