Sound clip: travelling by train

Hear this excerpt from a radio documentary about the North Island main trunk line.

Transcript of this file

Neill Atkinson: The first train running right through from Wellington to Auckland happened on the 7th and 8th of August 1908, and this was a 'Parliamentary Special' carrying almost all of the country's MPs to Auckland to meet the United States Navy's Great White Fleet, which was touring the world. And the Public Works Department really rushed through in the last months to finish a temporary line over the last section, and the whole trip took 20½ hours; it was very slow going.

[Sound of train]

Man (historical recording): Twelve vehicles compose the train. They were all kinds of carriages – the old birdcage carriage – all kinds of first-class carriages were requisitioned. The train crept over unballasted portions, there were delays when axles ran hot on account of the unusual speed we were travelling at. Also there was the delay caused by the pumice dust getting into the axles. Thirty-two miles an hour, however, were achieved near Raurimu. There were no sleeping berths, members and their friends slept in seats or chairs; some made themselves comfortable on the floor with pillows, but it was not the height of comfort.

Another man (historical recording): The first expresses took 19¼ hours. You travelled in gas-lit wooden carriages on seats padded with horse hair. Now the seats are of foam rubber, the carriages semi-streamlined, built of steel, electrically lit, steam-heated. Sleeping cars have mirrors and wash basins and a train attendant to make up your bed and bring you a cup of tea. The Daylight Limited does the journey in 13 hours, the Night Limited takes one hour longer.

Man's voice: The Night Limited is about to leave.

[Sound of announcer over station PA]

[Sound of bell]

Neill Atkinson: One of the main developments was in 1924 when they started the Night Limited express. And by reducing the number of stops from 15 down to just 6, they reduced the travel time to just over 14 hours. This really became the most famous train on the main trunk.

[Sound of train]

Neill Atkinson: In the 1930s they were running trains with up to 13 carriages. One of the high points was the holiday traffic at Easter and Christmas, and perhaps the busiest day on the main trunk ever was at Easter 1939 when there were eight expresses running in each direction.

Janet Frame wrote about a trip from Wellington to Auckland in her novel State of Siege.

[Sound of train]

Woman actor (as Janet Frame):

Then followed the dimly-lit, meat-pie journey to Auckland, in a shelf-like top bunk ... Breath soot-high; voices when the train stopped, voices sharp and clear as footsteps walking the platform of the station; steam clouding like cotton wool; heavy-eyed sleep, eyelids sealed with specks of soot. Then early morning, cold clothes with too many arm and feet holes, a fawn railway-coloured, blanket-coloured biscuit; tea; a newspaper. And then, at the end of the jolting heaving journey ... a slow, measured halting, and in the scatter of people waiting, promising cars and warm homes, crying welcome from Auckland Station.

Neill Atkinson: So throughout the heyday of the main trunk passenger service, it was really a night service. They trialled a Day Limited in the mid-1920s and again in the early 30s, but it was never really successful. After that, daytime trains ran at the Easter and Christmas holiday periods, right up until the '60s and '70s when the idea of scenic sort of services came into fashion. It was really based around business travellers, people travelling on government business, people travelling on holiday who couldn't afford to spend a lot of time – wanting to get to where they were going quickly – so by travelling overnight they could save on accommodation. Also, people travelling for business would arrive in Auckland or Wellington at the start of the day.

Female voice over PA: Good morning to all passengers of the Auckland express. Breakfast is now being served in the station dining room. Light meals and refreshments may be obtained at the station cafeteria. Baths are available for ladies upstairs in the rest room. Showers for men at the hairdressing saloon on the concourse.

Neill Atkinson: The railway stations were really sort of like airports are today. It was a place where you'd go to greet people, to see people off; they were really the centre of their communities.

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Tony Robb

Posted: 24 Aug 2011

Yes! I remember this train well,you could say I was,"The Last Sleeping Car Attendant on The Limited"...(Make a Great Movie don't you think??)
Way back then, after we left Palmerston Nth. on the LAST Limited, I and my other crew member,would go through the carriages picking up those Cups and Saucers...using a special purpose built box on wheels,(wonder what happened to that!) through we went in our serge blue uniforms, past sleepy,snoring passengers, NOW, NOT THAT WE DID IT, but, before we reached Raetihi, OTHERS, would push that box to a door,and tip that RAILWAY CROCKERY,out over one of the two Viaducts.
(I understand,even today,souvenir hunters still locate the "bits" under the viaducts,) this would save the girls cleaning up at Ohakune,or was it Raetihi,so long ago! However,the one thing that stays in my mind,the train gave a slow blow of its KA Horn and virtualy stopped at Tangiwai,as a silent salute to those that died,rather special,as this was the LAST STEAM TRAIN to cross under NZR Rule, Arh the memory!
(May I also state, I had the privilage of meeting Cyril Ellis, and, for a period of time, worked with him at the Wanganui Post Office...GOD BLESS YOU CYRIL,AND MY REGARDS TO YOUR FAMILY)
Today,I live in Melbourne, Australia,and yes,I will go back,some day to retrace MY footsteps.
THANKYOU,for letting me tell MY story
Tony Robb.