End of the line for steam railways

25 October 1971

South Island ‘Limited’ Express poster
South Island ‘Limited’ Express poster (New Zealand Railway and Locomotive Society)

The Christchurch–Dunedin overnight express, headed by a JA-class locomotive, ran the last scheduled steam-hauled service on New Zealand Railways (NZR), bringing to an end 108 years of regular steam rail operations in this country.

New Zealand’s rail system was predominantly steam-powered from 1863, when the first public railway opened in Christchurch, until the 1950s, when the transition to diesel power gathered momentum. Although NZR operated some electric locomotives from 1923, petrol- or diesel-motored railcars from 1936, and electric multiple units from 1938, the introduction of main-line diesel-electric locomotives from 1950 spelled the end of the line for the steam engine.

The dieselisation of North Island railways was complete by the late 1960s. Steam power only lasted as long as it did in the South Island because carriages on the Friday and Sunday night expresses between Christchurch and Dunedin needed steam-heating during winter.

Steam has not entirely disappeared from the New Zealand rail scene: in the early 21st century, a number of rail heritage organisations around the country run steam-hauled excursions.