Rail tragedy on the Rimutaka Incline

11 September 1880

Artist impression of Rimutaka Incline accident (Alexander Turnbull Library, B-034-004)

Four children were killed and 13 adults injured when two rail carriages were blown off the tracks by severe winds on a notoriously exposed part of the Rimutaka Incline railway. This was the first major loss of life on New Zealand’s railways; only five rail accidents have claimed more lives in this country's history.

The Rimutaka Incline, completed in 1878, was one of New Zealand’s most ambitious early engineering projects. The climb up the range’s eastern flank, where the line rose 265 m in 4 km, required special Fell mountain locomotives, which grip a raised centre rail with horizontal inner wheels. 

The morning train to Wellington on 11 September 1880 comprised a single Fell engine, pushing two passenger cars and a goods van, and pulling two loaded goods wagons and a brake van. As it rounded Siberia Curve, 1200 m from the summit, winds gusting up to 200 km/hour swept the two carriages into the gully below. According to a newspaper report, 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.

The engine held firm, and the brakesman immediately uncoupled his van to roll back down to Cross Creek to seek help. The other wagons dangled by their couplings as the survivors crawled to the safety of a nearby cutting. The wind was so strong that the rescue train had to shelter in a tunnel while men crawled along the track holding onto the centre rail. They recovered the bodies of three children; a fourth died later of head injuries. Thirteen adult passengers were injured, five of them seriously.

While an inquest attached no blame to anyone for the accident, large wooden windbreaks were immediately erected to protect trains from the gale-force winds that regularly battered parts of the Incline railway.

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