On the 25th October 1971, the South Island Limited Express steamed its way for the last time from Christchurch to Dunedin. It marked the end of 108 years of steam powered train services in New Zealand.

The first public rail service clattered its way between Ferrymead and Christchurch in 1863. From the 1870s, under the encouragement of Premier Julius Vogel, a nationwide network of railway construction was begun to link major towns following the abolition of the provinces. The planned railways would also open up the inland areas for farming and settlement. Eventually 4,128km (2,565miles) of railway tracks were laid around both islands.


The European settlers to New Zealand in the latter half of the 19th century were keen to develop their new country. The first locally built steam locomotive was built way back in 1873. However, before workshops could be established New Zealand had to import locomotives. The Wellington and Manawatu Railway (WMR) Company’s American built locomotive No.10 established a world speed record for the narrow 3ft 6in (1067 mm) gauge railway, averaging 68km per hour (42miles) on a two-hour run and hitting a top speed of 103kph (64mph). This must have been an almost unbelievable feat considering horse drawn public transport at the time averaged 5mph (8kph)

Once railway workshops had been established, a range of successful steam locomotives rolled off the assembly lines at Dunedin, Wellington and Christchurch with the last being built in 1973. The most impressive and powerful type – the JA locomotive, with 51 being built, was used to haul passenger trains over the busy South Island mainline. The rail network on the South Island was more advanced due to an easier landscape for constructing railways. Christchurch and Dunedin were also major centres of population at this time too. Maori land disputes and deforestation were issues in the North Island and delayed the construction of tracks, especially in the King Country in the island’s centre.

Although NZ Railways operated some electric locomotives from 1923 and diesel railcars from 1936, the introduction of main-line diesel-electric locomotives from 1950 spelled the end of the steam engine. The dieselisation of the North Island rail network was completed by 1967, the year the last steam locomotive in commercial service ran from Auckland to Wellington.


Steam power lasted another 4 years in the South Island because carriages on the night expresses between Christchurch and Dunedin needed steam-heating during winter.

Established in 1904, the ‘South Island Limited’ initially consisted of 3 first class and 4 second class carriages. There were also 2 sleeping carriages. The train travelled 590km (370miles) with 15 stops between Christchurch and Invercargill. The entire journey took 11 hours and 20 minutes. The train service allowed southern passengers to connect with the Inter-Island ferry at Lyttelton. This was the most prestigious NZR train in the early 20th Century. The most up-to-date carriages were used with the most powerful locomotives available to pull them along the best maintained tracks in the country. The ‘South Island Limited’ often achieved speeds of 110kph (68.5mph). By 1935, passenger numbers had dropped considerably due to the depression. The two sleeping carriages were removed leaving passengers on the overnight service to make do with carriage seats that could be partially reclined to form a rather uncomfortable sleeping surface. The sleeping carriages were never re-introduced.


I remember enduring a trip on the ‘South Island Limited’ It was impossible to make the hard seats in any way comfortable with the NZR pillows provided. It was difficult to get any sleep due to the clatter of the wheels on the rails and the creaking of the swaying carriage. When the train stopped at Ashburton, there was a flurry of activity on the platform as well as disruption on the train as passengers clambered off and on. This was repeated at Timaru and Oamaru. Further south, sleep was impossible while the squealing wheels negotiated the curves around the coast south of Oamaru. Dozing off was a near impossibility even with a skin full of alcohol.


Quite a few years ago, I was in the crowd at Wellington railway station to witness the arrival of a special steam train that had made a commemorative journey from Auckland. There is something spectacular about steam locomotives. Firstly, the size of them is truly impressive. These are huge machines. All eyes turned. The ground shook as the sweating black monster hissed and puffed slowly to the end of the platform. A group of small boys nearby screamed in fear as a jet of steam from between the two shoulder high driving wheels was shot forcefully across the platform. Black smoke belched from the smokestack as the huge exposed pistons breathed out. The coupling rods thrusted forward as the rows of wheels squealed to a stop. Jets of steam kept ejecting from beside the water tank. The whole impressive giant seemed to be alive. It was a truly awesome sight, frightening and intimidating at the same time. I can understand why men have an enduring fascination with these mechanical monsters. The steam locomotive is, in my opinion, the most masculine, majestic man-made object ever invented. It oozes power, strength and a mechanical beauty not achieved by any other fast-moving machine.


I’m pleased to say, steam engines have not disappeared from New Zealand. A number of railway heritage organisations run steam-hauled excursions around the country. They always draw a crowd (of men mainly). The power of steam continues to fascinate and enthral. A steam locomotive in action is sure to turn heads wherever it is encountered and is a spectacular example of Victorian ingenuity and vision.

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Ceidrik Heward

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