by Geoffrey Churchman
At the November meeting of the Kapiti Historic Society a summary history of this pioneering transport operation was given by Bruce Taylor of Waikanae, an archivist with the NZ Railway and Locomotive Society. Based in a building beside the Ava station in Petone, this is an enthusiast organisation which began in 1944.
Although nearly all the railway lines in NZ were built by the government, there were some built by private companies; one of these — and the most notable — built the 135 km of line from Wellington to the northwest through Kapiti and Horowhenua to the Manawatu at Longburn, and most of it remains today.
The proposal had been instigated by the government in the late 1870s, and then stopped for financial reasons. A group of Wellington businessmen were dismayed and decided to build it themselves.
Beginning in 1882, the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company completed its construction work in rapid time, taking only 4 years. Although to the north of the Pukerua Hill the terrain was fairly easy, south of there it wasn’t. There were two big obstacles: firstly the climb out of Wellington to Khandallah and then back down to near sea level at Porirua. Further along there was the Pukerua Hill and the difficult coastal section to Paekakariki.
Most of the Wellington & Manawatu Railway route remains in use as the Johnsonville Branch and then from Tawa northwards. A major deviation completed in 1937, coinciding with the building of the present Wellington station, was the much gentler climb through the two long tunnels to about where Chartwell north of Churton Park is. The line from Johnsonville to Tawa was then removed; some of the route remains in the trajectory of the present motorway over this section. Also in the 1960s, the line along the shore of Porirua Harbour which ran around a series of bays was straightened and double-tracked.
Back in October 1886 the opening ceremony took place at Otaihanga near where Southward’s museum now is. It was the beginning of an innovative and surprisingly prosperous operation (even allowing for the substantial grants of Crown land) that lasted until 1908 when it was bought by the government, as part of the pending completion of the North Island Main Trunk between Wellington and Auckland.
As a lesson in efficiency which the KCDC would do well to heed, the first annual report of the WMR said there were 233 employees — but only 5 were in the Head Office. The rest were train personnel, workers maintaining the line, repairing equipment, and manning the stations.
In contrast to the government railways, the WMR company was innovative and less dominated by how things were done in the ‘Mother Country.’ All the trains were mixed (composed of both passenger and goods cars); it built comfortable clerestory roofed carriages, introduced dining cars, installed electric lighting, and telephone communication between stations rather than Morse code. The WMR operated 22 locomotives in revenue service of which 14 were built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in the USA.
Some remants of WMR vehicles remain, including a carriage which the NZRLS is currently restoring.
As well as the the 22 years that the WMR operated, Bruce covered key aspects of what has happened in the 112 years since. He showed the attendees a selection of books that the Society has produced about the region’s railways, the most notable of which is Uncommon Carrier by the late Ken Cassells.