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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 12 (March 1, 1939.)

A Trial Run in the “Aotea”

page 25

A Trial Run in the “Aotea”

(Rly. Publicity photo.) A view of New Plymouth, looking towards the port.

(Rly. Publicity photo.)
A view of New Plymouth, looking towards the port.

Of the millions of passengers safely transported in New Zealand each year by the Railways Department the majority, like myself, have little appreciation of what railway organisation means. The only time I ever felt keenly about the railways in this country was when they stopped and I did not know why. Then I felt so keenly about them that I would thrust my head through a window and snarl viciously at a wandering stationmaster with a lamp in his hand. Occasionally I wondered how all the trains managed to get to their correct destinations; but that was only a fleeting thought, generally thrust aside with a sneer about luck rather than good management.

Then I had the good fortune to be among the passengers on the new standard type rail car, “Aotea,” on her initial run to New Plymouth. That short trip, it seemed short in the speed-luxury of the “Aotea,” revealed to me as a typical layman what thought and planning lie behind the railway service in New Zealand or any other country. The sight of the General Manager, Mr. G. H. Mackley, C.M.G., crouched over a chart of bends and gradients as he stood next the driver for almost all of the journey from Wanganui to New Plymouth, brought home the realisation that from the top, downward, every member of the staff is a keen railwayman.

It was the initial run from which extensive and comprehensive data for the final schedule were collected, and for the first time I realised that “railwaymen” are truly a special type of human.

The run from Wellington to Wanganui and from there to New Plymouth is made up of track that comprises some of the stiffest gradients in the North Island as well as tight curves nearly all the way. The “Aotea” made light of the gradients and slid round the tightest curves without a trace of discomfort to her passengers. There was a complete absence of sway, scarcely any noise, and the country flashed by at a most exhilarating pace.

After leaving Wellington the route passed through the recently opened Tawa Flat tunnel and followed rather broken country to Pukerua Bay which was the highest point of the first section of the journey. The grades approaching' Pukerua Bay from the Wellington side are 1 in 57, and from the New Plymouth side 1 in 66, these being the worst grades between
(Rly. Publicity photo.) The rail car “Aotea.”

(Rly. Publicity photo.)
The rail car “Aotea.”

Wellington and Palmerston North. Over this section the “Aotea” gave a perfect performance, but the hardest part of the run lay between Palmerston North and New Plymouth, where there is practically no level going, and where some of the grades from Palmerston North to Wangaehu, average 1 in 50. Between Wangaehu and Waitotara, a distance of 38 miles, some of the grades are 1 in 35. It was on parts of this section that the most gruelling tests were carried out. They were all successful.

It was here that I had my first impression of travel on the footplate, but there was no glaring heat, no swaying rattle and cold rush of air. All there was to be seen was the gleam of the rails sliding beneath us and a steady purring as we swept along at 70 miles an hour. The powerful beam of the head lamps cut a large slice from the night and into this we rushed headlong, standing and sitting in the comfort of a well-lighted room as though we were at home by our firesides.

The “Aotea,” as an example of the Standard Type of rail car, is a fitting product to crown the achievement of railway design and planning in New Zealand. The sleek lines of the silver car express a greater freedom of design than any seen in other passenger page 26 units. With the objective of speed and greater comfort set before them, the Railway Department's engineers have not been restricted to the limiting designs which apply to the other types of rail car built for special conditions.

Some appreciation of the task facing the locomotive driver is gained when one sees the approaching track. The section of line between Wangaehu and Waitotara with its tortuous bends and steep gradients presented no problem to the “Aotea,” but a locomotive with ten or more carriages behind it is a much more cumbersome vehicle, and negotiating those bends and inclines must call for as great skill in handling the engine as to berth a liner. To maintain headway while dragging a heavy snake round two or more bends at the one time is no mean feat, and passengers fretting at the slackening of speed would do well to place themselves in the shoes of the driver. He is negotiating as difficult a section of track as any in the world.

A feature of the trip was the crowded stations on the route between Wanganui and New Plymouth, the area which will find greatest convenience in the new service when it commences. At several stations the car was stopped and the people thronging the platforms invited to inspect the new vehicle. The interior of the car is in green, both walls and ceiling being covered with Rexine, and the silver relief provided by the chromium plated fittings and silver paintwork on the roof makes the colour scheme particularly attractive.

Seating accommodation for fifty-two is provided with a first and second class division. The second class compartment lacks nothing in comfort though the upholstery is not quite as lavish in its conception as in the first class section. Green leather makes the seats (which are of the adjustable three-position reclining type) comfortable and keeps them in harmony with the high standard of workmanship revealed in all other parts of the car.

Thermostatically controlled heat makes travel in all weathers a pleasant experience, and the lighting and ventilation are quite adequate.

When it is remembered that all this comfort is capable of moving from place to place with a maximum speed of about seventy miles an hour, some realisation of the progress of railway travel in New Zealand is possible. It is interesting to note that rail car developments in other countries have met with success, and all progressive railway countries have evolved their types of rail car according to their needs and special conditions. New Zealand's needs include great mobility for the tortuous and steep gradients in some of her railway country.

Rail car travel is a definitely new and pleasant experience for the railway public of the Dominion. The silver lines of the “Aotea” as she travels along a stretch of straight track bring to mind a flashing shuttle and thread, a development in railway travel probably never visualised by the pioneers of the rail in New Zealand.

The country surges past in undulating sweeps of green as one sits in the control compartment at the front of the car, and it is here that the spirit of progress may be actually experienced.