Travel Comment
Ponderings on all aspects of travel - both at home and abroad.

History going off the rails

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Interesting how travel fashions change. Way back when dinosaurs walked the earth, and pretty much the only way to get from Auckland to Wellington was by rail, travelling long distances by train was a nightmare, something you only did if you had to.

I still recall with a shudder those long hours on the Limited Express, the rock-hard seats and sleepless nights, even harder rock cakes, chunky cups and tea which appeared to have been stewing for a week, regular problems with the points and late arrivals.

Yet today rail is romantic, sometimes even luxurious, and tourists happily pay up large to take a steam train from Kawakawa to Opua or to observe the spectacular scenery of the Southern Alps from an observation car on the TranzAlpine Express.

Overseas, there are even more extraordinary offerings, like The Ghan, which runs from Adelaide, through Australia's red centre, to Darwin; the Eastern and Oriental Express, which transports passengers in luxury from Bangkok down the Malay Peninsula to Singapore (amazingly, it's our own Silver Star which once ran the Main Trunk Line, transformed by a massive makeover); the amazing Lhasa Express, from Beijing to Tibet, rising so high they have oxygen masks on the train; or the original luxury train, the Venice Simplon Orient Express, which still plies the main lines of Europe.

I've done several of those journeys and found, to my surprise, I even enjoyed them ... a lot. After reading this week's story by Pat Baskett about riding the Main Trunk Line from Auckland to Wellington on the Overlander - the successor to the Limited - maybe I'm even ready to repeat that journey.

Not convinced?

You might find your enthusiasm for taking the Overlander rise if you read Kevin Ramshaw's fascinating history of the Main Trunk Line which, while we might take it for granted today, was an extraordinary feat in its day.

And if that doesn't do the trick, then, as Graham Hutchins explains in his
latest book, there are plenty of other interesting railway journeys to be taken.

by Graham Hutchins
Exisle Publishing, $59.99

If you're interested in joining the renaissance of rail in New Zealand, this book is a good start. It covers a dozen wonderful railway journeys ranging from the grand old steam-powered Kingston Flyer in the south to the suburban train from Britomart to Waitakere - nick-named the Graffiti Express - in the north.

The journeys described vary from the likes of the Wellington-Johnsonville service which transports thousands of commuters and operates many times daily, to the Overlander between Auckland and Wellington which carries mainly tourists a few times a week and the Art Deco Express from Paekakariki to Napier which runs only once a year to carry patrons to the Art Deco Weekend.

Graham Hutchins is clearly a rail buff and describes making each of these journeys with obvious enthusiasm and illustrates them with some excellent photos.

That enthusiasm is infectious so it's a pity that the book doesn't contain the sort of information - websites, phone numbers, operating schedules, fares - that would be helpful to anyone wanting to try these trains for themselves.

Jim Eagles

by Kevin Ramshaw
Grantham House, $39.99

When Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward drove in the last spike on the Main Trunk Line at Maunganui o te Ao (halfway between Ohakune and National Park) on November 6, 1908, he took the fun out of getting between the capital and the Big Smoke.

Until then, people travelling from Wellington to Auckland would catch the mail train to New Plymouth, go by coastal steamer to Onehunga, then take another train for the final leg.

The trip to New Plymouth took 12 hours, often on trains with standing room only, says Main Trunk - Portrait of a Railway, OnTrack's commemorative history of the 100-year-old link.

The overnight steamer to Onehunga took another 12 hours. In rough weather the whole journey could take up to 30 hours. But that was better than the alternative: an uncomfortable, and expensive, coach ride through the bush.

Central North Island roads turned to a sea of mud in winter - as one early settler describes. "On each side of the road were ruts a foot to 18 inches deep and four to six inches wide, while the centre of the road was a slush in which the horses sank over their fetlocks at every step."

The road between Mangaweka and Taihape was even worse, and cart horses "frequently sank up to their bellies in the mud".

The line's completion brought not only faster and more reliable travel but sheer luxury - boudoir sleepers with leather seats, clean linen and heaters; dining carriages and bathrooms with hot water on tap. Meals were lavish. Sadly, the golden age of passenger rail would be short-lived.

The book's strength is its wonderful photographs, old posters and memorabilia - many sourced from the collections of Christine Johnson and W.W. Stewart.

And the serviceable text by OnTrack PR man Kevin Ramshaw offers a potted social history - from the drinking and gambling habits of workers who built the line to the demise of the tearooms (Taihape was the last to close in the 1980s).

You don't have to be a trainspotter to keep this book on your coffee table.

Geoff Cumming

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