Memories and a grassy shelf across the landscape are all that remain of the first railway line built between Turakina and Okoia, Laurel Stowell finds.

For 70 years from 1877 to 1947 the railway between Marton and Whanganui had a notoriously difficult stretch that tested locomotives to the limit.

It was just 23km with two hills, grades of up to 1:35, sharp curves and six stations.

Members of the Wanganui Tramping Club walked the old line from Turakina to Fordell on February 9, a day "so hot that tomatoes cooked on the vine" and heat haze swam across the Ratana flats.

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To make the trip they needed the permission of about 20 landowners.

In that empty landscape it was easy to imagine we were back in the past. We dodged thorny scrub, climbed fences, walked through cuttings, across fill and up slopes. Stopping at Ratana Pā, we got a look inside the immaculately maintained temple and a short talk about the Ratana faith.

Tramper Adrian Pike talks to a Ratana follower at Ratana Pā. Photo / Laurel Stowell
Tramper Adrian Pike talks to a Ratana follower at Ratana Pā. Photo / Laurel Stowell

It was the Immigration and Public Works Act of 1870 that got New Zealand railways started, and by 1876 the line from Whanganui had reached the Turakina River. Coal-fired steam trains were a major means of transport.

The Turakina and Whangaehu rivers were bridged, and hillsides were flattened or carved out to lay down the rails. Whanganui's Graeme Carter edits the New Zealand Railway Observer magazine and says it was all done on the cheap.

The stations were Aramoho, Matarawa, Fordell, Baker's Crossing, Whangaehu, Ratana and Turakina. By 1877 two trains were using the line every day, and staff lived in railway houses near some of the stations.

The hill between Whangaehu and Fordell was especially difficult, with a 1:39 grade and sharp curves.

The former rail line takes a gradual rise up the hill between Whangaehu and Fordell. Photo / Laurel Stowell
The former rail line takes a gradual rise up the hill between Whangaehu and Fordell. Photo / Laurel Stowell

Often a locomotive couldn't get all its wagons up, especially if the weather was wet or, once, when there was "an army of caterpillars" on the tracks.

Baker's Crossing, at the top of the hill, had an extra piece of track where a locomotive could leave some wagons, then coast back downhill and pick up the rest. The whole lengthy exercise made a train an hour late.

The late Bruce Attwell was another Whanganui man fascinated with transport. His parents worked on a farm near Baker's Crossing in the late 1940s.

A 1996 Wanganui Midweek gives his account of lying in bed on a wet night and hearing the trains labour to get up the hill.

He'd first hear the engine whistling for Whangaehu Station as it rushed down from the Ratana flats, then the roar of its wheels across the steel bridge near the Whangaehu Hotel.

The sound would fade out as the train got behind a ridge, then get louder and slower as the grade steepened.

"Sometimes, if the wind was right, one actually heard the clang on the firebox ring as [the fireman] fed the demanding furnace to maintain the engine's voracious appetite for steam."

And sometimes all the feeding wasn't enough.

"Winded, the engine would pant to a halt. For a time, only a steady whine from the lighting generator and the intermittent panting of the air-brake pump would break the silence. "

Then the engine would move a first group of wagons up on to the flat and leave them in the "back shunt" at Baker's Crossing. It would drift back down the slope, slow, and link with the rest of the wagons with a clearly audible clank.

When all wagons were up they had to be joined together again and the guard had to restore the rail points to the mainline position.

"On a rainy night, such a performance was not relished by train crews, no matter how interesting it sounded to a warmly a-bed teenager."

Trains on the line took students to Whanganui secondary schools Marist, Tech and Girls' College, leaving just after 8 in the morning, Attwell said.

The young people's antics were legendary. One was to put the brakes on as the carriages were going uphill. Or they would hop off and walk alongside as the train struggled up the Whangaehu "bank".

In 1938 there was a very serious accident on the line. An excursion train left Wellington for New Plymouth at 9.45pm on March 26, Good Friday. Passengers in six carriages were heading upcountry to see family during the long Easter Weekend.

The driver, Edward Percival, was experienced and confident - but he hadn't done the route for about eight years. He got to a top speed of 80km/h across the Ratana flat - 25km/h higher than recommended.

Descending toward Whangaehu he thought he was coming into a moderate bend and braked - but not hard enough. He'd come farther than he thought and was entering a sharp curve with a recommended top speed of 32km/h. It was dark and a bank of autumn mist hid both the bend and the go-slow sign.

A derailment near Whangaehu killed seven people in 1938. Photo / Graeme Carter collection
A derailment near Whangaehu killed seven people in 1938. Photo / Graeme Carter collection

The locomotive, coal-car and first carriage derailed, with the side of the carriage sticking out. Other carriages were crushed as they slid past it. Three of them turned into "masses of debris" and it was a ghastly scene that rescuers found in the dark of 1.47am on Saturday.

Six people were killed, two of them crushed between carriages, and the driver and fireman were trapped in the cab and enveloped in scalding steam. Both were burned, and the fireman died in hospital three weeks later. A total of 40 people were injured, with 13 admitted to Whanganui Hospital.

There were no deaths as a result of another accident on the line in October 1941. In it a freight train was heading south downhill from Whangaehu when one wagon came off the rails, dragging the engine and coal-car off the Whangaehu Bridge and into the river.

The driver and fireman fell six metres and the engine came to rest on a sandbank, where it stayed until it could be hauled up on to the line in December. The freight had been a powdery substance that covered a vegetable garden beside the bridge "to a great depth".

There were a lot of grumbles about the line from Whanganui to Turakina, and a better route was surveyed as early as 1894. But it wasn't approved until 1936, and work on it started in 1937.

The new line is 6.4km shorter and has two tunnels – a 1.4km one at Fordell and a 2km one at Turakina. Its steepest grade is 1:70, its curves are gentler.

Its construction slowed briefly in 1942, when New Zealand feared a Japanese invasion. In 1944 serious faults were found in both the tunnels and their concrete lining had to be replaced. A commission of inquiry was called, and heard from 22 witnesses.

One problem was a lack of cement in the tunnels' concrete lining, Graeme Carter says.

"The fine citizens of Whanganui were selling the cement on the black market. Houses were being built in Peat St at the time, and they had the cement that was supposed to go into the tunnels."

When the new line went into use the old Ratana, Whangaehu, Baker's Crossing and Fordell stations were closed and only the remains of concrete platforms are left to mark them. They were replaced by new stations at different locations in Whangaehu and Fordell.

A station on the new line, with forms used in tunnelling at left. Photo / Graeme Carter collection
A station on the new line, with forms used in tunnelling at left. Photo / Graeme Carter collection

The new line handled trains more than twice as heavy as the old one. The first train to use it, on December 7, 1947, was the daily Wellington-New Plymouth railcar.

Rails and sleepers from the old line were pulled up and sent north to build the Putaruru-Reporoa line needed to service maturing forests.

In 1950 Jim Gordon was an 11-year-old growing up on Durie Hill. The old rail line became a playground for him and his friends. There were no fences dividing it and they could walk right across to the Whangaehu River.

He remembers the nails and steel still lying around, after the lines were taken away, and the wagons left abandoned at Okoia. He and his friends played in the new tunnels, ducking into the cut-outs when a train came.

"We used to end up as black as soot."

They helped milk a small herd of cows belonging to a man who had been a World War I machine gunner. They went eeling and shot rabbits with rifles and slug guns.

People riding the trains had thrown apple cores and plum pips out the window, and the track was lined with fruit trees.

"You could follow the fruit trees all the way through. I remember a couple of marvellous plum trees."

These days the old line is cut with many fences and cars and roads have taken over most transport. The last passenger service on the current line ended in July 1977.

The only improvement to it since has been a longer passing loop at Whangaehu, to accommodate trains carrying milk to the Fonterra factory near Hāwera.

These days the line carries only milk, logs and other freight, and the occasional steam excursion train that feeds people's nostalgia.