The Rail Heritage Trust

Railways in New Zealand have been present for most of the period of significant European settlement. The earliest lines were short, linking ports to their immediate hinterland, or mines to ports. In the 19th century coastal shipping played a major role for internal transport, but that role steadily diminished over the years as railway routes were extended, and joined to other routes to become a national network, serving a majority of towns and cities.
 
The initial role of railways was essentially local. They provided a passenger and freight transport service far superior to the horse drawn vehicles used before the railway arrived, and to the small and largely irregular coastal ships which moved around the coast. Journeys to town for  rural people became easier, and the presence of a railway was a major factor in opening up areas which had remained largely inaccessible. The timber industry, in particular, grew rapidly as rail routes were extended, with the associated benefits from exports.
 
Given the often difficult landscapes through which the railways were extended, and the relatively small population base to provide the finance for railway construction, the rate of progress was steady rather that rapid. The construction of railways continued until the 1950s; the maximum mileage/metrage was achieved in 1952 at 3,539 miles (5,694km).
 
Railways became an institution, regarded with affection or  distaste depending on how their performance was perceived by users who often had little choice in their transport supplier. For the passenger market, the trunk routes provided a good service (for the time), with regular express services on most routes; for routes with less demand, the service was often mixed freight and passenger, and the train speed was, by modern standards, very slow and infrequent. As motor vehicles became available, they (or buses) quickly replaced the rural passenger services, and then, as roads and trucks improved in size and quality, the smaller routes became uneconomic, and were closed.
 
There were several clear stages over time in the role of railways in New Zealand, (stages which were paralleled in other countries). The first was the construction phase, burgeoning from the 1870s, and continuing , at varying pace, until the 1950s. Alongside that there was  the essentially local role of railways. With nearly half the population living outside main centres in the 19th century, and a substantial but steadily reducing number through the first half of the 20th century, the railway played a significant and pervasive part in community life. The second major phase was from the 1920s on, as roads and road transport improved, and the local role of the railway slowly disappeared, except in the urban transport services in Wellington and Auckland. This led into the third, and current scene, where the railway supplies an arterial service with bulk haulage for freight, suburban trains in Wellington and Auckland, and the very important rail/road and passenger link across Cook Strait. The local function began to go in the 1970s, and has now effectively disappeared
 
There is still widespread in the community a real affection for and interest in railways. This is expressed in a number of ways; in nostalgia, especially for older age groups, and in respect for railway’s heritage, and the role they have played in New Zealand’s development over the last 150 years. The increasingly rapid pace of change from the 1960s onward saw the “old” railway steadily disappearing. Diesel replaced steam locomotives; signalling was automatic rather than  manual; most rural based traffic, and the associated small stations, disappeared; most long distance and local  passenger trains ceased to operate; Railway Road Services was sold off; major changes in productivity saw long established aspects of the operation go.
 
The more formal expression of interest in railway history began in 1944. In the 1960s individuals and began to record and preserve aspects of the traditional railway. Steam locomotives were rescued, and restored. Communities which had for long taken for granted their railway station moved to seek its preservation, and if possible restoration.
 
These moves began to make serious demands on Railway’s management time, and in 1990 a project team considered how to manage the increasing demands for heritage information, and liaison between railway and community based organisations who sought to preserve railway heritage. The answer was to establish the Rail Heritage Trust of New Zealand, a charitable trust, to carry out these roles.
 
The Trust continues to operate 22 years later, working alongside KiwiRail, and the Federation of Rail Organisations of New Zealand, a Trust which directly represents the interests of the many railway heritage groups in New Zealand. Its role is essentially advisory, answering queries from both formally established groups and individuals (and KiwiRail), and undertaking a small number of heritage projects where there is no other sponsor available.
 
Our railways have a rich history, and an important role over the years in the nation’s development. The Rail Heritage Trust is there to help groups and communities to preserve this heritage.
 
For more information email railheritage@railheritage.org.nz

- Euan McQueen -