Branch line closures a sign of the times but infuriating for locals

New Zealand didn’t produce an exact match for Britain’s infamous Dr Beeching when the time came to reduce the number of branch railway lines, although Railways Minister J B (Peter) Gordon was sometimes described as “the Great Train Robber”.

Peter Gordon, often referred to as “Flash” because his energetic approach invited comparisons with the cartoon character of the same name, was the National Government’s Railways and Transport Minister between 1967 and 1972.

The “train robber” reference was to the 1963 hold up in Britain of a Royal Mail train by a gang who got away with more over £2.6 million.

The circumstances that led to Dr Beeching closing 4000 route miles of railway line, were as relevant to New Zealand as to Britain, albeit on a smaller scale.

Road transport was continuing to expand at the expense of rail and rural populations were shrinking. Goods was starting to be handled in greater bulk rather than in small consignments.

Within a hundred years of New Zealand’s first railway opening in Christchurch, the future of branch railway lines was under scrutiny and local communities were fighting to save them. In 1963, in recognition of rail’s centenary, the New Zealand Year Book published an extended review of the country’s railways. Among its conclusions were that economic conditions had focused attention on parts of the railways system that in the authors’ words, had “out-lived their usefulness”. As a result, in the nine years between 1953 and 1962, 313 miles of branch lines – 92 miles in the North Island and 221 in the South Island – had been closed to traffic. The network at the time had shrunk to 3,263 miles, 1,645 miles in the North Island and slightly less – 1,618 miles in the South Island. “It would appear that the pattern of New Zealand’s railway system, after nearly 100 years, has now been established,” said the Year Book. “Future construction is more likely to be associated with the improvement of the existing system of main lines rather than with the penetration of new territory.” The threat to branch lines had been growing for many years. The New Zealand Railways Magazine of 1 February, 1931 carried an article head-lined, “the Problem of Branch Lines”. “The growth of road transport has resulted in many changes in the Home railway world,” it reported. “Not the least striking of these changes now proceeding, is the closing down of many branch railways for passenger operation, and their replacement by railway-operated bus services. “It seems likely that eventually road buses and trucks will form the railways’ standard equipment for handling branch line business, many branch railways in sparsely populated areas being either eliminated or converted into purely freight carrying lines.” Geographer and rail heritage expert Euan McQueen documented the branch line network in a 2005 book, Rails in the Hinterland. In his introduction, he reminds his readers that the railway system in the 1950s was still geared to meeting local and rural needs, in spite of the changes that were occurring. The limits placed on the distance road transport could carry goods under the system of transport licensing introduced in the 1930s, obliged the Railways Department to serve the many small communities and farming areas on the network. He records that in 1952 there were some 1060 stations handling general freight on the network as well as many private sidings. In addition, there were more than 150 small stations handling passengers, parcels and small consignments. “In many areas, these small flag stations were well used into the 1960s for parcels and small consignments: mail, groceries, newspapers, boxes of fruit and sacks of seed were all frequently seen, especially on routes where roads were poor.” Euan McQueen says the result of the changes in transport technology and society is evident in the contrast between the 74 stations with sidings that existed between Christchurch and Dunedin in 1952 and four that remained in 2004. In the decade, 1955-65, 378 kilometres closed to traffic and contraction continued in later decades. The South Island was not being unfairly singled out. It had a higher proportion of branch lines than the North, partly because of the nature of the country and partly because the early colonial wealth and influence had been in the south. One of the lines to close was the Fairlie branch line. Railways Minister Peter Gordon announced its closure in 1967 and the last train ran on March 2, 1968.

The decision infuriated local people who took legal action against the Minister in an attempt to keep the line open. When the last train attracted more than a thousand passengers, a group of locals decided that the legend of the Fairlie branch line would live on in one form or another. "When it was announced the line would close, I don't know why, but I was quite upset,” said Richard Paul. “It was part of history going,"

He and others formed a small team of volunteers who were responsible for creating a railways museum to preserve the memory of a line that had been such an important part of the community. Closing branch railway lines was never an easy decision for politicians, particularly when they ran through Government-held electorates. Peter Gordon was keenly aware of local sentiment when the Catlins branch line in his own Clutha electorate, emerged as a candidate for closure.

But the timber that had been the line’s principal traffic was diminishing. The decision to close was made in July 1970 and in spite of local protest, carried out the following February.

Sources: NZ Year Book, 1963; Rails in the Hinterland, Euan McQueen, 2005; Timaru Herald.