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Remembering the Remutaka train tragedy

As KiwiRail and Metlink tackle ongoing issues with the Wairarapa’s Line’s Rimutaka tunnel track, the Wairarapa Archive’s MARK PACEY takes a timely look back at the story of the 1880 Rimutaka Incline tragedy.

A rail link between Wellington and Wairarapa was approved in 1871. This was followed by surveys for the route and then construction, which was issued with two contracts.

Although construction took longer than planned, by October 1878 the link was complete. It had taken some careful planning as the route over the Remutaka Range was far from easy. While the southern side of the range was gentler, the Wairarapa side was much steeper and required a different approach – the now well-known Fell system.

For two years the line provided a service that brought passengers and freight between Wellington and Wairarapa. Up to this point, the New Zealand rail service had been a safe means of travel with no serious loss of life, but this was about to change, and it was the Wairarapa line that would have the distinction of being the location of our first major rail accident.

On September 11, 1880, the morning train left Wairarapa on its way to Wellington. By the time it was making its way up the incline, it comprised of a single Fell engine, with two passenger cars and a luggage van that were pushed in front and two loaded goods wagons that were towed behind.

It was windy in Featherston, which was nothing out of the ordinary for the Wairarapa town. But unknown to the crew of the train, the wind was much stronger further up in the range. Had they known how strong, they probably wouldn’t have tried to make the climb at that time.

The train continued to make its way up the Remutaka Range, and the wind continued to buffet the area. It was when the train rounded Siberia Curve just over a kilometre from the summit that the train was exposed to the full force of nature. It was not a good day to be travelling on a train.

A strong north-westerly gale was blowing across the track and, as the train continued, an especially strong blast hit the train. The effect was devastating. The two passenger carriages and the luggage van were blown off the tracks and over the edge into the valley that lay 100 feet below. They hung precariously, still attached to the engine for a while, and then broke free, careening down to the bottom of the valley. While this was a horrible tragedy, it would have been much worse had the engine followed them down and landed on them.

The scene at the bottom was one of nightmares: “Killed and wounded lying about in all directions covered with blood, and the train above suspended threatening every moment to fall on them,” as one contemporary account described it.

The carriages were carrying both adults and children, and to make the tragedy even worse, it wasn’t the adults who were the worst affected. Two of the children were killed outright – one was buried under debris, while the other died from serious trauma. A third child was recovered from the wreck by passenger Herbert Hickson, who attempted to carry her up to the engine – despite being severely injured himself – but sadly she died in his arms before he got there.

In the meantime, the train crew got to work and managed to uncouple a van to ride it back down the incline to Cross Creek where they sent for help and put out a general call for surgeons to join them. A special train that consisted of an engine, carriage and brake van left for the scene at 11:30 am and arrived later that afternoon.

In all, there were 13 injured adults with injuries that included lacerations, dislocations, and broken bones. Unfortunately, a fourth child, Stanley Nicholas, died of his injuries the following month.

The Remutaka accident was a shock to everyone, especially the number of children who died. An inquiry that was held to determine if anyone was to blame for the tragedy found that it wasn’t anybody’s fault, concluding that weather had become rough, and the train simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

It was proposed that a wind barrier be built so something like this would never happen again.

The train route over the Remutaka Range was used for another 75 years before it was closed when the new Remutaka tunnel was opened for use so that trains would no longer have to traverse the steep incline and be exposed to the frequent strong winds.

While the train now travels safely underneath the range, road vehicles still have to drive over it. Winds rise up and buffet trucks and cars as they drive through, and, very occasionally, one of them shares the fate of the train from so many years ago.

Those who lost their lives as a result of the Remutaka Incline tragedy were: Ida Pharazyn, aged 11; Francis Nicholas, aged seven; John Quinn, aged three; and Stanley Nicholas, aged five.

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