End of the line
Fifty years ago last weekend, a historic rail link ended.
S aturday, July 18, 1959: For Foxton, the date marked a milestone of mixed feelings – the shut-down of the Foxton branch of the Palmerston to Wanganui railway line.
‘‘There was a real feeling of regret, like losing an old friend,’’ says Ken Larsen, now of Palmerston North, who at the time operated a wood and coal business in the town.
The railway line had been Manawatu’s first, starting out in 1873 as a wooden tramway with horsedrawn wagons running along it.
Those old wood rails, not strong enough to carry steam locomotives, were replaced with iron rails and three eight-ton engines, with the line extending to Wanganui by 1878. This had been a government project, but in 1886, the private Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company, created by a group of businessmen, opened a rail link from Wellington to join up with the Foxton-Palmerston North line at Longburn.
Now, in 1959, the Foxton line was redundant. On July 20, 1959, the Manawatu
Times reported: ‘‘The Foxton branch line, the oldest railway in the Wellington province was buried with due ceremony on Saturday. More than 200 people travelled from Palmerston North to Foxton on a last excursion, organised by the Wellington branch of the New Zealand Railway and Locomotive society.
‘‘Tomorrow, a last goods train will go along the line to collect the remaining trucks, and then the rails will be torn up. The government has closed the branch because it has been operating at a financial loss.
‘‘At the head of the special excursion was an A Class locomotive, No 601, built at Thames in 1914. In its heyday, this veteran engine proudly hauled some of the principal express trains on the Main Trunk.
‘‘With the passing years, it was relegated to menial tasks.
‘‘Then, members of the locomotive society scraped the grime from its exterior and polished its dome. Looking spick and span again, it hauled the special train, which last November commemorated the 50th anniversary of the extinction of the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company ([in 1908 the government took over this company].
‘‘On Saturday it was again brought out of retirement.’’
On the footplate was driver Sam Whittingham, a 35-year railwayman. Along with Peter Gundersen, the fireman, and guard JT Tidey, he gave his services free for the day.
‘‘As the last passenger train to Foxton pulled out of Palmerston North station,’’ continued the
Times, ‘‘detonators exploded under the wheels. It was not a gloomy funeral party.’’
Whistle blowing, the No 601 steamed to Longburn, a procession of cars trailing alongside, and crowds waving along the route.
At Longburn, the train reversed to access the Foxton line.
Stops were made at Tiakitahuna, Rangiotu and Himatangi, where ‘‘all that remains of once-busy stations are wooden sheds falling into decay’’.
At 1.25 pm, to car horns, a factory whistle and applause from 100 people on the platform, the train drew into Foxton station, where ‘‘stationmaster C K Johnstone had put on his uniform of gold braid for the occasion’’. Mr Johnstone told the Times that next day, he would clear up final bookwork, shut the office and move to Gisborne. The passengers stepped out on to a Foxton platform covered by grass.
Denys Whyte, a third-former at Wellington College, had travelled to Palmerston North to ride the last train. He remembers ‘‘brilliant weather’’ and an excursion speed of 15 miles an hour.
‘‘Here I was, on board a train along a line that I had thought for so long as being abandoned. I was amazed by the public interest and the unbelievable situation that this would never be repeated.’’
Denys took photos with his box camera. He still has some, and his last-day excursion ticket.
‘‘Today, I’m still able to see traces of the one-time branch line, but the toll of time has made a huge impact over the last century,’’ he says. During the passengers’ stopover, four Foxton Jaycees arrived with a coffin, and the Foxton mayor, E Field, delivered a mock obituary for the train. An inscription read: ‘‘Here lies the body of Foxton rail/In doing its duty it did not fail/Now put to death by the stroke of the pen/To the lasting shame of certain men/Who show their power did not delay/In closing this line which would not pay.’’
The Manawatu Standard’s headline of Monday, July 20, read: ‘‘No Cheers from Saddened Residents.’’ Reflecting this mood, ‘‘the rails [leading back to Palmerston North] had been plastered with grease, it is believed by members of an organisation noted for its community spirit and occasionally, for its sense of humour’’. In his 1984 book The Foxton and Wanganui Railway, author K R Cassells also wrote: ‘‘A few wags had placed grease on the rails.’’ Mr Larsen, the former Foxton coal merchant, revealed this week: ‘‘I was one of those wags!’’ But apparently, someone had earlier alerted the railway authorities to the planned protest.
So the railwaymen decided to start the Palmerston North trip with the train running in reverse, enabling it to come back with sandboxes pouring sand on the grease in front of the wheels.
‘‘They put some grease on the rails, but not enough,’’ said the driver, after the train’s return. ‘‘We were too shrewd for them.’’
But the joke lived on, in memory and print.
Stopover: Above and below, the last train at Foxton.