End of the line

Fifty years ago last week­end, a his­toric rail link ended.

Manawatu Standard - - Front Page - TINA WHITE

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.

Pho­tos: From THE FOX­TON AND WAN­GANUI RAIL­WAY BY KR CAS­SELLS

Stopover: Above and be­low, the last train at Fox­ton.

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