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Rail enthusiasts will find the historic Rimutaka Rail Trail to be an unforgettable experience.
Green Jersey Cycle Tours offers easy day rides to the summit of the Rimutaka Incline and back or over the top and down to Cross Creek.
The following article has been reproduced with thanks to Wairarapa Archives.
The Fell Engine
The Rimutaka Range presented a great challenge to the engineers looking to construct a railway to Wairarapa from the capital city. The track had snaked alongside the Wellington harbour from 1870, and, easily made its way through the Hutt Valley, reaching Upper Hutt by 1874.
Survey parties, lead by John Rochfort, scouted through the hills, looking for a way to construct a track across the hills, or even around the coastline to the south, before deciding that the most economical route lay in the hills north of Upper Hutt. They took a line through the eastern hills as far north as Kaitoke, before moving up the Pakuratahi River valley. The ascent was steep, about 1 in 30, with a climb of about 300 metres in the 20 kilometres from Upper Hutt to the summit, with many tight turns. It was nothing, however, compared to the grade the engineers were forced to work with once they had punched the track through a saddle on the main range.
From the summit down the eastern flanks to the Wairarapa base of the range the gradient varied between 1 in 14 to 1 in 16, far too great for normal steam-powered locomotives. A number of options were explored, including establishing fixed engines and running the carriages on cables, much like the cable car system in Wellington. The numerous turns on the route prevented the use of such a system, and in the end it was decided to use the system recently installed in the Mont Cenis Pass between Italy and France. Swedish engineers had developed a special system for steeply graded rail systems as early as the 1830s. They had decided that the best way to propel trains over steep grades was to devise an extra set of rails, and as such designed a system that involved a central rail, double-sided with the rails facing outwards instead of upwards. A special set of horizontal grip wheels was added to the propulsion system.
The system was never tried commercially, but an improved system, designed by John Fell and named after him, was patented in 1863, and used for the Mont Cenis Pass, the system being used for four years. When a new track was laid and the need for the Fell system disappeared after four years, the entire system - including the 14 engines- was shipped out to Brazil. It was John Fell's system that was used to bring the railway over the hills to Wairarapa.
Fell's improvement was the addition of an extra set of grip wheels, bringing the total to four. Each of the wheels had about six tonnes of pressure applied to the centre rail, the entire grip being by friction.
Once the system was decided upon an order was placed with the Avonside Engine Company, in Bristol, England, where a special engine was designed, incorporating Fell's patented grip system. Four engines were built and trialed in England, before being shipped to New Zealand.
As well as the special engines built for the system, a specialised braking system was also required. A set of special braking vans was constructed, each van having four 450 mm cast iron brake blocks that were clamped to the central rail. At the end of each descent the blocks were changed.
The line from Featherston to the summit of the range was the most difficult part of the new track. As well as the steep gradient to overcome, the teams of men working on the eastern face also had to complete the construction of three tunnels, the largest being the one just below the summit. Here teams of men were working around the clock in eight-hour shifts to try and complete the shaft, under very trying conditions. There were frequent accidents on the line, and a number of men lost their lives in the tunnels. The main tunnel took two years to complete, being finished in March 1877. The whole line was finished in August the following year, with an official opening ceremony on 12 October.
The ceremony was an anticlimax and rather an omen for the future. Heavy rains in the hills had caused a number of slips, and the rail tracks were blocked. The first official train (there had actually been some before the official opening) actually made its way across the hills two days after the ceremony, the halting journey having taken over five hours.
The line was always prone to damage from the elements. The hillsides had been cleared of trees, and the heavy rainfall sometimes experienced in the high country swept down the hills, carrying debris and gravel across the lines. The wind was a problem too, with the fierce gusts from the north-westerly causing problems. Train crews would often have to clear fallen vegetation from the line as they made their way up and down the line.
Wind caused the worst accident on the line, just over a year after it opened. At one point the track crossed an embankment over an especially exposed corner. The fierce winds, and the desolate nature of the scree slope upstream of the embankment, earned the location the nickname of 'Siberia' and it was here that the accident occurred on 11 September 1880. A heavy gust lifted two carriages and a brake van off the rails, and plunged them over the bank. As the carriage plummeted down the hillside it smashed, causing the death of three young people, and injuring many others, one of whom died three weeks later. A large solid windbreak was erected at 'Siberia' to prevent a recurrence of the accident.
The trip up and down the Incline with the Fell engines hardly changed during the time the line was in operation. Trains were brought to the termini at each end of the Incline, and the carriages were attached to the Fell engines. Each engine could only pull a load of about twenty tonnes of freight and passengers, so large trains required a number of engines. Sometimes four locomotives would be used to haul a large train. Each trip from Cross Creek to the Summit entailed about one hour twenty minutes, with another fifteen minutes allowed at each end for remarshalling the wagons. Some people recall that they would dismount from the train and walk alongside it for a while.
The Fell engines themselves were not turned around on the turntables at the termini, all downhill running being undertaken cab first, to ensure that there was sufficient water to cover the top of the fire box.
In 1936 a railcar service was introduced over the Rimutaka Incline, taking some of the pressure off the old Fell engines, which were proving to be expensive to maintain and to run. At various times suggestions were made about replacing the locomotives, and just before World War Two a decision was taken to investigate an alternate route through the Rimutaka Range.
The problems of the expensive maintenance of both engines and track were not solved until the long-awaited deviation and tunnel were opened in late 1955. The travelling public, although longing for the new faster and more direct route, were also sentimental about the Fell Engines that had been carrying them across the Rimutaka Range for 77 years, and a large number of special excursion trains carried passengers for a last nostalgic trip over the line.
As soon as the tunnel was opened work began on dismantling the old track, and 199, the first of the Fells, started to assist in the demolition of the line she had helped build nearly eighty years before. The redundant Fell engines were removed to Silverstream, to be stored on a siding for redundant locomotives. From here they were demolished. All except 199.
In 1958 she returned to Wairarapa, to a site in the children's playground at Featherston, where she sat slowly disintegrating until 1984. A group of concerned citizens had formed in 1980, to restore and house 199, Mont Cenis. Today she sits proudly in her especially constructed shed at the Fell Engine Museum in Featherston, the only example of a Fell Engine left in the world.
Source: Wairarapa Archive