Wairarapa Mail

The Wairarapa Mail was a passenger train operated by the New Zealand Railways Department (NZR) between Wellington and Woodville, continuing on to Palmerston North as a mixed train. It ran from 1909 until 1948 and its route included the famous and arduous Rimutaka Incline.


From the 1897 completion of the Wairarapa Line until 1908, the route through the Wairarapa was NZR's primary means of accessing Wellington as the western line through the Kapiti Coast and Horowhenua was privately owned by the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company. The Napier Express passenger train operated from Napier to Wellington via the Wairarapa, but on 7 December 1908, the Wellington and Manawatu Railway was purchased, and in early 1909, the Napier Express was diverted to the quicker western route. Accordingly, the Wairarapa Mail was introduced to provide Wairarapa residents with connections to Wellington, Manawatu, ad the Hawkes Bay. [Geoffrey B. Churchman and Tony Hurst, "The Railways of New Zealand: A Journey Through History" (Wellington: Grantham House, 1991), pp. 160, 166.]


After the WMR was acquired, most of NZR's long-distance trains used the WMR's Thorndon station as their Wellington terminus. The Wairarapa Mail was the only long-distance train to run out of NZR's Lambton Quay station, which primarily served commuter traffic from the Hutt Valley. [J. D. Mahoney, "Kings of the Iron Road" (Palmerston North: Dominion Press, 1982), pg. 83.] Between the Hutt Valley and the Wairarapa, the train had to travel over the Rimutaka Incline over the Rimutaka Range, and at its terminus in Woodville, its carriages were attached to a slow mixed train from Dannevirke that continued through the Manawatu Gorge to terminate in Palmerston North. Passengers could also connect with the northbound Napier Express in Woodville. [Churchman and Hurst, "The Railways of New Zealand", pg. 141, and Mahoney, "Kings of the Iron Road", pg. 81.]

The Wairarapa Mail was hauled by a diverse range of motive power. Until World War II, WW class steam locomotives were typical motive power between Wellington and Summit at the western end of the Rimutaka Incline, while H class Fell engines handled the train over the Incline, and from Cross Creek at the eastern end through to Woodville, A class locomotives were normal. Passenger carriages were often older wooden mainline carriages displaced from premier services by new rolling stock; some of these carriages were gas-lit into the 1930s and even later. [Mahoney, "Kings of the Iron Road", pg. 81.]

Dramatic changes took place in the later half of the 1930s. In 1936, railcars of the RM class Wairarapa type were introduced on the Wellington to Woodville route, and their ability to run over the Rimutaka Incline at speed allowed a quicker timetable. [Churchman and Hurst, "The Railways of New Zealand", pg. 161.] The railcars became quite popular, but the Mail continued to run daily, and in 1937, the Wellington Railway Station was opened, replacing the Thorndon and Lambton Quay termini and allowing the Mail to operate from the same station as the other mainline expresses. The timetable in 1939 allowed for a 7:50am departure from Wellington for the northbound service, reaching Masterton at 11:17am and Woodville at 1:22pm before progressing on as part of a mixed train to Palmerston North, arriving at 2:53pm. The southbound service left Woodville at 12:13pm after the arrival of a mixed that had left Palmerston North at 11:04am, and it passed through Masterton at 1:59pm before terminating in Wellington at 5:44pm. Allowances were made for refreshment stops in Masterton and Woodville as the Mail was never fitted with dining cars. [Mahoney, "Kings of the Iron Road", pg. 86.]


The Wairarapa Mail's demise was primarily due to the introduction of the railcars, and would have likely come about sooner were it not for the traffic boom associated with World War II. [Mahoney, "Kings of the Iron Road", pg. 83.] After the war, AB class locomotives were introduced in both the Hutt Valley and Wairarapa [Mahoney, "Kings of the Iron Road", pg. 81.] and this somewhat modernised the train, but coal shortages in 1944 had led to the service's reduction to running thrice weekly. [Mahoney, "Kings of the Iron Road", pg. 83.] From this point, the railcars came to be dominant and they fully replaced the Mail in 1948. [Churchman and Hurst, "The Railways of New Zealand", pg. 161.]

After the Wairarapa Mail

Despite the Mail's demise, carriage trains were sometimes operated to cater for demand at holiday times [Mahoney, "Kings of the Iron Road", pg. 85.] as the railcars were incapable of running in multiple and there were only five of them. In 1955, the Rimutaka Tunnel was opened, eliminating the Incline, and by December 1963, passenger demand exceeded the capacity of the 88 seater railcars that had taken over from the Wairarapa railcars. Accordingly, a permanent carriage train was re-introduced to the Wairarapa; this service was the forerunner to the still-operational Wairarapa Connection. [Churchman and Hurst, "The Railways of New Zealand", pg. 161.]


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