The magnificent sheltered harbour at the southern tip of the North Island was always an obvious site for settlement in New Zealand’s early colonial days. The main barrier to development was access from the east – a crossing of the Main Divide had to be made. The first road over the Rimutakas was constructed in 1856, but it became increasingly apparent a rail link was necessary to open the area up for goods transportation and ease of travel. The railroad was constructed with many engineering feats, but fell out of used in the 1955.
Now in the process of being reclaimed by the forest, the cuttings, 2 bridges, 4 tunnels and embankments are still intact and form an interesting walk, which casts the imagination effortlessly back to the days when the track was a working railway.
The start of the track is well signposted off SH2 on the western side of the Rimutakas. There is a larger parking area after 1.5 km at the roadend.
Cross Creek is reached 10 km south of Featherston along Western Lake Road. Turn left and head 1 km up unsealed Cross Creek Road to the parking area and information board.
Realistically this track can only be attempted in one direction in a day. It is best to arrange transport at both ends with members of your party, or attempt a walk to the summit from both directions on separate days. Plenty of farm traffic uses Western Lakes Road if you prefer to hitchhike back.
The track is also popular with mountain bikers. Watch for each other, especially in the dark tunnels.
This description applies from Kaitoke to Cross Creek.
The track from Kaitoke to the summit follows a metalled forestry road and is on a gentle gradient. For the first hour, the track follows the meandering Pakuratahi River through pine plantations and a pastured valley floor. Just before the Pakuratahi Tunnel, a footbridge over a sidestream has been constructed using the original concrete abutments of the former railway bridge. Decaying sleepers and an imported length of rail add to the nostalgia.
The 90-metre-long Pakuratahi Tunnel was constructed in 1876. The straight side walls are made of poured concrete and the arched upper section of 13,500 compressed sand and cement blocks, fabricated in situ.
Exiting the tunnel on the left is a concrete ventilation shaft connected to the present-day 8.8 km Rimutaka Railway Tunnel directly beneath.
After 20 minutes, cross the 24-metre long timber trestle bridge constructed in 1875 on some serious footings. The huge wooden members of the bridge construction are now coated in orange mould.
Continue to Ladle Bend Creek Bridge (10 minutes) and pass through the original cuttings and tight bends of the railway’s course. It’s around a 1 hour gentle climb to the summit station (348 metres above sea level).
At the summit, Fell engines were replaced with traditional locomotives. The area consisted of sidings to aid the remarshalling of trains, a turntable (constructed in 1943), a water tank, signal box, ashpit and 5 houses to shelter the families residing in this desolate, inaccessible settlement. A collection of rusting boilers and train parts sit as fading memorials on the track side. The restored shelter displays old photographs of the settlement, fuelling the imagination’s journey to the time when this unlikely place hummed with life at each passing train.
The Summit Tunnel was constructed between 1874 and 1877, with the loss of one worker, killed when the brick lining fell from the roof. It is 576-metres long, so you will need a torch.
Near the exit, a brass bell was mounted on a metal plinth. This was activated whenever a train passed, signalling to the train crews the beginning or end of the central rail of the Incline system. On ascending, the train’s firemen in the ‘Fell’ Engine disengaged the horizontal gripping wheel. On descending, the train’s brake guard would activate the central rail brake shoes. In the tunnel, look also for the rebates in the walls. These were known as ‘refuges’ and used by the track crews to avoid the passing trains. If you illuminate the upper walls or roof, decades of caked soot still encrust the brickwork.
10 minutes later is the 120-metre-long Siberia Tunnel, constructed between 1875-6. This exits in Siberia, so-called because of the conditions experienced in the vicinity. Wind would howl down the gully above the hill to your left and in one instance caused a derailment with the death of three children in a passenger carriage.
The debris from the imposing slips above eventually caused the collapse of the embankments through Horseshoe Gully. This exposed the concrete shaft which was incrementally heightened to divert the stream running through the gully. The embankment acted like a dam for the built up debris and was finally breached in 1967. This section of track is steep and rough, so take care.
The track narrows to a grassy strip, arriving at the 98-metre-long Price’s Tunnel, built in 1875-6 (10 minutes). Look for the old cab on the left, placed as a shelter for track maintenance staff.
It’s around 40 minutes to Cross Creek, with views of the Wairarapa extending between the ridges either side of the valley.
Cross Creek Station (‘The Creek’ as it was shortened to in Kiwi parlance) was in existence solely to service the passing of trains between the Wairarapa and Hutt Valley. Over 100 residents lived in a close-knit community, which boasted a school, social hall, library and tennis court.
Conventional power units were changed to Fell locomotives at Cross Creek, hence the construction of the turntable, engine sheds, sidings and other infrastructure needed to maintain the proper functioning of the engines and Incline.
Another shelter with atmospheric black and white photos depicting the activities of the bustling settlement in its heyday is enough to bring back the images of lost times.
Before descending the track to the carpark, which departs from by the shelter, walk further along the old railway track to the far end. The circular turntable and large concrete slab of the engine shed with inspection pits are still visible, overgrown remnants of the former activity.
From the shelter (toilets nearby), pass the remains of the tennis court on the left. It’s 30 minutes along a narrow grass track to the carpark at the end of Cross Creek Road. You are now in rural Wairarapa – a completely different feel and atmosphere to the departure point in Kaitoke, 17 km away.
In 1853 Sir George Grey purchased 100,000 hectares in the lower Wairarapa. The construction of the Rimutaka Hill Road was still not sufficient to alleviate the isolation, so Grey used his influence in the hunt for possible routes to link Wellington by rail. In 1870, initial surveys by John Rochefort ascertained a feasible route over the range and work started in 1872.
The adventurous project was implemented with a limited budget, and a need to minimise the number of costly engineering structures such as bridges, tunnels and cuttings. The contours of the land formed the preferred route, but necessitated the use of engines capable of ascending a steep gradient.
About that time an Englishman John Barraclough Fell, devised a traction system for European mountain railways. Using a secondary engine under the boiler, the Fell locomotive engaged four wheels, which pincered a raised double headed centre rail, allowing extra traction on the steeper sections. This system was employed in the steepest gradient between Cross Creek and the summit, where up to 5 Fell engines were inserted into the train.
Descending trains were operated by guards, who engaged a set of cast-iron brake blocks which gripped the rail. Such were the forces involved, a set of blocks sometimes lasted only one descent.
The head of steam needed to surmount the hill often caused burning coals to start bush fires. Passengers wore ‘train clothes’ for the trip to avoid spoiling their best garments with soot. The maximum permitted speed uphill was 10 km/h, so many passengers found it faster to walk.
The expense and pedestrian pace of the trip prompted experimentation into other forms of locomotive. In 1936, 49-seater railcars were introduced, powered by grunty 130 horse-power petrol driven ‘Tin Hares’. These cut the Wellington – Masterton journey time from 3½ to 2½ hours. 88-seater articulated railcars from England eventually serviced the run before the new 22 km rail deviation and 8.5 km Rimutaka Railway Tunnel were opened in 1955.
A special excursion to the Carterton Show on 29th October 1955, marked the passing of the Incline. The town of Cross Creek and the collection of dwellings on the summit also became redundant. The lines were pulled up the following year.
In their 77 years of ‘temporary’ service, the 6 Fell engines travelled nearly 5 million km on the 4.8 km stretch of the Rimutaka Incline. They were never superseded by a more advanced locomotive.
North Island ▷ Wellington Region ▷ Hutt Valley
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A bike ride for everyone. It can be leisurely or tough and is definitely suitable for novices. The tunnels are fantastic. Don't forget a torch or better still a head lamp. The hill is a tough climb in the sun and there are plenty of great picnic spots. I loved it!
Thanks to all the good people working for the NZ Department of Conservation - for all your hard work - making NZ more beautiful, accessable and healthy! Cheers 😍