Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 36, September 1992
MEMORIES OF THE PAEROA - WAIHI RAILWAY 1905 - 1983
By BR Thorp 1991
For twenty years I lived on one side of the line then thirty years on the other side, so I was able to observe all the goings on. Some of the following may sound humorous or even bizarre, but I can assure the reader it is all true.
The railway reached Paeroa from Hamilton in 1893. As the population of Waihi was twice that of Hamilton (4000 to 2000) there was great demand for the continuation of the line. Government was reluctant, but the line, including a three quarters of a mile tunnel, was opened in 1905. Paeroa was less than half the size of Waihi in 1912, yet six trips per day were run between the two towns - both passengers and freight. K Class locomotives were originally used, then the heavier J Class, and when the line was extended to Tauranga and Taneatua, the Taneatua express (passengers only) came into being, and ran twice a week from Auckland with a refreshment stop at Paeroa (Taylors Avenue station). While at Paeroa the engine was uncoupled and re-attached at the rear end of the train, so the passengers had a reverse ride for the rest of the journey - unless of course they flipped over their second class seats. An extra engine was kept in Paeroa for the heavier trains which coupled to the rear of the train to push it uphill through the tunnel. Once through, it would shuttle back to Paeroa to wait for the next train. The difference in height above sea level between the two towns was 300 feet over 13 miles - quite a steady gradient. Passengers had to close all windows and doors before entering the tunnel to keep the smoke out, and to prevent asphyxiation should the train stop.
In 1958 a diesel railcar service from Auckland to Tauranga was instituted. This beautiful gliding machine stopped for passengers at a new station at Rotokohu Road. Marshalling yards were also built but the Railways Department refused to offload or onload goods at this station. Extra land for this purpose was purchased off my father totalling around six acres (see map).
Nevertheless these marshalling yards were well used during the night much to the annoyance of nearby residents. Local cabinet makers and repairmen were kept busy repairing furniture and goods damaged in these night time shunting games. The station at Paeroa was still maintained, although Paeroa was largely by-passed by passenger and freight trains for three very good reasons:
1. Saved two miles of running.
2. Saved uncoupling engines at Paeroa for the reverse pull.
3. No hill to climb over the stop banks of the Ohinemuri River.
(The Thames branch line remained open as Thames was the site of locomotive and rolling stock overhaul workshops.)
During the period of the steam loco's it was a regular occurrence for scrub fires to erupt anywhere along the line between Rotokohu and Waikino, with sometimes up to 500 acres set alight. When diesel loco's replaced steam in the 1960's these fires ceased. We always knew who lit the fires and what with but nothing could ever be proved. This gorse and scrub country is now slowly regenerating with native trees.
The life of the railcar was shortlived being taken off around 1968.
But the freight trains, now diesel powered were becoming larger and longer. The Railways department in designing the new stations did not allow for the longer trains which would regularly block Rotokohu Road, at any time of the day or night. The strange thing was the time of the blockages - which were close to half an hour. This was the time taken by train staff for their cup of tea stop at the little Rotokohu station. The diesel locomotive would be parked outside the tearoom - not fifty yards further on - and with the big motors left running, staff were totally oblivious to the frustrated motorists and truckles waiting to get through. Representations to appropriate authorities achieved nothing. We then asked that wagons have reflectors, but that got a negative response. Finally after a hapless golfer returning to town in the evening hit the train, was prosecuted and fined, a street light was erected.
The maintenance and potential maintenance of the line became untenable, so a more direct route was found via the Kaimai tunnel to the now busy port of Tauranga. Finally in 1983 the line was pulled up.
What did these trains carry?
In the early days they served the Waihi goldfields and later Tauranga, then Whakatane and the pulp mill development at Kawerau. So traffic was largely one way - south, with rakes of empty wagons returning. Livestock was carried in special wagons, in particular bobby calves from the Bay of Plenty were railed through the night to the freezing works at Hamilton and Otahuhu. Later newsprint and paper products returned along the same route. On one occasion I came across some very useful cardboard rolls which happened to "fall off" one of the wagons. (A happening which I believe was not infrequent.)
The railway has played a large part in New Zealand's and our district's development and still is the most efficient mover - next to barge traffic - of bulk materials all around the world. In New Zealand we had the handicap of hilly terrain necessitating the use of narrow gauge lines and bogies, together with a low population. Nevertheless the decline of rail in New Zealand was largely due to the misuse of resources resulting from a politically imposed protected monopoly system.
What is ironical about the whole affair is that while the rail greatly assisted early development of Paeroa and Waihi, it actually - because of Government legislation - has hindered further development over the last forty years because we were forbidden to have any road freight service, public or private, to Tauranga or Hamilton despite these cities being much closer than Auckland. The modem day reader may find this unbelievable but if one had been in business in or around Paeroa over that time it was indeed true.
Fortunately for rail fans the rail is still with us and a ride can be enjoyed on the Goldfields Steam Train from Waihi to Waikino, and a walk through the Karangahake tunnel is an experience in itself.