Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 40, September 1996

By J A T Terry

By January 1905 rails and sleepers were being laid down in the Karangahake tunnel. At the northern (Paeroa) end, entrance to it was by way of a two tiered combined road and rail bridge, the rails being laid on the top tier. At the southern (Waihi) end, the tunnel mouth abutted on to the Main Paeroa - Waihi road. Although the line would not open until 9 November 1905 work trains were continually in use and the danger to those using the road crossing at the southern end was early recognised.

When Premier Seddon was at Waihi in March 1905 among subjects discussed by a deputation was the need for a flagman at the southern end of the tunnel to alert road users and thus avoid an accident. The Premier agreed to look into the matter. (Ohinemuri Gazette 18/3/05) The Ohinemuri Council had also been busy having asked the Public Works Department for a flagman. The reply the Council received from the P.W.D. Under Secretary stated that there was no necessity for one as the train was travelling slowly owing to the up grade and could be stopped in time to prevent an accident. In its request the Council had presumably mentioned narrow escapes but the Under Secretary stated his enquiries revealed no such incidents. The Council resolved to try again and point out the information of the Department was incorrect. (Gazette 7/4/05)

In a letter to the Editor of the Gazette (12/5/05) a correspondent wrote: "In travelling to Waihi from Paeroa the traveller meets with a real death trap - nothing more nothing less. I would like to know what the Government means by exposing the lives of our waggoners and carters and in fact the general public to this danger. Are our waggoners, carters and many other lives of no value to the Government. Let any other person take a view of the railway tunnel butting right on the public road with no gate, no caretaker and no signal to give notice of the oncoming danger. I demand in the name of humanity an answer".

Looking at the south end of the tunnel

Looking at the south end of the tunnel. Note how the railway line abuts on to the main Paeroa - Waihi road. (A.J.H.R. D 1 1905)

Karangahake Tunnel - Early Problems
Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 40, September 1996
Looking at the south end of the tunnel

The N.Z. Herald of 21/7/05 quoted a letter from the P.W.D. engineer but it did not indicate to whom the letter was addressed. The most important point was that the Engineer was aware of the danger and explained precautions his train crew took - to go slow there so as to have the train in hand and to whistle when in the tunnel. He could not find any cases of narrow escapes and if coach drivers and others took care he did not think there would be an accident. He gave the assuring statement that before opening the line for passenger traffic some permanent arrangement would probably be made.

The permanent arrangement was to be a road over the tunnel for the P.W.D. Plan Register (1) shows that on 24/7/05 plan number 21522 was prepared for a road crossing at the southern end of the tunnel. I have not been able to locate a copy of the plan. The Waihi reporter for the NZ Herald (30/8/05) stated work had commenced on a road over the top of the tunnel pointing out it was likely to take some time as the road had to be cut out of solid rock and was estimated to cost over £1000. However, looking at the road today it would seem that the tunnel was extended and the road taken over the extension rather than cutting into the rock.

The Ohinemuri County Council discussed the road at its September meeting (Gazette 8/9/05). With a grade of 1:15 on each side it was to be 14 feet wide. Although one councillor was of the opinion that a flagman would be better, the County Engineer considered the road would be far safer for the general public. Council agreed but thought the road should be 16 feet wide and fenced.

From a safety point of view one would have thought that with the road over the tunnel in place all would have been well at the southern end. At the August 1906 Council meeting it was agreed to ask the Railway Department to place auto alarm devices at both ends of the tunnel, as if something were not done there would be a serious accident. (Gazette 17/8/1906) In the same issue, Onlooker, in his column pointed out the danger at the northern end stating that recently when a train passed overhead the driver of a vehicle on the traffic portion of the bridge had a narrow escape from serious injury owing to the animal bolting. He agreed with the suggestion of Council that there should be alarms at both ends.

A Waihi bound train has just emerged from the south end of the tunnel

A Waihi bound train has just emerged from the south end of the tunnel. At the right the new road running over the extended portion of the tunnel. (Auckland Weekly News, 20/9/1906)

Karangahake Tunnel - Early Problems
Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 40, September 1996
A Waihi bound train has just emerged from the south end of the tunnel

The Railway reply to Council was not encouraging. (Gazette 2/11/1906) It stated that auto bells were always liable to get out of order and in the event of that taking place the feeling of security induced by non ringing would mean a greater danger than the want of bells. Provided the public used care, which was their duty and in their interest to do when crossing railway lines, it was not anticipated there would be any risk of an accident. Comments from Council members, "They want people to get on the line and see if a train is coming" and "Oh we will have to wait until some one is killed I suppose" reflected the opinion of Council. The letter was received.

The subject does not seem to have been raised again until 1908. In February when Premier Ward visited Karangahake, a deputation waited on him to press the need for an auto signal at the north end pointing out that two accidents had already been caused through a train coming out of the tunnel and frightening horses. (N.Z. Herald 13/2/1908) The Premier promised to raise the matter with the Minister for Railways. In March the local M.P. wrote to the Minister on the danger at the north end of an engine and train suddenly appearing at the tunnel entrance. If a reply was received it was not mentioned in the local paper. The M.P. was persistent and raised the subject in Parliament (Hansard 8/7/1908). The Minister repeated previous remarks that signals were not required. He also stated that if the local authority considered drivers of vehicles on its roads were not sufficiently careful and was prepared to provide the necessary funds for a crossing keeper's wages, the question of appointing a crossing keeper would be further considered.

A train hauled by a "Wd" class locomotive is crossing the combined road and rail bridge. Note the road on the bottom portion of the bridge. The train is travelling to Waihi. (From a postcard N.W. Series.)

Karangahake Tunnel - Early Problems
Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 40, September 1996
"Wd" class locomotive is crossing the combined road and rail bridge

Undeterred the M.P. tried again, this time in a question to the Minister. (Hansard 2/9/1908) He asked whether anything short of a fatal accident would induce him to provide a warning device. The N.Z. Herald of 20/8/1908 had reported a young man on horseback received a cut on the head and was badly bruised as his horsed shied and leaped into the river. The Minister repeated all the points that had been made earlier but added the appointment of a crossing keeper was not required for railway purposes and could only be made at the expense of the local authority.

It is evident from the reply, and those previously, that the local M.P. and the local authority had failed to stress the point that no level crossing was involved at the northern end but the problem was the sudden appearance of a train emerging from the tunnel onto the top tier of the bridge which was directly above the road.

In November the Council again asked for an auto signal but without success. Despite the knockback Council wrote again (Gazette 4/12/1908), with the same result. The General Manager, Railways wrote to the Council (Gazette 2/7/1909) repeating previous statements and went to great pains to stress the precautions required at level crossings. By now Council must have realised its letters had failed to make clear that no level crossing was involved and it was agreed that this fact be pointed out and that the auto signal was to let people know to get off the bridge with vehicles when a train was coming.

This seemed to be the end of the matter for I could find no further press reports on the subject. The locals never did get their warning device. I have stood on the roadway under the line and though I knew a train was approaching it was still an experience and I could well imagine that the sudden noise overhead would have made horses take fright.

But danger to road users was not the only cause for complaint. Train Passengers were also concerned.

Trains travelling to Waihi through the 1190 yard tunnel faced a 1:50 up grade. The locomotives in use were of the small tank variety, classes "F", and "L".

The first recorded incident I could find of a train having difficulty in the tunnel was in the N.Z. Herald of 24/11/1906 in which it reported on a mishap to the 4pm train from Paeroa on 23 November. On the train were number of passengers and a large consignment of coal for the Waihi Gold Mining Coy. The train was drawn by two engines. Generally it took between 5-7 minutes to traverse the tunnel but after 10 minutes and with less than one half of the tunnel distance covered the train came to a stop and reversed at high speed to the Karangahake station. It was found that the driver of one engine and the fireman of the other engine were missing. Both men had apparently fallen off having been overcome with smoke. The Gazette (26/11/1906) reported that the driver and fireman remaining on the engines had been partly suffocated. A search of the tunnel was slow due to the dense smoke but both men were eventually found beside the track. They were not seriously injured and after being carried out and given stimulants they recovered and resumed their place on their respective engines. A number of coal trucks were removed and another attempt made. This also proved futile and the train once more returned to Karangahake and more trucks taken off. The third attempt was successful, the train arriving at Waihi nearly two hours late.

The incident prompted 670 residents of Waihi to petition the Minister for Railways as to ventilation of the tunnel, pointing out that with the Christmas traffic likely to be heavy, a great number of human lives would be at stake. It was also pointed out that on opening the line the Premier, Mr Seddon, mentioned that ventilation and lighting of the tunnel were of extreme importance and would be carried out at once but nothing had been done. The large engine recently put on also seemed unable to negotiate the tunnel. (Gazette 7/12/1906) Petitions were also to be sent from Karangahake and Waikino residents.

On 1/2/1907 another incident occurred. (N.Z. Herald 2/2/1907) A mixed train tried for half an hour to get through and after much backing and jerking forward had to return to Karangahake. Two trucks of coal were removed and another attempt made with no better success, the paper reporting the passengers having to submit to another 20 minutes imprisonment in the tunnel. The train was backed out again and on the third attempt was successful. The reporter considered that the Department would have to insist on lighter loads being drawn otherwise a serious catastrophe would occur.

The local M.P. approached the Minister who said he was dealing with it. (N.Z. Herald 7/2/1907) In its next issue a correspondent to the Herald signing himself "Traveller" probably reflected the views of most travellers on the Paeroa - Waihi trains when he criticised the Railway department for tacking on great truck loads of coal to a passenger train. While some, he said, called it an express train he suggested they should call it "expressly for the Waihi and Waikino Mining Coy." and by the look of things he considered they were running trains for the convenience of the Company.

The "passenger trains" on the line were in fact "mixed trains" i.e. a train with goods wagons and passenger cars. They were classed as "mixed" in the Working Timetable. (2)

Things seemed to run smoothly until July 1907 when the N.Z. Herald of 27th reported that on the previous day the 10.50am train from Paeroa came to a standstill twice in the tunnel, an unpleasant experience for the passengers. The Herald suggested the Department should provide more powerful engines or reduce the loading to the capacity of the engine.

Again the local M.P. was to the fore, raising the matter in Parliament. (Hansard 7/8/1907) The Acting Minister for Railways disagreed with the newspaper report. He said that no train had become stuck in the tunnel since 1 May, the alterations then made having overcome the difficulty previously experienced by trains negotiating the tunnel. On 31 May he said the engine of a goods train slipped, slowing the train down, and this also happened to the passenger train on 26 July. In neither case did the train come to a standstill. For some time the service had been worked by a class "W" engine which was one of the most powerful types in use on the N.Z. Railways. With a view to obviating any possible chance of difficulty in the future a service siding on the Waihi side of the tunnel would be laid down. Trainmen would thus be able to reduce the load at any time they were of the opinion the condition of the rails in the tunnel would affect the tractive power of the engine and render it likely to slip.

Little time appears to have been lost in laying the service siding for it was mentioned in the Working Timetable of 1/9/1907. It had standing room for 13 wagons. The class "W" engine referred to was a "Wd" class, one of a batch of eighteen built in 1901 by the Baldwin Locomotive Coy of Philadelphia, USA and brought into service in 1902. In pulling power they were equal to the "Wf" class engines built by the Thames firm of A & G Price. It was an engine of the "Wd" class mentioned in the Gazette report of 7/12/1906.

As the incidents on 31 May and 26 July resulted only in the engine slipping and as I could find no further reference to trains stalling in the tunnel the statement by the Minister that there had been none since 1 May would seem to be correct.

The alterations made after 1 May were presumably those included in the Working Timetable of 1/9/1907 which carried this instruction:

Trains between Karangahake and Waikino.

When weather conditions are unfavourable or the rail in a greasy state the loads for "L" and "F 160lb" engines on passenger trains from Karangahake to Waikino should not exceed 65 and 80 tons respectively.

The load of trains running from Paeroa to Waikino is to be arranged by the Stationmaster, Paeroa, after consulting engineman of the train, to suit existing conditions at the time.

Stationmaster, Paeroa, will ascertain from enginemen on their arrival from Waikino the state of the rail etc., and the loads the respective engines are capable of taking arranging loads accordingly.

Engines assisting trains from Karangahake to Waikino must be placed in the rear of assisted train.

To what extent the service siding was used for mixed trains I have not been able to ascertain but I think it would have been minimal, if at all. If considered necessary, down goods trains were authorised to make two trips between Karangahake and the siding. As each portion of a divided train required a brake van it would have involved time lost in shunting operations at both Karangahake and the siding. In my opinion the precautions taken at Paeroa by the Stationmaster after consultation with the engineman of the train as to the condition of the rail etc., would have avoided the necessity of dividing a mixed train at Karangahake.

The Paeroa arrangement was to remain in force until 1915 when for the first time the Working Timetable (1/12/1915) laid down the maximum load for each class of engine using the Paeroa - Waihi line. The instruction on the assisting engine being in the rear of the train remained until steam engines were withdrawn in 1967.


(1) Public Works Department Plan Registers Series W 18, National Archives Wellington. (W 18/7 Micro T 2685)

(2) Working Timetable. A private document "for the Guidance and Exclusive use of Members of the Department". As well as having all arrival and departure times of trains at stations it contained instructions on running trains, accommodation at stations, etc.