A Little Blog about the Overlander


This is just a little blog wrapped around a few snaps I took on the Wellington-Auckland Overlander on August 22nd, 2006. It was due to stop running at the end of September** - which would leave Auckland and Wellington without any long-distance trains. How third-world is that? So anyway, I booked a return trip to Wellington quick, before all the remaining days were booked out.

**The good news - it's been reprieved - at least for a couple of years. As of 2008, it's still running.

The train down on Monday was five coaches and a van - one more than usual - hauled by DC4191. The Overlander's usual 'viewing platform' (actually just a luggage van with a corridor connection from the leading coach to the van's open rear platform) was out of service, the train manager did her best to compensate by being present and thus allowing passengers onto the rear platform of the ordinary luggage van, at points of interest along the route.[4]
I was expecting the DC to change to a DX or a Class 30 electric at Hamilton but the DC stayed on all the way to Wellington - adequate power, if not very exciting.[1]

The DC at National Park and the DX at Waiouru next day -
twice the power

Still, the DC did its best up the 1 in 50 of the Raurimu Spiral, especially when heard from the open van platform - working absolutely flat out it managed to produce a quite respectable amount of noise. My camera batteries chose that moment to go flat so I just listened to the noise instead - I've never heard any of the Auckland suburban DC's make a noise like it.

The trip down wasn't very memorable, photographically - it rained much of the way, and from Waiuouru down to Taihape the skies were so dark any photos just reflected the train. After Taihape the weather cleared a little and the camera-waving nuts among us were invited back out onto the platform as we went over the high Rangitikei viaducts. These are very dramatic and surprising - the Rangitikei valley has a wide flat floor, maybe a mile wide, into which the river has carved a sheer-sided gorge 250 feet deep and not much wider. So the train will be running fast across the fields in the dead flat floor of a wide valley when all of sudden it's in mid-air with an enormous drop below - it always catches strangers by surprise. Anyway, on this occasion, my spare set of batteries chose the exact moment of crossing the first viaduct to go flat. Oh the frustration.

The trip back was more eventful. At Palmerston North they took the DC - 4191 again - off and put a DX on, which was very strange - double the power, for just three coaches and a van. [2] [3].

I heard someone asking the train manager about taking photos and she said that she'd open the van platform just for the Rangitikei viaducts only. But she came past before the Makohine Viaduct (which is way before the main viaducts), so I tagged along. This time my camera worked and I had spare batteries and spare XD cards in my pocket, I wasn't going to get caught short again. Running up the wide flat valley, I could see snow on the hilltops each side and in the distance ahead of the train and guessed there might be snow on the ground at Waiouru.
I got some fair shots crossing the lower Rangitikei bridge, a minor tributary stream was cascading down the cliffs in a respectable 250-foot waterfall.

Heading up the Rangitikei valley
with snow on the hills ahead
250 feet above the Rangitikei gorge ... and re-crossing the Rangitikei

After the last viaduct, the train manager said she supposed we'd all want to go back in the warm carriages now, unless some of us wanted to stay out in the cold until Taihape - which we hurriedly assured her we did. So she stayed out too.

Then just before Taihape the snowline crept down to the fields around the train and going through Taihape it started snowing. Everyone got excited, like a bunch of kids. Above Taihape there was thick snow, totally unlike the miserable soaking rain of yesterday, and we all stood out there on the van back platform for the next hour up to Waiouru, at around 40mph up the winding track through a heavy snowstorm, with snow building up on the carriage end, everything around covered in white - first snowstorm I've been in ever, I think (other than a couple of times up Mt Ruapehu). Really magic.

Not yet at Taihape, but there's
snow in the fields
Through Taihape yard and we're
running into a snowstorm
Up above Mataroa and we're in thick snow
Standing on the sheltered end
platform of the van...
... cruising gently through the snowstorm at 40mph in relative comfort... ... with the snow building up on
the carriage end behind -
it's magic!

State Highway 1 when we ran alongside it was deserted except for a couple of trucks trying to spread grit in a futile attempt to keep it open. I used up the flash card in my camera, stuck in a spare card, changed batteries and carried on clicking (thank the gods for digital!). I couldn't see what I was taking - just a white blur in the viewfinder - but a surprising number - better than half - actually came out reasonably well. Well done Fuji.

State Highway 1 is very definitely Closed Coming up onto the plateau nearing Waiouru
Cabbage trees are usually thought of
as a semi-tropical plant

Up at Waiouru, the snow had eased a bit, the train stopped to give the passengers who had been watching the snow from the comfort of their carriages (and us cold but ecstatic idiots from the van) a chance to walk around in it. I took some photos of the DX with the front plastered in snow. The train crew threw snowballs at each other. My hands were too cold to touch the stuff.

A stop at Waiouru for the
passengers to walk in the snow

Out of Ohakune, where we stopped for passengers, there's a good climb northbound without any significant bends, I was hoping it would be enough to get the driver to open up the DX up the hill, and he did. It really does sound much sharper than a DC. It has a very uneven exhaust note, with a sort of flat rasp to it - a great noise to listen to as it opens up in steps and the speed builds up.

The snow persisted in varying amounts till National Park and down the Spiral to Raurimu, where it stopped - amazing what a difference a few hundred feet in elevation can make. All the roads in central North Island were closed, apparently.

And an hour after that, running along the valley north of Taumarunui, I was out on the van platform again, this time in quite warm sunshine.

The same afternoon ... the little
waterfall at the head of
the Kopaki valley, in the sun

Changed back to another DC at Hamilton (because Hamilton wanted the DX), and we arrived in Auckland 20 minutes late. That was due to crossing a couple of freight trains, and not at all to the snow.

So, it was altogether a memorable day.

[1] The DC's originated as the DA class of 1425HP in 1955. In the 1980's they were uprated to 1650HP and given new more modern low-nosed cabs which in my view vastly improved their looks.

[2] The DX's were GE U26C's of 2750HP, now all uprated to 3000HP - a vastly more impressive machine than the DC's. It's 12 feet longer, for a start. It looks the part.

[3] The reason for the curious imbalance in motive power was explained to me later - usually the Overlander is hauled by a Class 30 electric between Hamilton and Palmerston North, and a diesel at each end of the trip. However Mondays are line maintenance day so the DC hauled the train right through. And on the Tuesday, we would have had a Class 30 electric from Palmerston North but there was a DX that wanted to go to Hamilton so we got that instead.

[4] The South Island trains - the Tranz Coastal and Tranz Alpine - have much bigger, dedicated open viewing platforms.

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