One of the world’s great train trips, the Taieri Gorge Railway passes through a variety of landscapes, tunnels and towering viaducts west of Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island, writes David Bowden
ONE of the world’s great railway journeys departs on most days of the year up through the rugged Taieri River Gorge west of Dunedin on New Zealand’s South Island.
Passengers have two choices with the Dunedin to Pukerangi section being the shorter option to the full trip which operates all the way to Middlemarch on scheduled days.
It has been described as one of the world’s great train trips and appeals because of the variety of landscapes through which the train passes. It passes through suburban Dunedin, lush farming land on the Taieri Plain, through the Maungatua Hills, down Mullocky Gully and then up through the rugged Taieri River Gorge.
Considered an engineering feat, tunnels and towering viaducts were hand-hewed through mostly steep metamorphic rock on the 58km trip to rural Pukerangi and a further two hours or 77km to Middlemarch at the end of the line.
This line once extended beyond Middlemarch all the way to Alexandra and Cromwell in Central Otago but was closed when to build a dam.
A BYGONE ERA
New Zealand Railways operated daily passenger services on this line until the mid-1970s. The original trains were hauled by steam locomotives but these were replaced by a diesel railcar until passenger numbers declined and the service was discontinued.
Had it not been for a trust operated by dedicated train lovers and the Dunedin City Council, the line would have closed.
A Save The Train Appeal was launched to raise NZ$1.2 million (RM3.78 million) to purchase the section of the line from North Taieri to Middlemarch along with five diesel-electric locomotives.
In 1995, Taieri Gorge Railway Limited was formed to operate trains from Dunedin Station. In 2014, it was rebranded Dunedin Railways to reflect the diversity of destinations as it also operates charter trips on the South Island.
RIDING THE RAILS
Thanks to the hard efforts to preserve the railway, visitors to New Zealand’s South Island are able to take this exhilarating ride through some amazing landscapes.
Today, the train of at least six heritage carriages and two modern air-conditioned carriages is hauled by two diesel locomotives.
Windows partially open in the heritage carriages but photography is best done on the open platform in between carriages.
Gradients of 1: 50 are common on the journey (this is steep by railway standards) which means that the locos steadily climbs the gorge which is great as most passengers can photography the journey.
Trains depart from Dunedin Railway Station although it’s also possible to get on and off at Wingatui Station.
Opened in 1906, Dunedin Station, known as the Gingerbread House, is considered to be New Zealand’s most photographed building. It was designed as the jewel in the New Zealand Railways crown in the city that was then the nation’s commercial capital.
Its interior is very ornate with over 725,760 porcelain tiles manufactured by Royal Doulton incorporated into the lobby.
These panels include a small steam engine, New Zealand Railways’ logo and other rail motifs.
For the first 15 minutes, the train heads south down the main trunk line to the junction at Wingatui and the Central Otago branch line.
At Wingatui, the train stops while the locomotive crew manually switch the train onto the branch line which is now owned and operated entirely by the City of Dunedin.
Agricultural activity is evident once out of the urban limits of Dunedin with dairy farms, orchards, horse studs and market gardens dominating. Further along the journey, extensive stands of commercial pine trees cover the hills.
Viaducts are a feature of the railway with the first and biggest structure being the Wingatui Viaduct, New Zealand’s biggest wrought iron structure and with a drop of 50m to the gully below.
The Taieri is New Zealand’s fourth longest river and brown trout can be caught here although river access is difficult.
While tranquil on most occasions, flooding can turn it into a raging torrent with the 1980 flooding seeing 70 times the normal flow of water through the gorge.
At the farming hamlet of Pukerangi, the diesel locomotives are disconnected and relocated to the other end of the train for the return journey.
The name means “hills of heaven” and the countryside here is indeed a special and tranquil rural setting. While deserted now, Pukerangi was once a thriving community with its own school.
Passengers disembark here to watch this process and to admire the rural countryside located at 250m above sea level.
There is little else to do apart from watching the diesel being repositioned or watching cyclists unload their bikes from the luggage car in order to head off on the rail trail that begins at Middlemarch and heads along the former railway line.
The snack bar car is popular on the return journey. Cold beverages include juices, soft drinks, beer, cider and wines with the ever-popular local Emerson’s ales being available including the signature Taieri George spicy ale. This ale is named after George Emerson who was one of those instrumental in saving the railway.
Commentary of the journey by the train manager is provided in English while a complimentary illustrated journey guide is issued free upon ticket purchase.
The complete journey to Middlemarch takes six hours with a one-hour stop there at what is now the end of the line. Middlemarch is the eastern portal for the popular Otago Central Rail Trail for which the Dunedin Railways provides a convenient link.
Adventurous travellers can bike along part of the route on what is known as a rail trail with several outdoor travel companies offering train, cycling and accommodation packages and assistance. It’s not uncommon for the train to transfer cyclists to Pukerangi so they can start or end their rail trail adventure.
Various summer and winter schedules are available to Pukerangi but the Middlemarch extension in only available on selected days. Bookings are highly recommended for this popular journey especially during the warmer months from October to April.