Historic Rimutaka Incline

A Fell engine climbs the Rimutaka Incline in 1955. Photo, Derek Cross/ New Zealand Rail and Locomotive Society Archives.
A Fell engine climbs the Rimutaka
Incline in 1955

The Rimutaka Railway was built as part of an ambitious 1871 Government policy to construct a national railway network to attract immigrants and to help improve New Zealand’s economic base. The aim was to link agricultural hinterlands with major ports like Wellington.

Building this railway across the rugged Rimutaka Ranges threw up a technological challenge much greater than found anywhere else in New Zealand. A tunnel was the preferred option but could not be afforded. So the 'temporary' solution was a steep mountain railway.

In the 1870s mountain railways were experimental. In 1863, the English engineer John Fell had patented the first drive friction system, and it had worked on Mt Cenis in the European Alps. New Zealand chose Fell's system to traverse the 4.8km Rimutaka Incline. This  was an extremely innovative and bold engineering solution. It involved a centre rail - elevated above the running rail - gripped by a series of horizontal wheels fitted to the specially designed engines, and brake vans which took trains up and down the incline.

A diagram of the centre rail. DOC copyright.
Diagram of the centre rail

The Rimutaka Incline was the third and last Fell system to be built. Railway technology continued to evolve swiftly, and within a few decades the innovative Fell system became old technology. Little updating was done on this 'temporary solution’, because a replacement tunnel would be built. Two world wars and a depression delayed this until 1955.

The railway captured the attention of the community as a scenic mountain journey ... until sparks from the locomotives caused fires and burnt off all the bush. In the meanwhile traffic steadily grew and the incline operation, once a marvel, became a slow and expensive bottleneck.

"The Rimutaka Incline was an interesting experience for travellers, and before the hills were denuded of forest, the trip provided a picturesque and awe-inspiring experience. It is now a dull and wearisome journey." Evening Post, 9 May 1936

Today, the incline is regarded as a special part of New Zealand's historic heritage and one of the 10 most significant railway heritage sites in the world. It has made its mark in the following ways.-

  • It is technically remarkable how maintenance staff kept the original 1877 equipment operating reliably at full power for 77 years.
  • For the Wairarapa community, the aged equipment became a cultural legend, with many personal experiences of the journey recorded and published. A children's story was even written about it -  Freddy the Fell Engine, by Peter Walsh.
  • For railway staff and their families, Cross Creek became New Zealand’s most legendary 'railway settlement'. The closure of the incline on 29 October 1955 attracted large crowds and national media coverage.

The incline now forms part of the Rimutaka Rail Trail, which in 2002 was registered as a historic site. DOC manages the Incline section, in the Rimutaka Forest Park, and Greater Wellington Regional Council manages the section from Summit to Kaitoke, in the Pakuratahi Forest.

Facilities in the area are being enhanced to cater for more than 30,000 annual visitors. The South Wairarapa Rotary Club donated $9000 towards the installation of a toilet at the re-gravelled Cross Creek car park and has built a viewing area overlooking the incline. The club has had a long involvement with preserving the history of the incline and providing recreational facilities such as toilets and car park landscaping.

The colourful history of the world famous Rimutaka Incline, its Fell engines and associated communities has now been told in 28 interpretation panels installed along the rail trail by DOC and Greater Wellington Regional Council.

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