Walkers and a cyclist check out the
Rimutaka Rail Trail interpretation
A rail route established in 1878 between the Hutt Valley and Featherston carried passengers up the steep incline from the Rimutaka summit to Featherston until the opening of the Rimutaka rail tunnel in 1955. The innovative Fell mountain railway system pulled trains up the steep slope of the Rimutaka Incline.
The rail trail is a gently graded 18 km walk or mountain bike ride. This makes it an ideal trip for families with children. The trail is also popular with dog walkers.
Interpretation panels telling the colourful stories associated with the former rail line have been installed along the trail which also features restored railway bridges and historic tunnels (take a torch).
There are plenty of photo opportunities along the trail, and a viewing platform located between the Summit and Siberia Tunnels offers a panoramic view of the old Fell engine route coming up from Cross Creek to the Summit.
Enjoy swimming and fishing in the nearby Pakuratahi River and picnic or camp in the pleasant surrounds of Ladle Bend and Summit.
DOC and the Wellington Regional Council now jointly manage the incline as the Rimutaka Rail Trail. DOC manages the Incline section from the Summit to Cross Creek carpark in the Rimutaka Forest Park, and Greater Wellington Regional Council manages the section from Kaitoke to the Summit in the Pakuratahi Forest.
Facilities and services
Greater Wellington Regional Council offers camping at Ladle Bend and the Summit along the Rimutaka Rail Trail. The camping area at Ladle Bend lies below the Rail Trail near the Pakuratahi River. Do not camp under the pine trees to the left of the Rail Trail (just before the bridge) as these trees were severely damaged in the 2004 storms. There is a pit toilet at Ladle Bend and flush toilets at the Summit.
You can find a basic campsite with a pit toilet at Cross Creek.
Turn off SH 2, 9 km north of Upper Hutt, the turn off is signposted to Pakuratahi Forest. The carpark is 1 km along a metal road.
You can also access the trail from Cross Creek in the Rimutaka Forest Park, about an hour and 15 minutes drive from Wellington across the Rimutaka Hill Road. Turn onto Moore St, Featherston, continue into Western Lake Rd, and turn right onto Cross Creek Road.
History and culture
A Fell engine makes its way up the Rimutaka Incline
For 77 years specially built Fell engines climbed the Rimutaka Incline connecting Wellington and the Wairarapa.
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.
A Fell engine climbs the Rimutaka Incline in 1955
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.
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.
Diagram of the centre rail
"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.
Know before you go
Light fires only in the fireplaces in the designated camping sites. In times of high risk, there is a total ban on all fires. You are welcome to bring your portable gas stove.
Please take your rubbish home and recycle where possible.