Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Otago Central Railway – 1 : Intro

Much of the article was originally written some ten years ago and is largely unaltered and has not been revised or rechecked, although some photos are of very recent origin.

Brief History

The Otago Central Railway was one of the longest and most fascinating inland branch lines in New Zealand. When completed in 1921, 236 km of track had been constructed in 42 years, an average of only 5.6 km per year. Within that length were 97 bridges and 13 tunnels, also five major summits, the highest at 618 metres above sea level being 590 metres above the lowest point near the junction. The traverse of the Taieri Gorge in the first 45 km of the line alone required 19 bridges and 10 tunnels.

As the line never served any major settlements, its largest centres being the towns of Middlemarch, Ranfurly and Alexandra, its future fell into doubt in the middle years of the 20th century. However like some other branches the line got a late term reprieve for a major construction project, in this case the Clyde hydro-electric dam, which began in the late 1970s. This saw the section from Clyde to Cromwell closed with a new terminus at Clyde geared around the requirements of the dam project.

From its inception in 1978, the Otago Excursion Train Trust, of Dunedin, ran regular excursions on the line, particularly in the Taieri Gorge, and the Blossom Festival trips to Alexandra became a regular annual feature. From 1987 the OETT began the operation of a daily passenger excursion to Pukerangi, the Taieri Gorge Limited, using its own newly constructed passenger cars with the regular OETT carriage stock.

When it was announced that the line was to close from May 1990, the OETT ran a number of special excursions over the line in its last 12 months. These included a "Photographers Special" to Clyde in September 1989, and the April 1990 special with the Diesel Traction Group's DG 772, also to Clyde. Following the closure, the OETT and Dunedin City Council formed a joint venture, the Taieri Gorge Railway Ltd, to buy the track to Middlemarch. Track on the rest of the line was removed over the next couple of years and this section has become the Otago Central Rail Trail.

Features of the Line

The OCR formerly began at Wingatui. The first 4 km of this line remains part of the national rail network and is operated by Toll Rail Ltd as the Taieri Branch to serve local industry. The present day Taieri Gorge Railway begins at the 4 km peg and almost immediately begins a climb to Salisbury (145 metres altitude) at the entrance of the Taieri Gorge passing through the 437 metre Salisbury Tunnel. The exit of the Taieri Gorge is reached at Pukerangi, 45 km from Wingatui, after passing through 10 tunnels (total length 1491 metres) and crossing 19 major bridges (total length 1020 metres). Shortly after Pukerangi the line reaches a summit at 254 metres altitude, the railway then runs across the Taieri Plains to its terminus at Middlemarch, 64 km from Wingatui, passing over a further two major bridges including the Sutton Stream road/rail bridge.

The Otago Central Rail Trail begins at a level crossing just north of Middlemarch. This trail has been developed as a walking / cycling / riding trail on the old formation and is a major tourist attraction in the area. The line from this point gently climbs to Hyde, shortly thereafter reaching the summit at 353 metres and continues through undulating country to reach the major township of Ranfurly. Thereafter a long climb to the highest point on the line, 4 km beyond Wedderburn, is commenced, this being where the line crosses the Rough Ridge mountain range at an altitude of 618 metres. In this section, the line makes 15 major river crossings and passes through one tunnel of 151 metres length.

From the Wedderburn summit the line drops into the Ida Valley and Poolburn Gorge passing through some rugged country, making several major river crossings and passing through two more tunnels totalling 430 metres in length. After Omakau the line climbs slightly to its last summit at 341 metres and then traverses the Tiger Hill, a major descent lasting 12 km, dropping to 160 metres at Galloway. It then passes through easy country to the major township of Alexandra, and thence to Clyde. The line on entering Clyde formerly crossed the main highway to enter the township, whereas from 1980 it was deviated to a new terminus on the outskirts. From Clyde to Cromwell, the railway ran alongside the main road in the Cromwell Gorge. This section was noted for its "sawtooth" gradient profile with many steep but short climbs and descents of up to 1 in 33. This section was the first part of the line to be closed, in 1980, when it was decided to construct the Clyde Dam, as the formation was inundated when the dam filled.


There is only a selection of photos on this blog and for the full range of photos (almost 400 at last count) you should view my Picasa web album for this line.

All of the photos were taken on four occasions that I have visited the line. Twice I was able to travel the full distance to Clyde, the first occasion being an NZRLS Convention excursion as part of their visit to Queenstown over Labour Weekend, October 1987. The NZRLS party left the train at Clyde on the Saturday and returned the following Monday; while the train was in Clyde, a local excursion was run for the public of the area. The NZRLS convention also featured a special overnight passenger train from Christchurch to Dunedin and the use of a DE class locomotive from Dunedin to Wingatui.

The second time I travelled to Clyde was with a party of 16 members and associates of the Ferrymead Railway in Christchurch. We block-booked a group of seats in the OETT's September 1989 "Photographers Special" excursion, which made the maximum use of daylight and a train limited in size to only 200 passengers in order to get as many photostops as possible. This train was a day excursion to Clyde, returning mostly in darkness to Dunedin.

There are also some photos shown of a trip to Middlemarch on the Taieri Gorge Railway in their 1995/96 passenger season. By this time the development of the Otago Central Rail Trail was well underway; it has since fully opened.

The most recent group of photos were taken when I travelled on the Taieri Gorge Limited again in 2009. Some photos just a year or two earlier than this were taken by my parents on their holiday on the Rail Trail. I have not myself travelled beyond Middlemarch since 1989.