All aboard, Don Aimer

Trainland: How Railways Made New Zealand
Neill Atkinson
Random House, $39.99,
ISBN 9781869419059

I’ve always loved trains. A job in Timaru once in the days of steam had me driving regularly to Oamaru. North of the Waitaki River the main line to Dunedin runs alongside the road for about 10 straight kilo-meters. I would catch up with the southbound express and drive alongside behind the pistons, in an ecstasy of contentment.

I’d like to think this was just the normal fascination with power in motion, which Len Lye documented. We gaze fascinated not only at great wheels turning, pumps oscillating, but at galloping horses, swooping hawks. The other thing which we all love about trains is that they take us somewhere else. Bruce Chatwin reckoned that humans are hard-wired to wander, contented while we roam, but restless when we settle. Maybe that is different from the love of the kinetic, but both seem to come into play when we think of trains.

On the train we are in a separate world made vivid and etched in memory by our excitement. Trainland quotes Robin Hyde: “For a few hours we are … citizens of Trainland, lost in a warm lamp-lit limbo … warmth, change, comfort, the possibilities of adventure.” This encapsulates the theme of the book, the nature of our experience of train travel in New Zealand.

I cheered when Richard Prebble said that he would “save rail”, but was downhearted when he saved it within an inch of its life while some of his fellow saviours invested the proceeds in Swiss castles. Except as a fringe activity, it seems to be pretty much over for Trainland in New Zealand. For those of us old enough to live with our own Trainland, the book acts like a music box – open it and it plays memories. It is full of eye-catching photographs of trains, and of people in the ticket line, at the railway bookstall, in the station dining room, on the platform, and there are some of engines smoking in the yards. One just keeps leafing through it.

While this is all very nice, it would be a tad frivolous on its own, but there is more. Neill Atkinson has written an engaging overview which focuses on the impact of rail transport on life in this country, and covers the roll-out of rail, its importance in nation building, the wooing of both passengers and freight, the heady days and the tough times as we all took to planes or cars. Importantly, he is an historian by trade and has no problem in telling the story against the wider play of history.

He has set the story in its world context, pointing out that the first settlers were already intoxicated by the experience of rail in England and couldn’t wait to get it rolling here. Steam power was the most profoundly liberating invention in human history, part of a package seized by over 40 million Europeans who emigrated between 1814 and 1914, the biggest diaspora in history. New Zealand was one of the destinations as they poured into lands taken from indigenous peoples by the overwhelming force of European technology. The speed of development attests to the power of the excitement. Less than 50 years after Stevenson’s Rocket chugged from Stockton to Darlington, the United States was linked in 1869 from coast to coast by 3000km of rail track. No barrier was allowed to stop it, not even the 3000 metre-high Californian sierras. The obstacles in New Zealand were formidable but not as tough as that.

New Zealand had 70km of track in the South Island when Vogel began our railway era in 1870. Perhaps the greatest challenge was to gain acquiescence from Maori in linking Wellington with Auckland through the forbidden King Country, a maze of tribal and political complexities. Then the challenge was to beat the engineering problems, of which the Spiral was the most creative solution, and the great viaducts the most artistic. We forget what a mission it was to travel between the cities before the line was opened in 1908.

Rail travel was central to our lives until the 1960s. Successive governments were consistent in treating it as a people’s service, not a profit-making enterprise. Discounted fares were not an invention of airlines: there were rail discounts for groups, for farm requirements, for any excuse which citizens could dream up and get past the Minister. And how we travelled – 28 million journeys in 1923 for a population of just over one million.

Marketing was a big deal. There were bathing beauty posters, and a climbing girl adorned with ice axe and edelweiss. The railways established an advertising studio which by 1924 had a staff of 74, from commercial artists to carpenters. A key promoter of marketing strategies was Gordon Coates, Minister of Railways from 1923, who set about his portfolio with a passion matched only by Robert Semple of the first Labour Government. At his urging the department set up a Publicity Branch in 1927, which joined other agencies in promoting tourism.

Trainland then looks at how we were fed and how we behaved. Remarkably, at some stations, notably Marton and Oamaru, 250 diners could be seated at long tables elegantly dressed with white linen to eat a palatable meal of three courses in 20 minutes. Most of us were content with a cup of tea from the station refreshment counter, while the attendant came through the train and picked up the empty cups – at least those which were not broken or thrown out the window. Between 1940 and 1946, 674,641 cups were lost.

One commentator lamented that so little of our love affair with rail passed into literature and art, and suggested we were overwhelmed with British and American models. Perhaps not surprisingly, Janet Frame emerges as the most sensitive to rail, while in art, Rita Angus’ painting of Cass is supreme.

Trainland is well researched, with reference notes and a bibliography. It is attractively laid out, and pops some juicy information into illustrated panels. It touches on the key issues, but the tight structure of the book with its five brief chapters (an inherent part of its packaging) results, in dramatic terms, in it being a comedy of manners rather than a historical drama. Thus it spotlights but doesn’t linger on the basic question: what would have become of New Zealand without railways? This is perhaps best inspected in James Watson’s Links – A History of Transport in New Zealand (1996), sponsored by the Ministry of Transport, which argues that rail transport was fundamental for the commercial viability of our farming industries, and that much in our economy flowed from its movement of mountains of wheat, wool, fertiliser, and of animals alive and processed. Trainland is more about how we used the trains placed at our disposal by the requirements of the economy.

The literature on railways in New Zealand is surprisingly crowded. One writer alone, Geoffrey Churchman, has 15 titles to his name. I found half- a-dozen substantial books on the history of rail. Several were lavish with illustrations, but most were plodding and chronological in detail. Atkinson is more adept at conveying the feel for the changing times. Verdict: succeeds in its aim, memorable illustrations with a colourful overview that holds our attention. Do I want to go back to Trainland? No way – I’m off to London and the Eurostar, from St Pancras to Paris in 2 hours 20 minutes, the updated version.


Don Aimer is a Wellington reviewer.


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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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