THE FELL ENGINE AND THE RIMUTAKA INCLINE
The Rimutaka Range presented a great challenge
to the engineers looking to construct a railway to Wairarapa
from the capital city. The track had snaked alongside the
Wellington harbour from 1870, and, easily made its way
through the Hutt Valley, reaching Upper Hutt by 1874.
Survey parties, lead by John Rochfort,
scouted through the hills, looking for a way to construct
a track across the hills, or even around the coastline
to the south, before deciding that the most economical
route lay in the hills north of Upper Hutt. They took a
line through the eastern hills as far north as Kaitoke,
before moving up the Pakuratahi River valley. The ascent
was steep, about 1 in 30, with a climb of about 300 metres
in the 20 kilometres from Upper Hutt to the summit, with
many tight turns. It was nothing, however, compared to
the grade the engineers were forced to work with once they
had punched the track through a saddle on the main range.
From the summit down the eastern flanks
to the Wairarapa base of the range the gradient varied
between 1 in 14 to 1 in 16, far too great for normal steam-powered
locomotives. A number of options were explored, including
establishing fixed engines and running the carriages on
cables, much like the cable car system in Wellington. The
numerous turns on the route prevented the use of such a
system, and in the end it was decided to use the system
recently installed in the Mont Cenis Pass between Italy
and France. Swedish engineers had developed a special system
for steeply graded rail systems as early as the 1830s.
They had decided that the best way to propel trains over
steep grades was to devise an extra set of rails, and as
such designed a system that involved a central rail, double-sided
with the rails facing outwards instead of upwards. A special
set of horizontal grip wheels was added to the propulsion
The system was never tried commercially,
but an improved system, designed by John Fell and named
after him, was patented in 1863, and used for the Mont
Cenis Pass, the system being used for four years. When
a new track was laid and the need for the Fell system disappeared
after four years, the entire system - including the 14
engines- was shipped out to Brazil. It was John Fell's
system that was used to bring the railway over the hills
Fell's improvement was the addition of
an extra set of grip wheels, bringing the total to four.
Each of the wheels had about six tonnes of pressure applied
to the centre rail, the entire grip being by friction.
Once the system was decided upon an order
was placed with the Avonside Engine Company, in Bristol,
England, where a special engine was designed, incorporating
Fell's patented grip system. Four engines were built and
trialed in England, before being dismantled and shipped
to New Zealand. Each engine, comprising about 8000 parts,
was re-assembled in the Wellington sheds, and tested by
being run out to Lower Hutt.
The first of the engines, originally named
'Mont Cenis' but later known as '199', was commissioned
at the start of 1877 and was immediately sent to work assisting
in the construction of the line over the mountains to Wairarapa.
As well as the special engines built for the system, a
specialised braking system was also required. A set of
special braking vans was constructed, each van having four
450 mm cast iron brake blocks that were clamped to the
central rail. At the end of each descent the blocks were
The line from Featherston to the summit
of the range was the most difficult part of the new track.
As well as the steep gradient to overcome, the teams of
men working on the eastern face also had to complete the
construction of three tunnels, the largest being the one
just below the summit. Here teams of men were working around
the clock in eight-hour shifts to try and complete the
shaft, under very trying conditions. There were frequent
accidents on the line, and a number of men lost their lives
in the tunnels. The main tunnel took two years to complete,
being finished in March 1877. The whole line was finished
in August the following year, with an official opening
ceremony on 12 October.
The ceremony was an anticlimax and rather
an omen for the future. Heavy rains in the hills had caused
a number of slips, and the rail tracks were blocked. The
first official train (there had actually been some before
the official opening) actually made its way across the
hills two days after the ceremony, the halting journey
having taken over five hours.
The line was always prone to damage from
the elements. The hillsides had been cleared of trees,
and the heavy rainfall sometimes experienced in the high
country swept down the hills, carrying debris and gravel
across the lines. The wind was a problem too, with the
fierce gusts from the north-westerly causing problems.
Train crews would often have to clear fallen vegetation
from the line as they made their way up and down the line.
caused the worst accident on the line, just over a year after
it opened. At one point the track crossed an embankment over
an especially exposed corner. The fierce winds, and the desolate
nature of the scree slope upstream of the embankment, earned
the location the nickname of 'Siberia' and it was here that
the accident occurred on 11 September 1880. A heavy gust lifted
two carriages and a brake van off the rails, and plunged them
over the bank. As the carriage plummeted down the hillside
it smashed, causing the death of three young people, and injuring
many others, one of whom died three weeks later.
A large solid windbreak was erected at 'Siberia' to prevent
a recurrence of the accident.
The trip up and down the Incline with
the Fell engines hardly changed during the time the line
was in operation. Trains were brought to the termini at
each end of the Incline, and the carriages were attached
to the Fell engines. Each engine could only pull a load
of about twenty tonnes of freight and passengers, so large
trains required a number of engines. Sometimes four locomotives
would be used to haul a large train. Each trip from Cross
Creek to the Summit entailed about one hour twenty minutes,
with another fifteen minutes allowed at each end for remarshalling
the wagons. Some people recall that they would dismount
from the train and walk alongside it for a while.
The Fell engines themselves were not turned
around on the turntables at the termini, all downhill running
being undertaken cab first, to ensure that there was sufficient
water to cover the top of the fire box.
In 1936 a railcar service was introduced
over the Rimutaka Incline, taking some of the pressure
off the old Fell engines, which were proving to be expensive
to maintain and to run. At various times suggestions were
made about replacing the locomotives, and just before World
War Two a decision was taken to investigate an alternate
route through the Rimutaka Range.
The problems of the expensive maintenance
of both engines and track were not solved until the long-awaited
deviation and tunnel were opened in late 1955. The travelling
public, although longing for the new faster and more direct
route, were also sentimental about the Fell Engines that
had been carrying them across the Rimutaka Range for 77
years, and a large number of special excursion trains carried
passengers for a last nostalgic trip over the line.
As soon as the tunnel was opened work
began on dismantling the old track, and 199, the first
of the Fells, started to assist in the demolition of the
line she had helped build nearly eighty years before. The
redundant Fell engines were removed to Silverstream, to
be stored on a siding for redundant locomotives. From here
they were demolished. All except 199.
In 1958 she returned to Wairarapa, to
a site in the children's playground at Featherston, where
she sat slowly disintegrating until 1984. A group of concerned
citizens had formed in 1980, to restore and house 199,
Mont Cenis. Today she sits proudly in her especially constructed
shed at the Fell Engine Museum in Featherston, the only
example of a Fell Engine left in the world.