On the tracks of archival New Zealand railways

The archive is filled with trains and railways. They share a common track through history – film and audio recording were invented just a few decades after the railways arrived, so most of the lifespan of rail has been captured on media. For a long time, rail was the best (or only!) way to get around New Zealand, and the machinery and infrastructure attracted a large following.

While some of that may have diminished, there remain many enthusiasts who love to get back on the tracks of our rail history. Thankfully our collections hold records of the machines, rails and people who made it all happen. Here we take a look at a handful. If you know more about what’s depicted in these recordings, please send us an email. You can also explore more rail content in our online catalogue.

‘Truly, modern railway transport is as fascinating as it is useful’ – the narrator of 1939’s Railways of The Pacific Wonderland.


Rail enthusiast Eric Burns filmed trains around the country, and worked as a tram conductor in Auckland. In 1955’s The Rimutaka Story, we ride along on the opening day of the Remutaka Tunnel (the spelling was changed from Rimutaka to Remutaka in 2017). A trip over the old rail track via Summit is shown, giving a good look at the Fell rail system. The engines include the H199 and H204 Fell locomotives, the former of which can be visited at the Fell Locomotive Museum in Featherston. It seems like a joyous occasion, with plenty of folks hanging off the train, running alongside and waving to the many photographers. Not sure how it might fly with today’s health and safety regulations. There’s an awful lot of gorse too!

Opening ceremonies are held at Speedy’s Crossing in Featherston and include both Prime Minister Sydney Holland and Leader of the Opposition (and future PM) Walter Nash. The train then heads through the tunnel, with afternoon tea at Mangaroa.


The Rimutaka Story


Burns was also on hand to record a journey along the Ellis and Burnand Tramway, near Ongarue. Similar to The Rimutaka Story, this 1954 film has plenty of spectators and is perhaps a pleasure trip – the tramway closed for good in 1955. The many timber mills through the region gradually closed during the second part of the 20th century. Adventure tourism has taken their place and the Timber Trail and Te Araroa follow the route of the tramway, popular for cycling and walking, respectively.

The 1650 Climax locomotive pictured is being restored by a trust and the Bush Tramway Club.

Personal Record. Burns, Eric F. [E&B Tramway Ongarue]

Viewers may also be interested in Eric Burns’ smart ‘Self Steering Trailer’ promotional film, made by his company Sunlander Films.

View more of our rail recordings on our online catalogue.


Rolling back in time, Railways of The Pacific Wonderland shows off the range and might of the rail network, and gives a picturesque overview of scenes around our ‘Pacific Wonderland’. Made by Government Film Studios, this promotional travelogue shows K class locomotives being built in the Wellington railway yard before trains are loaded and wheels get turning. We see K923 and K947 on track.

The action heads up the Main Trunk to Auckland, with a quick trip to Rotorua. After a ferry to Christchurch, it’s down to Dunedin. Travelling through the Otira Tunnel, whose 5¼ miles were the ‘longest in the British Empire’ (until eclipsed by the Rimutaka Tunnel), we arrive at the West Coast. The region’s coal is described as essential to the operation of the railway. Equally essential are the many staff who worked across the rail network – all 25,000 of them!

Railways of the Pacific Wonderland



This recording takes a fascinating look at passengers boarding the Wellington train at Palmerston North Station at the turn of last century. Hundreds of smartly dressed people mill about, having been to the Palmerston North A & P show. Thanks to the excellent notes of historian Clive Sowry, we can point to an impressively exact time: ‘probably filmed just before and about 4.55pm on Friday 15 November 1901’. The footage was first shown several days later at Wellington’s Federal Theatre on 20 November.

This item was scanned from the original nitrate film in 2016. Attached to the end of this item is part of Black Diamond Express, an 1896 recording from the Edison Company, filmed in the United States’ Lehigh Valley Railroad.

Biograph Pictures of the Palmerston Show: Departure of the Wellington Train From Palmerston North Station After the Show



This delightful audio recording was made in 1964 by New Plymouth’s 2XP station, and captures the sounds of life on the tracks. It’s a nice listen and could be useful as ‘white noise’ for office workers or sleeping babies.

Pictures of the recorded engines are below. The map shows the routes these engines travelled. KA 951, which features in the second clip, was derailed by a slip in Manawatu Gorge in 1946, resulting in the deaths of the driver and fireman. Read more about the KA class of trains.

 Please visit our website to hear this recording.

Notes from catalogue:

  1. KA 931 pulling 310 tonnes from Owhango Station through Oio to Raurimu. (on Maps)
  2. A 450 ton train pulled by KA 951 and KA 961 at approx speed of 60 miles per hour from Tangiwai to a stop at Karioi. Welded track. (KA961 was taken out of service two years after this recording.)
  3. The train on the previous cut pulling north out of Ohakune. The creaking noises are from the drawbar.
KA931 engine. Poster from National Library.


KA961 engine. Photo by Russ Bidgood.


Finally, this pair of commercials from the 1970s show a heyday of New Zealand rail. The first comes hot on the heels of Britain joining the European Economic Community (EEC), leading to a major reduction in New Zealand’s exports to the UK. ‘They say that now we’re on our own, we’ve got to export more…’. The ‘first step along the way’ to doing so is rail. The ad runs to the tune of “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” – ‘Glory, glory, load the wagons to the brim!’ This commercial comes from Roger Donaldson’s Aardvark films – Donaldson would go on to direct Sleeping Dogs, The World’s Fastest Indian and many others.

New Zealand Railways. The First Step Along the Way



The second ad features a more contemporary tune – the theme of television’s Rawhide. And rather than exports, it’s focused on moving freight around the country: ‘Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’/ Keep these wheels a-rollin’/ Right across the country/ Rail freight’. It ends with the slogan ‘Making New Zealand one country’.

New Zealand Railways. Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’, Rail Freight


Ngā Taonga newsletter

Sign up for our regular newsletter about projects we're working on and fascinating items from our collections.