Rimutaka Railway

Engineering Work (eg road, bridge, sawmill, dam)


Surveyed by John Rochfort in 1870-71, the railway from Wellington as far as Kaitoke opened on 1 January 1878, this being extended to Featherston on 12 October 1878. It had very steep grades over the Rimutaka Range of 1 in 40 on the Wellington side and 1 in 15 on the Rimutaka Incline (Summit - Cross Creek) on the Wairarapa side, which required Fell locomotives and brake vans using a raised centre rail.

The railway was closed on 30 October 1955, when a new 8.8 kilometre (km) tunnel between Upper Hutt and Featherston that bypassed it was opened.

The section of railway through the Pakuratahi Valley between Kaitoke and Summit features 65 cuttings and 64 embankments. Many of these cuttings, which are still in near original condition, are narrow and steep-sided. The rail line crosses numerous small bridges and culverts, all dating from the period 1874-1878. One of the culverts (the largest between Kaitoke and Summit) is available for close inspection. It is accessed by a stairway leading from the formation down to a creek, which passes through the culvert and into the Pakuratahi River. The rail formation has a number of sharp curves, the sharpest being just over 100 metres (m) radius – some of the tightest curves on New Zealand's railway system.  The curves and gradients between Kaitoke and Summit severely restricted engine loads and train speeds.

The Rimutaka Incline, between Summit and Cross Creek, was the steepest railway line in New Zealand, dropping 265m in less than 5km (average gradient 1 in 15). The special Fell engines had two pairs of horizontal driving wheels set under the boiler for extra grip when climbing. The wheels were held by compression springs against a raised centre rail. Descending trains used special brake vans with brake blocks bearing on the centre rail. Using four locomotives spaced along the train and three brake vans, goods trains of up to 264 tonnes climbed the Incline. Five engines and four brake vans, with a crew of 15, were required to haul passenger trains of 264 tonnes up the Incline.

This section was, for 72 years (1883 to 1955), unique in the world. It was the most successful and longest serving of only three "Fell" operated railways in the world, built to work based on John Barraclough Fell's 1863 patent that pre-dated rack railways as used on later-built mountain railways overseas.  By 1955, despite its age and somewhat antiquated operation, the Rimutaka Incline was still part of a mainline section of railway. The locomotives used on it -the six members of New Zealand Railways' "H" class - were still working the line. The "H" class to this day remains the longest serving mainline steam locomotives in New Zealand's railway history, having seen up to 78 years of revenue service.

Details of the operation of the railway, together with the restored locomotive H 199 that was used to build and to dismantle the Incline, and a Fell brake van are displayed in an excellent museum in Featherston. (Click here for further information)

The Department of Conservation manages the Rimutaka Rail Trail. Further information is also available from the Greater Wellington Regional Council. (www.gw.govt.nz)

Heritage Recognition
Part of the railway has been recognised by Heritage New Zealand as a historic area (List no.7511):
Rimutaka Incline Rail Trail:
New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero information (www.heritage.org.nz).

John Pollard. 'Rochfort, John - Biography', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 1-Sep-10. URL: http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/2r27/1

Greater Wellington Regional Council leaflet.  January 2003

NZR North Island Working Timetable 1947

NZR Geographical Mileage Table 1957

Pers Comm – A L R Merrifield


No Attachments


18 km section between Kaitoki (north of Upper Hutt) and the Wairarapa.

Wairarapa, Wellington / Kapiti

Access Info
There is an 18 km walk or cycle from the car park at the end of an access road off SH 2 on the Wellington side of the range to the Cross Creek car park on the Wairarapa side.

Nature of Engineering
Rail Transportation


Fell engine museum at Featherston

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Rimutaka railway plaque at Summit

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Plaque in the Fell engine museum in Featherston

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H class steam locomotive, NZR 199, 0-4-2T type, for use on the Fell system on the Rimutaka Incline, with a group of men standing on and beside the engine. Godber, Alfred Percy, 1875-1949 Collection, Reference: APG-0534-1/2-G. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

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Fell engine and train exiting Siberia Tunnel on the Rimutaka Incline, 1899-1940. Godber, Alfred Percy, 1875-1949 Collection, Reference: APG-0153-1/2-G. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

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Royal train ascending the Rimutaka Incline, 1934. Reference:1/2-027952-F. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

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Lat: -41.0852 Long: 175.1845