I’ve ridden the Rimutaka Rail Trail a few times. It is a pleasant way to spend a day, and indeed every time I’ve been on it on bike or on foot I’ve always seen a lot of other people using it. The original railway was built in 1878, and operated until 1955 as the Rimutaka Incline Railway. It used Fell Locomotives to get over the steep grades (up to 1 in 12), which by how many times the forest caught alight, and by the number of accidents, must have been a bit of a bugger. It went so slow the passengers would often get out and walk. So when the 8.8km Rimutaka Tunnel was built through the mountains from Maymorn to Featherston they shut the incline railway down. A section of it from Kaitoke to Cross Creek is now the Rimutaka Rail Trail. On the Wairarapa side from Cross Creek to the Western Lake Road there is a short bit of single track, and back in the Hutt (with potential links to the Hutt River Trails) it is possible to get to the start from Kaitoke, from Tunnel Gully, or through the tunnel at Maymorn. In other words it is a well used recreational asset for the Wellington region, making use of a now economically unimportant railway route. If it was taken away from the public it would be a bloody great shame. (Instead as I have said before it should be made into part of the National Cycleway with links down the Western Lake Road, to Martinborough, and through the Wairarapa northwards).
Is it under threat? Well have a look at the grandiose plans of the rail enthusiasts called The Rimutaka Incline Railway Heritage Trust. I’m reluctant to slag off railway enthusiasts, because I love trains, I love history, and hence I love historic trains. I love riding them, and photographing them. I am a bit of a train geek, but I am going to point out the folly of it all.
The Trust has been around since 2003, and is a registered charitable organisation. Their stated aim is to get the incline railway going again. Now it is an obvious folly of course, and most of the people I have mentioned it to have scoffed at the idea, and thought it not worth worrying about because it would cost millions of dollars, and after 7 years they have 40 members (which is less than the number of people using the rail trail on a sunny day) and have raised a little over $100,000.
So here’s what they want to do. They want to plan, fund, reinstate and operate a tourist heritage railway on the former railway route between Upper Hutt and Featherston. Well there goes the rail trail I hear you say, but no they have thought of everything, including replacement paths for hikers and cyclists that would follow the route (but not go through the tunnels – which are the coolest bit of the ride, so kind of ruining it for those who enjoy it how it is now).
Then there is the little bit of common sense they seem to be missing. The hillsides regularly burnt because of sparks and embers coming from the coal powered locomotives. Pakuratahi Forest is now a commercial pine forest. How is the Trust going to pay for the forest that it would inevitable set fire to?
So it would cost millions, it would set the forest alight, it would destroy a unique recreational asset, and it would attract only a handful of tourists that wouldn’t even cover the running costs. So take a step back fellas, and re-examine your plans. Are they realistic? Are they achievable? Is it even wanted by the rest of the community? Run a steam train between Upper Hutt and Maymorn or something, maybe. (Although if I lived on the route I’d point out that steam trains are filthy as). At Maymorn rent out bicycles and torches. Add to the history displays that are already there. Make it really interesting for those who come and see. It’d be quite cool to see your working locomotive at Maymorn, ride a bike one way between Maymorn and Featherston over the rail trail, stopping for all the displays, then see the Fell Locomotive Museum and then come back on the extant rail line on a normal Masterton to Wellington train.
In contrast it’d really suck to ride a Fell Locomotive over what was once the Rail Trail.
Fellas you’re dreaming.