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Memories of the North Auckland Line in 2005-6

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I basically took a year out to renovate our home and take pictures of trains about a year after our arrival in New Zealand. One of my happy places was Helensville station the crossing and crew change point for the up and down day freights on the line linking Auckland with Northland. Helensville had lost its passenger services form Auckland during the 1960s and freight traffic was sparse with two return freight workings daily between Westfield Yard Auckland and Whangarei the Northland capital, the day freight conveyed mainly logs and forestry products, the night time freights dairy products from Northland to the Port of Auckland and northbound empty containers.

Toll Holdings an Australian company had recently taken over rail operations from Tranz Rail a company formed from a consortium of Winsconsin Central and a group of Merchant Bankers and Private Equity firms. Although Tranz Rail initially appeared to initially successful both in building up rail traffic and profitable, the company ran into severe financial difficulties shortly after the original investors sold their shareholding in the company following the successful floating of the company on the New Zealand stock exchange. The company effectively propped up the share price by selling assets, including selling and leasing back locos and container wagons and deferring maintenance until the railway had reached the point of collapse and the company was in severe financial difficulties in the early 2000s. Although Toll appeared to initially appeared to grow the rail business a dispute quickly developed between Toll and the Government over track access charges with Toll threatening to withdraw freight services from much of the network including the North Auckland line.

This combination of uncertainty and policy of sweating asset to maximise profits contributed to a culture of make demand among management and staff who operated and maintained the railway and a positive rainbow of locomotive liveries with few locos in matching colour schemes in multi unit consists.

The photos were scanned from prints as I had mislaid the original digital files.


Crew change at Helensville, the drivers (official title locomotive engineer) of the up and down day freights and a friend have a chat. The driver of 7307 on the Northbound freight has stopped his loco level with the loco of the southbound to make it easier to transfer their gear across. General Motors DFT 7307 was recently re-painted in the new Toll Rail livery following a major overhaul the majority of the 30 strong class retained different iterations of the Tranz Rail livery having received repaints when the locos were uprated to 2400Hp during the 1990s. The class which was originally introduced with a 1650hp power output for slow heavy freight work in the late 1970s have a similar 12 cylinder 645 engine to the Irish 071 class and were subsequently uprated by fitted with turbochargers with the intention of operating fast fixed formation trains of bogie wagons similar to CIEs Liner Train concept.

The loco on the southbound is a 2700 hp General Electric DX dating from the mid 1970s the loco is in the Tranz Rail "Cato Blue" scheme dating from the early 1990s. 


Looking North the loco of the south bound train had picked up a cut of laden log wagon from the yard and coupled them to the front of her train. The platform appears to have been recently re-surfaced for a short lived experimental morning and evening commuter service.

Log traffic from Helensville ceased shortly after these photos were taken. Trains on the line are controlled by Track Warrant Control a modern version of the American Telegraph and Train Order System. With this system Locomotive Engineers receive their instructions by radio by a Train Controller based in Wellington the Instructions are recorded on a specified form (or Track Warrant) which the engineer reads back to the Controller before proceeding. With driver only operation points are electrically controlled from lineside cabinets which a driver can operate without the having to leave the cab. Points on the running lines are fitted with facing point locks protected by full 2 aspect colour light signals which act as a point indicator.


The same train approaching Kaipara Flats north of Helensville through typical ridge and flat  country  north of Auckland. The train has just crossed a dirt road with a stop sign to warn approaching road traffic, one driver told me of a hair raising story of a driver parking her car on the level crossing to drop off children to be collected by a school bus as he was approaching the crossing with a southbound train, fortunately the driver moved the car in time!


A DFT on a northbound in the Tranz Rail final "Bumble Bee" scheme. Relatively few locos were painted in this scheme. The piled trestle bridge was a standard design which was extremely durable and capable of supporting quite heavy axle loads, many have since been replaced by bridges with concrete abutments an weathered steel beam and desks to minimise long term maintenance costs as opposed to an operational necessity.

The North Auckland line was opened as a series of self contained portage railways and lines linking regional centers and ports with the local hinterland, although the line included one of the original railway lines in New Zealand Auckland & Whangarei were not linked by rail until 1920 with the opening of the Helensville-Whangarei section. Helensville was originally a terminus of a protage railway between harbours on the east and west coast before becoming part of a trunk route. Construction of the line was delayed by a combination of subtropical climate and poor ground conditions in Northland geotechnical techniques were eventually adapted to locate sections of the route where traditional railway construction methods had failed.

The future of line has been something of a hot potato for many years with political parties taking opposing positions on whether to develop or close the line, together with regional competition between North Port and the Port of Tauranga for the relocation of Auckland Port which is strongly resisted by Auckland Port interests.

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I came across these photos taken in Oct-November 2005 (Spring) during my first trip up North before gricing in the Helensville Area. The photos were taken on the line that at one time linked Whangaeri with Opua a small port in the Bay of Islands and Okaihau the most northerly railway station in New Zealand, the line lost its passenger service in 1976 when the Whangaeri-Okaihau mixed train (Goods with Car) was withdrawn, the line to Opua had lost its passenger services in the 1950s. In 2005 log trains operated  "as required" usually daily between Otiria (Otiria Junction) and Whangarei, the lijnes from Otiria Junction to Okaihau was lifted following closure in the late 80s the Kawaka-Opua line was leased to the Bay of Islands Scenic Railway for a tourist railway operation.

Northland has a subtropical climate with heavy rainfall which we experienced during our short holiday in the area.!


Gabriel awaiting repair at Kawakawa. Like Fivemiletown on the Clogher Valley the railway runs down the center of the main street in this case State Highway 1 the main road North to South road between the most northerly and southerly points in New Zealand.

Gabriel is named after Schull & Skibbereen No 1 and apparently is a 3'6" gauge version of the Irish loco, Peckett apparently built locos of the same design for use in South America.

In 2000 the line had been shut down on safety grounds by the Government transport safety authority, fortunately the Vintage Railway recovered from this set back and has been progressively re-opening the line Gabriel once again hauling steam trains down Kawakawa Main Street https://www.bayofislandsvintagerailway.org.nz/


Raining heavily a pair of DFTs haul a Whangaeri bound log train State Highway 1 in the background.

Typical Northland Country side with steep wood covered hillsides. I took this photo in poor lighting conditions in heavy rain which added to the atmosphere of the photo.




The Sun came out the following day another long heavy train. The wagons were mostly 4 wheelers in captive service in Northland between a Wood Chip plant near Whangarei and a number of loading points. Kiwirail decided to retire the 4 wheelers in 2016 and mothball the line to Otiria and a branch off the main line south of Whangaeri.


7049 in Bumble Bee colours departing Whangaeri with the evening freight for Auckland.

The containers are 20' reefers most likely laden with butter for the UK & European market.


DJ 3093 at Whangaeri Loco depot.  In 2005 Whangaeri had an interesting steam era depot with 1-2 locos allocated for shunting local industries, branch and main line trip working in connection with the local dairy and forestry industry.

DJ 3093 was the sole remaining member of her class in Toll Rail ownership. DJs have an unusual BoBoBo wheel arrangement were built by Hitachi for use on lightly laid lines in the South Island, like the Irish Metrtovicks the class were smooth riding and had an excellent electrical system let down by a Caterpillar engine that proved troublesome in rail service. 3093 was converted into a heavy shunter while other members of the class were sold to the Taieri Gorge Railway a spectacular  tourist railway operation in Dunedin https://www.dunedinrailways.co.nz/our-journeys/taieri-gorge-railway?gclid=CjwKCAiA1L_xBRA2EiwAgcLKA8Qg8Pc8CjGZvv60ORuRiTsHPVznk-e400zlPsjZTtN5ngVG_l4s6RoCwigQAvD_BwE.



Motive power line up at Whangaeri with a pair of DFT in Tranz Rail Cato Blue, a DC (rebuilt EMD G12 Export Model) in NZR 1980s Fruit salad scheme & 3093.

The DFTs are most likely have worked or are about to work a log train on the Otiria line, the DC for main or branch line trip working and 3093 for shunting in the Whangaeri area. At the time rail served local industries included a large Dairy Plant at Kauri north of Whangaeri, cold stores on the Whangaeri Harbour Branch and a woodchip plant at Portland.


Drewry shunting locomotive at Portland. Two privately owned Drewry locomotives basically a narrow gauge version of the BR 04 were used for shunting at the woodchip plant, which usually received two train loads of logs daily and dispatched containers of woodchips on the morning freight to Auckland. Portland (not surprisingly!) is the site of a large cement works which had its own internal railway system which connected with the main line and a private quay, Gabriel was originally owned by the Dominion Portland Cement Company and used for shunting at the works before finding her way into preservation.


Matching Pair!  At the time this photo caused something of a stir and made it to the Home Page of a New Zealand Locomotive news group as locos in matching liveries were extremely rare during late Toll Rail operation of the railway system.

The lead loco in the consist is a DC the trailing loco a DFT. The DCs were 1980s rebuilds of the EMD G12 Standard Export model with 12 cylinder (non-turbocharged) 645 engines and though lower powered than the DFT extremely reliable with a reasonable number still running in the Fruit Salad colour scheme following their re-building.

The locos are working a shunt from the Kauri Dairy plant to Whangaeri, where the loco consist was split. The DFT was turned to work the evening freight to Westfield yard Auckland, the DC worked part of the trains consist to a cold or dry goods store on the Harbour Branch. Rail continues to be used for short haul work moving diary products between the processing plants and warehousing and distribution centers in addition to long distance line haul work from distribution centers to ports.


Edited by Mayner
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