The International Steam Pages

Once upon a time, long ago,
Snow Trains, South Island New Zealand, 1968

Wilson Lythgoe has been circulating friends with some steam pictures taken some time back and with his permission and encouragement they are reproduced on these pages and will be added to from time to time. Click here for the index.

Excursions to Arthur's Pass during August 1968

Winter excursions to Arthur's Pass were a Canterbury tradition developing from the time of the opening of the Otira Tunnel in 1923. A number of Sundays each winter the Railways would run these popular trains between Christchurch and Arthur's Pass giving passengers a day out in the mountains with hopefully some snow!

On Sunday 4th August demand was such two trains were needed: Ja1247 left Christchurch first followed a short time later by Ja1240. My ticket was for the second train.......

Ja1240 pauses for water at the high country station of Cass. The water tank and crossing loop were well used: the goods shed and stock yards seldom.

Just after crossing the Bealey River there was a stop to allow any trampers to leave the train. None did but I climbed down for a photo before getting back on board very quickly. No way I intended being left behind! There was no station or platform was just somewhere the train would stop for the convenience of passengers and you climbed directly down onto the ballast.

You could never be guaranteed snow at Arthur's Pass but this trip there was quite a bit around. Ja1247 rolls over Rough Creek late in the afternoon........

 ..........and coasts quietly down the grade homeward bound for Christchurch.


On his 'Sounds of Kb's at Work' CD fellow traveller on many a train chasing adventure Paul Markholm recalls: 'On 24 August 1968 John Murphy organised a passenger train to Arthur's Pass using Kb968.........we chased it up to Arthur's Pass using a hired Riley Elf and, you know, those Riley Elf's will do one hundred miles an hour if you push them hard enough. Thank goodness for rentals!' What Paul didn't say was there four of us in the car that day: all young and all invincible! There was no snow at The Pass this visit. 968 has everything under control as it powers through Sandy Knolls on the long climb across the Canterbury Plains to Springfield.

The first viaduct after leaving Springfield was the Kowhai. We walked across it in time to get a shot of the train coming over.

Later in the morning and 968 rounds the curve at Mt White Bridge in what can only be described as glorious lighting conditions.

On the homeward trip Cass Bank always offered good photo opportunities......

: .........and the chance to show just how a coal burner could pollute the atmosphere!

Not a snow train but chronologically this picture, taken on the same day as the Kb ones, fits into my story nicely. August was school holiday time and the Railways would run expresses between Christchurch and Greymouth catering for the extra passengers the railcars were unable to accommodate. Ja1264 is seen entering Cass station on one such express. The track on the left is part of the Cass triangle.

The next day both Ja1264 and Kb968 went back to Arthur's Pass again on the last two snow specials of the 1968 season. As it turned out these were the last, publicly offered, snow specials that the NZR ever ran using steam engines. Cran Julian recently wrote: 'In 1969 the Snow Specials were replaced by twenty buses - but insufficient patronage warranted running only one bus because train travel was definitely preferred. The remaining "Snow Bus Specials" that winter season were cancelled.'

These days though the Snow Train tradition is alive and well. It's being maintained by the Mainline Steam Heritage Trust who each winter run a number of steam hauled excursions between Christchurch and Arthur's Pass. These are invariably sold out weeks in advance. 

Rob Dickinson