The International Steam Pages

A Garland of Islands, Part 8, Oceania: Hawaii, and Fiji

Robert Hall writes about island railways of the world in a series of articles:

Click here for the other parts:

There is a map of those islands of Hawaii with railways at the end of this piece. The Fijian section continues after it.

It would seem safe to say that among non-Americans, Hawaii (the USA’s fiftieth state since 1959) is rather little-known as a railway venue. This has, likely, a good deal to do with public railways on the islands having – other than vestigially – ceased to exist most of a lifetime ago. Writing this piece has been a voyage of discovery for the author, who before undertaking research for it, knew almost nothing about the islands’ one-time railways – it has been pleasing to find how agreeable and interesting they appear to have been. I am greatly indebted for information, to John B. Hungerford’s excellent little book “Hawaiian Railroads”, published 1963.

Three islands of the group at one time had public common-carrier railways with passenger services: Oahu, Maui, and the “Big Island” of Hawaii itself. These three islands had numerous industrial / agricultural lines also; as did several other islands in the archipelago. In keeping with the American connection, Oahu and Maui’s railways were on the 914mm (three feet) gauge, used widely in the USA and Central America, and to some extent in the British Isles, but rare elsewhere in the world. Fittingly enough, the “Big Island” ‘s lines were of standard 1435mm gauge.

Hawaii’s first public railway to open was on Maui – not a place very well-known to those two oceans away, but in fact, for tourists the second most popular island in the group -- after Oahu, which contains Honolulu and Waikiki. The Kahului Railroad, of 914mm gauge, opened its first section to traffic in 1879; progressively extending between then and 1924, when a maximum route length of 31km was reached. It ran east, and a short distance west, from Kahului, situated on the island’s north coast and its biggest town. The twin eastern termini were Kuiaha, and Haiku – the fancy suggests scenarios of the line’s opening to the latter in 1913, being celebrated in pithy mini-poems of seventeen syllables...

The district served, used to be Hawaii’s area of most intense sugar-cane cultivation; the chief traffic on the railway was always related to the sugar industry, plus a considerable amount of haulage of the islands’ other prominent crop, the pineapple. (With the vagaries of economics, sugar and pineapple cultivation and agriculture in general, are nowadays reduced to insignificance throughout the island group.) However, general freight was also carried; and for much of the line’s career, it had a passenger service. Passenger workings were withdrawn in 1936. During the steam era the railway’s locomotive fleet comprised almost exclusively, products of the firm of Baldwin: starting with four-coupled tank locos, later “upgrading” to 2-6-0 and 2-6-2 tender machines; the Prairies seeing the great majority of the action for the last few decades of steam. Dieselisation of the KR began about 1950 – started by transfer to the main line, of diesel locos hitherto used on connecting independent sugar-plantation railways which were being superseded by lorries for short runs. By the end of the 1950s, the KR was basically diesel-worked; however, 2-6-2 no. 12 (Baldwin 60690/1928) was retained as spare loco to the five diesels, and usually saw some service at the peak of the cane harvest. No. 12 has been saved for preservation; she is now in the continental United States, in working order, on the preserved Georgetown Loop Railroad in Colorado.

The KR continued in traffic until abandonment in 1966. In a context of railways in genuine bread-and-butter service; although outlived by a few years by retained remnants of the system on Oahu, the KR had the longest working life-span – 87 years -- of any single public railway undertaking in the islands. Though the line was not situated in a prime tourist area of Maui, fine scenery is virtually everywhere in the Hawaiian group; the route’s eastern end was definitely scenic, with a number of impressive-verging-on-scary high trestle bridges over ravines. Hawaii has a couple of tourist lines in operation today, as will be covered later; sadly, no preservation initiative came along to save any part of the KR’s route for posterity.

Oahu is the group’s highest-profile island on both tourism, and “workaday”, fronts. It was served by the 914mm gauge Oahu Railway; this name will be used for brevity’s sake: official title until 1948 was the Oahu Railway and Land Co. It appears that in Hawaii – unusually on an essentially “USA” scene – the word “railway” was at least equally as current, as “railroad”.

The OR’s first sections were opened in 1889. Development proceeded over the succeeding years until 1906, when maximum route length was attained: a main line running west from Honolulu to Ewa and beyond, to follow the island’s south-west coast through Nanakuli, onward and along the north-west coast to Kahuku terminus, plus a branch diverging not far from Ewa and running inland to Wahiawa – the whole totalling about 150km. All the just-mentioned lines carried passenger and freight traffic.

After reaching its maximum extent in 1906, the OR continued intact and mostly busy for the next four decades. The backbone of the railway’s freight traffic was the Hawaiian islands’ two great staple crops, sugar and pineapples. Oahu has also had, since shortly after the islands’ 1898 annexation to the USA, a considerable military presence, both navy and army; the OR carried much traffic in connection with this military activity. A very large army post, Schofield Barracks, was inaugurated near the upper end of the Wahiawa branch; with an offshoot of the branch specifically to serve it. Many agricultural lines serving sugar plantations, mostly 914mm gauge but some on 762mm, fed into the OR system.

The majority of Oahu’s coasts are rugged and spectacular, with the mountains rising sharply from them: the coastal rail route boasted many scenic sections, with that rounding the island’s westernmost point generally acknowledged the finest of all. In the earlier part of the twentieth century, the OR carried a thriving tourist traffic. Just as was happening in the metropolitan US, however, road motor competition began, early on, to nibble away at the line’s passenger business. In an attempt to respond, several internal-combustion railmotors were built in the railway’s Honolulu workshops, the first entering service in 1927; for some years, they operated most of the system’s regular passenger services, and enabled considerable economies to be made. By the late 1930s, day-in-day-out passenger workings were mostly confined to the quasi-suburban 25km of the main line between Honolulu, Pearl Harbor, and Ewa; but frequent steam-hauled excursions continued to run, for tourists and local residents, the length of the main line and on the branch. Freight services continued throughout.

After the USA entered World War II in December 1941, traffic boomed for the railway as never before, and for the succeeding four years the ageing steam locomotive fleet (supplemented latish in the conflict, by three General Electric diesel locos) performed prodigies of haulage, conveying in great numbers, service personnel and civilian workers; and immense tonnages of war-related freight, in addition to normal freight business. Subsequent events came about, in a way that they did on a fair number of lesser railways worldwide; although there was intense and sustained activity in World War II, severe contraction / closure came not very long after peace returned.

A severe tsunami in early 1946, the result of an earthquake off Alaska, caused damage to the line along the north-west coast: temporary patching-up was done, but heavy and costly reconstruction would be necessary in any long term. With the end of the war, passenger and freight traffic decreased sharply, and revenue did so to match. The need for new motive power was becoming urgent, and road competition for freight was increasing. With some regret, the OR’s management decided that extreme “downsizing” was their only option. As from the end of 1947, all remaining passenger services were withdrawn, and the railway was abandoned except for some 25km at the Honolulu end, retained for freight. The railway had carried on operations in fine style for the couple of years since the end of the war – including eagerly-patronised steam excursion trains along the scenic coastal main line – but things as they stood, had ceased to be sustainable.

Genuine, non-tourist rail action continued on Oahu, though at a low level, for another quarter-century. Oahu Railway freight workings – handled from 1948 by the line’s three diesel locos, plus further diesels acquired later – were truncated in 1962 to about half the remaining route length, and were thenceforth more or less confined to hauling pineapple grown elsewhere in the island group, from the Honolulu docks to canning factories some dozen kilometres up the line. From 1950, the main line between Pearl Harbor and an ammunition depot north of Nanakuli (a distance of about 50km, with some overlap with the part of the OR still carrying general freight) was handed over to the US Navy, for the conveying of ammunition – traffic was worked by the Navy’s diesel locos. This involved reopening – for this very specialised purpose – of a considerable stretch of line closed at the end of 1947. These naval workings continued until about 1970; OR proper’s very last freight traffic ceased at the end of 1971. Hawaii’s commercial-railway era had lasted for 93 years.

Photographs of the OR as it was up to 1947 would seem to portray a quintessence or distillation of everyone’s notion of the perfect classic-era American 914mm gauge railway – with tall-chimneyed, extremely charming yet rugged little – or sometimes not-so-little -- locomotives of a variety of “shapes and makes”. There are on record, having been 32 steam locos altogether – numbered in a highly non-rational way ! As on Maui, the very beginning of the system’s career featured four-coupled tanks, quickly graduating to tender locos – 4-4-0s in the early days, with the 2-8-0 wheel arrangement coming in more or less with the twentieth century, accompanied by a mix of 0-6-0s and 4-6-0s, and – the system’s biggest and last-built machines – four 2-8-2s in the mid-1920s. Builders were, overwhelmingly, Baldwin and Alco. The large majority were built specifically for the OR; a handful were acquired second-hand from the continental USA.

Some OR steam locos survived the closure of most of the system in 1947, and a few remain in existence at the present day. Four early-1910s-vintage 2-8-0s were sold in 1950 to the 914mm gauge railways of El Salvador, together with 250 freight cars and a large quantity of rail and spare parts – the “Consolidations” are believed to have spent a couple of decades active in their Central American exile. 0-4-2ST no.6 (Baldwin 10028 / 1889) and 0-6-0 no.12 (Alco 51165 / 1912) were preserved post-1947 in Honolulu, and are now at the Hawaiian Railway Society’s site at Ewa; 4-6-0 no.85 (Alco 48585 / 1910) is thought to be under “preservation” aegis, on the island of Maui (see below, further re these preserved items).

A steam-related move which misfired, was the commissioning in the early 1920s from the firm of Lima, of two Shay geared locomotives. The plan was for these locos to work freight on the steeply-graded Wahiawa branch, which served a large pineapple-growing area. Unfortunately, in service they turned out largely to be a fiasco, and were soon withdrawn: to quote Mr. Hungerford, the Shays “spun their wheels in the syrupy pineapple juice, grinding cups and valleys in the rails”. A possibly prizewinning morsel of advice useless and irrelevant in this day and age: don’t use Shay geared locos in a pineapple-y environment – it doesn’t suit them.

Before leaving Oahu: Honolulu had an electric tram system (thought to have been the only one in the islands) between 1900 and 1941 – superseding previous horse / mule trams. Also, between 1937 and 1957, Honolulu was served by trolleybuses; so far as I know, a means of public transport not very often met with in the Americas or associated territories.

The archipelago’s only 1435mm gauge rail undertaking, the Hawaii Consolidated Railway (earlier the Hilo Railroad), was on Hawaii island – usually called “the Big Island”, to avoid confusion in geographical nomenclature. Wider gauge or not, the HCR was the “lame duck” among the island group’s three public railways: it never prospered to the extent that had been hoped for, and was the last to open and the first to be abandoned. The system began life in 1900, and its full route length of some 130km was reached in 1914. It essentially served the island’s eastern side: a main route with lines paralleling the coast from Hilo, the island’s chief town, north-west to Paauilo and south-east to Kamaili, plus a branch running inland to Glenwood.

The HCR’s principal traffic was sugar and related products, though it set out also to offer passenger services and comprehensive freight carriage. Much of the system was highly scenic: the Hilo – Paauilo section of the main line took a precipitous coastal route around the base of the volcanic mountain Mauna Kea, and the Glenwood branch approached closely to another volcano, Kilauea, highly tourist-favoured: the last 15km from Glenwood to the mountain were covered by road. The HCR made strenuous attempts to woo tourists – including the introduction of a luxurious parlour-buffet car to run on the Paauilo line, on which special sightseeing trains were also operated. Sadly, the tourist traffic failed to reach anything like the volume to which the railway had aspired.

The HCR never enjoyed commercial success to the degree which had been envisaged, and struggled to make ends meet throughout its working life – road competition also being a factor, from an early date. Likely as a function of this, the railway turned very early on, to internal-combustion self-propelled units for its passenger services – the first of these were introduced before World War I. From this era, to the end of the railway’s life, regular passenger workings were essentially railmotor; steam worked “freight proper”, and excursions and tourist specials. Some of the line’s railmotors were grotesque-looking converted road buses hauling small trailers – contrivances of a sort, with rather a “DIY” appearance, such as were often brought in during the period between the World Wars, for rural passenger services on railways on the North American continent, and popularly known – seemingly here in Hawaii too – as “Galloping Geese”. An equivalent “motor” was used for parcels and light freight.

The Glenwood branch was abandoned in the early 1930s, but both freight, and passenger services – the railmotors no doubt being the salvation of the latter – continued for another decade and a half on the entire coastal route. As in Oahu, military activity in World War II provided a great boost to the railway vis-à-vis both passenger and freight business. But, also as on the smaller island, “night fell” shortly after the war’s end. For the HCR, this happened in a sudden and dramatic way, in the form of a savage April Fool prank: the tsunami on April 1st 1946, which as recounted above, did some harm to the Oahu Railway. The damage on the Big Island’s east coast was, however, catastrophic: Hilo station and adjacent rail facilities were obliterated, and a couple of the line’s prominent bridges were wrecked. Rail services were suspended; the railway’s management assessed the cost of repairs and rebuilding, and the prospects for continued use by freight-traffic sources should that be undertaken: and decided that abandonment was inevitable. A tiny portion of the main line south from Hilo continued in private use by a sugar mill for a few years; otherwise, the railway never ran after 1 / 4 / 1946, and was soon dismantled, and the rails and stock sold for scrap. Nothing of the HCR’s motive power or rolling stock has survived. It is virtually certain that even without the calamitous natural intervention (rather a recurring theme on island railways associated, even loosely, with the Americas); this line could not have lasted much longer; one’s verdict perhaps fluctuates between “cruel whim of fate”, and “mercifully putting the railway out of its misery”.

The majority of the HCR’s steam fleet comprised 4-6-0s by Baldwin; there were also miscellaneous smaller machines, and one Alco 2-8-0. Mr. Hungerford’s book includes a fair number of appealing photographs – steam, and railmotor – taken in the railway’s operational days: in the light of its relative obscurity and quite early demise, the line appears to have been pleasingly well photographically recorded.

Of the islands’ numerous agricultural / industrial railways – chiefly in the service of cane sugar, and pineapple, cultivation – some lasted longer than did passenger services on the island’s public lines. With the general trends which have obtained in recent decades, it would seem certain that none remain in use at the present time.

Hawaii has nowadays, several modest tourist rail operations. The most substantial are two, each 914mm gauge and each with a route of about 10km, on Oahu and Maui respectively. The former, run by the Hawaiian Railway Society (, covers the ex-Oahu Railway route from Ewa west to Kahe Point – a segment of the part of the main line which was operated by the US Navy during the 1950s and 60s. Track is still in situ, per a conservation order, on the line further west as far as Nanakuli; the society thus hopes in time to extend its operations for the public, further than at present.

Trains are hauled by ex-US Navy 1940s-vintage diesel locos, of which the line has several; the Society also owns many items of freight rolling stock, ex-OR or ex-military. Passenger vehicles have been built using former military flat cars as a basis. In static preservation at the Ewa centre are four steam locos: ex-Oahu Railway 0-4-2ST no.6, and 0-6-0 no.12, and two from agricultural lines on Oahu – concerning one of which, a Baldwin 0-6-2ST, there are indications of possible hope for its restoring to working order.

The line on Maui has no associations with the Kahului Railroad, but is located at the island’s western extremity, at the town of Lahaina, Maui’s first-ranking tourist venue. Named the Lahaina, Kaanapali & Pacific Railroad ( , it follows the route of a former sugar plantation line for 10km north from Lahaina, to Kaanapali and Puukolii. Its trains are regularly steam-hauled, albeit by non-Hawaiian power: in general use are two 2-4-0 tender locos, extensively rebuilt from 0-4-0STs produced by Porter in 1943 for the Carbon Limestone Company in the continental US (rebuilding has included equipping the locos with large bogie tenders for water and fuel oil). The undertaking also owns a small 1959-built diesel loco, ex-Oahu Railway. Owns as well a Baldwin 0-6-2ST from a sugar line on Oahu, “cosmetically restored” – there appear to be hopes of bringing it back into working order some time. It is believed that there is in the LK & P’s hands too, former Oahu Railway 4-6-0 no.85, planned to be the subject of a rebuild, but in a situation of prolonged bedevilment by acute boiler problems. The saddle-tank and no.85 are understood to have spent a considerable time in the Travel Town Museum in Los Angeles – having ultimately been returned to Hawaii, even if not to their own island !

The LK & P line is reported as fairly unexciting scenically – its most thrilling moment being a curved timber trestle bridge. And according to the “Rough Guide”, the train ride features a “singing conductor”. This last touch would likely be an incentive to the author, to pay to be let off having to travel on this railway; but at least the line has active steam, however inauthentic.

On the Big Island, there is a railway museum at Laupahoehoe (, on the Hawaai Consolidated Railway’s route north-west from Hilo. It boasts on static display a small diesel loco, a box car and a caboose – none of them ex-HCR; but it does reportedly contain many HCR photographs and small relics.

A much earlier Hawaiian rail preservation venture, though not very ambitious or successful, seems nonetheless worth a mention for the sake of its utterly splendid name: the Hibiscus & Heliconia Short Line Railroad. The scheme was promulgated by local railway enthusiasts, immediately after the mostly-closing of the Oahu Railway at the end of 1947. The OR made a gift to the preservationists of a first-class coach and an observation car, which they operated, by arrangement with one of Oahu’s sugar companies, over a section of that firm’s plantation rail system near Punaluu, on the coast south-east of Kahuku. The railfans ran excursions with their two vehicles at irregular intervals, initially hauled by steam power hired from the plantation railway; then after that outfit ceased, in 1950, to use steam, an ex-Navy diesel loco was employed. The sugar company’s abandoning their railway in favour of road transport in 1954, wrote “finis” to the whole thing. It would appear that the preservationists had lost much of their zeal for the project: funds and manpower were lacking to shift the two coaches to any other location, and the sugar firm destroyed them in situ. And so acclaim for the world’s first successful exercise in railway preservation attaches not to Hawaii’s Hibiscus & Heliconia, but to Britain’s Talyllyn.

A very long way southward in the Pacific – and something like two-thirds the distance from Australia, of that of Hawaii from the continental United States – is the island group of Fiji. This location – naturally delectable though it is – just barely makes the grade for acceptance by the author, vis-à-vis “public railways versus industrial / agricultural”. Fiji’s rail scene has always been one of narrow-gauge lines to serve the islands’ cane-sugar industry, their chief earner “since way back”.

Sugar railways of 610mm (exactly two feet) gauge, largely running more or less “coastwise” and originating in the late 19th century, span much of the group’s most prominent island, Viti Levu, and to a lesser extent the “No.2 island”, Vanua Levu. Combined route trackage for both islands is reckoned to have been 645km as at 1988. In earlier days, the railways were owned and operated by the Colonial Sugar Refining Company; succeeded by the present-time Fiji Sugar Corporation. These lines carry an intensive traffic in the cane-harvest season – antipodean winter and spring.

I would have classed Fiji’s railways as “interesting, but industrial”, and refrained from featuring the country in these articles, had it not been for Viti Levu’s playing host for a long while to one of the world’s very few free rail passenger services, no fares charged. It is understood that this arrangement originated with the colonial government’s having required this from the sugar company, in return for granting the right of way for building the rail lines. For the specific purpose of working the free passenger train, a rather graceful 4-4-0 tender locomotive, unique among Fiji’s motive power fleet, was ordered in 1915 from Hudswell Clarke: works number 1118, running number “Lautoka No.18”. This machine hauled semi-open coaches, appropriate to the local climate. Passenger train’s route (scenically beautiful, as on most Pacific islands) was of some hundred kilometres – the railways went where the cane fields and sugar mills were, serving certain towns basically along the island’s western side; but nothing was deliberately planned as a passenger-traffic artery. Things happened so to work out that Fiji’s international airport at Nadi, near the western end of Viti Levu, was established very close by the cane railway route – offering fifty or sixty years ago, a piquant juxtaposition / contrast of “ancient and modern” in transport.

It is gathered that the passenger trains were understandably popular. As at the 1950s (when the passenger service reportedly ran once-weekly) the operator had covered the coach roofs with barbed wire, to thwart roof-riders – a fair number of such users having been decapitated by the girders of the line’s numerous bridges. One fantasises about “Disgusted of Tavua” penning an irate letter to the Times of Fiji, along the lines of “whatever will the Nanny State think of to inflict on us next?”... A report from a visit in 1975 or early ‘76 tells of the free passenger train still running at that date, during the late May – November cane-cutting season – as of then diesel-hauled: the report mentions there having been no active steam anywhere in Fiji in the 1975 season, and possibly earlier ones. No mention found since, of the free passenger service – it seems reasonable to assume that it ceased to operate at some time post-1975.

In the heyday of steam in Fiji, the bulk of the cane-hauling power would appear to have been made up of 0-6-0 tender, or tender-tank, locos, largely by Hudswell Clarke or Fowler, some built as late as 1950. These were supplemented by a fair number of smaller, pure-tank locos. “Balloon stack” spark-arresters appear to have been standard fitments; the locos burnt a mixture of coal and sugar-cane waste. The solitary passenger 4-4-0 had, by contrast, an elegant parallel-sided tall chimney without spark-arrester. Diesel locomotives were appearing on the Fijian lines by the mid-1950s; but they appear to have taken most of twenty years to supersede steam completely.

Findings over recent decades would suggest that although times have become increasingly hard for Fiji’s cane-sugar industry, and the 610mm gauge railways serving it; both continue relatively going strong, on both islands, at the time of writing. There were suggestions as at the mid-2000s, that the Fiji Sugar Corporation were planning to do away with their rail system in favour of road vehicles, by 2007; happily, though, that has not occurred then, or since.

There has grown up in the past 25 years or so, a kind of substitute for the lamented free passenger service; though this new venture is far from free, in fact charging decidedly high fares. This tourist operation calls itself the Coral Coast Railway. Located near the south-western extremity of Viti Levu, it operates passenger trains over sections of the working Fiji Sugar Corporation railway; in the season, customers have the added pleasure of their train crossing en route, with cane trains. The CCR essentially operates once-daily return workings, depending on the season and the day of the week, from the up-market Fijian Hotel at Cuvu; in one direction, over the 16km to Natandola beach and back (including barbecue lunch at the beach); and in the other direction, to the town of Sigatoka and back, for shopping. Initially, the CCR’s chief motive power was 0-6-0 Lautoka No.11, Hudswell Clarke 972/1912 – adapted to be worked by a diesel-hydraulic plant in its tender. Supplementary power was an apparently rather home-made-seeming 0-4-0D. In recent times, Lautoka No.11 has been acquired by preservationists in Britain, and brought to the UK, together with a Hudswell Clarke 0-4-0ST, not used by the CCR but also from Lautoka sugar mill’s fleet. It would appear that Coral Coast traction at the present time, is furnished by genuine diesel locomotives not pretending to be anything else.

It is probably cause for thanksgiving, that the 0-6-0 and 0-4-0ST mentioned above, have reached a safe haven in Britain; because railway preservation seemingly does not rate highly in the current Fijian scheme of things. There have lately been found to be some half-dozen steam locos preserved static in Fiji, in varying conditions (in former times, there were more); lovingly looking after them does not seem to be a priority. The passenger 4-4-0, Lautoka No.18, spent a period of time after “retirement”, static in a park in its sugar-mill home town of Lautoka, in increasingly ruinous condition. It is thought to have last been seen, in that location, around 1988; it subsequently disappeared from the park, and enquiries about its fate have led nowhere. Scrapping would appear to be the likeliest end for it; but, “who knows?”.

Fiji looks to be a depressing place for the steam preservationist; but at the time of writing, good for enthusiasts relishing busy, gritty truly-commercial action, and able to tolerate same being all-diesel. There would seem to be no knowing for how much longer this scene may obtain. Even with infinite “world enough and time”, what is on offer here would not impel this author to make an emergency pilgrimage to Fiji before it was too late; but it has a definite degree of charm, and its demise – looking rather likely to happen fairly soon – would be saddening.

Useful internet links for further information.

Searching with Google for the "Kahului Railroad" throws up what seems to be a trailer for a historical documentary (that was never released?)

Searching with Google for "Oahu Railway and Land Company" brings up a colour film of steam trains in WW2, absolutely fascinating.

Google Images for "Oahu Railway" produces some excellent old stills, there are several YouTube videos of the current operation including

For a view of the totally touristy Maui sugar cane train, see

In terms of Fiji, the images from the definitive book 'Cane Train' have been uploaded by the Fiji Sugar Corporation (without permission, sadly; what can one say when such bodies are guilty of such copyright infringement?) - For a contemporary view of the current situation on the islands, you can read John Browning's sad account of 'preserved steam' and his rather more interesting account of his recent visit (

There are also some Youtube videos of the current operation, try which will lead to other related videos including

If anyone knows of suitable photographic material covering the Hawaii Consolidated Railway, do please get in touch.

Rob Dickinson