The International Steam Pages


Once upon a time, long ago,
New Zealand's Last Great Steam Train, 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. There are a series of pages on this train:


As a Mainlander born and bred New Zealand's Last Great Steam Train would unquestionably have to be the South Island Limited Express! Six days a week 143 would leave Christchurch at 08.40 for Invercargill and six days a week 144 would leave Invercargill at 07.40 for Christchurch. It took two engine changes and eleven hours forty minutes for the trains to reach their respective destinations three hundred and sixty seven miles away. 

When the diesel timetable was introduced in March 1969 steam was still needed to provide heating for the passenger cars. Apart from the few short months in summer when this was unnecessary steam continued until 1 December 1970 when the upgraded, diesel hauled, Southerner took over the run. (Steam pushed on though until October 1971 on the twice weekly overnight expresses between Invercargill & Christchurch and Christchurch & Dunedin. Night trains don't qualify as great trains though and I was already in the North Island by then anyway!) 

As a young fella in the late fifties/early sixties it was 144 that took me from my Invercargill home to relatives at Timaru and then two weeks later 143 returning me home. In 1963 the family moved to Christchurch and 143 became the train of choice to head south on for holidays and then, later in the sixties, railfan activities. 

So join me for a nostalgic look at the South Island Limited Express in the latter half of 1968...... 

It's a misty, winter's morning and only just starting to clear as Ja1253 makes a spirited getaway with 143. The outline of the Christchurch station can just be seen to the left of the passenger cars. 

Seven miles into its journey and an unknown Ja, with coal piled high in its tender, is well into its stride as it roars out from behind the Islington station signal box. 

Ja1248 at Timaru with a fairly standard sized 143. Three second class cars (probably two smoker and one non), two first class (one smoker and one non), a guards van and tucked away at the rear the road sider wagon for parcels traffic. The fireman is crouching down between the tender and the first carriage either coupling or uncoupling the loco: ten minutes was allowed to water the Ja here. No hi-viz jackets back then! 

At school holiday times, with more people wanting to travel, the Express would often warrant double heading. Two unidentified Ja move their southbound train over a small bridge south of Timaru. I knew this spot as Normanby as a station with the same name once existed nearby.

Northbound 144 left Timaru around 4.30 in the afternoon and in winter this was very close to dusk. Under threatening skies Ja1265 gets underway for its one hundred mile dash north to Christchurch. 

Southbound on the Canterbury Plains another double header rushes an August school holiday express along. State Highway 1 runs alongside the railway for most of the twenty eight miles between Ashburton and Orari and it was on this stretch that the locos could really show what they were capable of.........officially the speed limit was 50mph but touching 60 was commonplace. You could sit with watch in hand timing the mileposts flashing by waiting for the magic minute and maybe even less to be reached!

Ja1264 taking its first drink of the day, since leaving Christchurch, at Rakaia.

Later in the morning and 1264 is now waiting at Temuka to cross a goods hauled by English Electric diesel Dg756. When crossings occurred there could be time for a photo especially if there was going to be a loco crew change. Also the tablet, allowing occupation of the single line ahead, still had to go through the station tablet machine giving the express the necessary protection to proceed. This all took time.

That afternoon Ja1264 was now running the northbound 144 seen here rolling into Timaru. On the right sister 1265 waits to head south on a goods. In the distance the South end signal box and departure semaphore signals. 

Glory days indeed...........

In 'Cavalcade of New Zealand Locomotives' by AN Palmer and WW Stewart, published in 1964, the authors wrote: 'Although the South Island Ja were the last of their breed to be built for the New Zealand Railways, it is of some comfort to railway enthusiasts that these fine locomotives should be in service for many years to come'. Regrettably the authors prediction did not come true and apart from six preserved all had unfortunately short careers due to the arrival of diesels.
Ja 1248 was around the longest, built in 1948 it lasted until July 1971, a total of twenty three years.
Ja 1253 was built in 1949 and lasted until the final demise of steam in November 1971: twenty two years.
Ja 1264 & 1265 had even shorter careers: 1264 spanned a mere fifteen years from 1954 to 1969 with 1265 lasting nineteen years from 1950 to 1969.


Rob Dickinson

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