Whilst as a project the records we’re making available are focused on Britain and Ireland, we’re interested in how railway safety has played out in the past across the world. We’ve featured international posts before, where they’ve involved British workers overseas. However, this guest post breaks new ground for us, focusing solely on an international case with no direct British or Irish connection. We’re grateful to long-term project friend, André Brett, for putting this post together for us – particularly as it marks a personal connection with a deeply traumatic event for New Zealand’s railways.
New Zealanders live on islands that are beautiful, mysterious—and shaky. In recent weeks, I have travelled around the North Island and received multiple reminders of the effects of geological activity on the country’s people and history. As I entered Rotorua, the famed geothermal playground, haze on the horizon signified the unfolding tragedy on Whakaari/White Island—an active volcano where 19 people, tourists and guides, died in a sudden eruption. A few days later, I explored MTG Hawke’s Bay, the museum of Napier. It has an excellent exhibit on the defining moment in that city’s recent history: the earthquake of 3 February 1931 that took 256 lives.
And in the heart of the island, between the army town Waiōuru and the “carrot capital of New Zealand” Ōhakune, I made a deeply personal visit to Tangiwai, where the North Island Main Trunk Railway crosses the Whangaehu River.
On Christmas Eve 1953, three young men in Palmerston North boarded the second carriage of an Auckland-bound express train from Wellington: Richard Edward Brett (“Ted” to everyone), aged 18; his best friend John Cockburn, 17; and John’s younger brother Douglas, 12. They had journeyed from Masterton to connect with the express and spend Christmas with relatives in Auckland. Ted, an enthusiastic photographer, bought night film in the hope that during the journey he could photograph Mount Ruapehu, the largest active volcano in New Zealand and tallest mountain in the North Island. John had previously climbed to Ruapehu’s crater lake, which feeds the Whangaehu. The train left Waiōuru on time at 10:09pm; most passengers in the second carriage were dozing, including John and Douglas, but Ted sat awake, waiting for a good photographic opportunity.
Up the front of the train in oil-fuelled steam locomotive KA 949, Charles Parker (driver) and Lance Redman (fireman) set a steady pace of 40 miles per hour (65 km/h) across the Central Plateau towards Tangiwai. Station agent Raymond Hall awaited the express’s passage—it was not to stop at the small village, but it needed to exchange a tablet for safeworking. Niko Stephens, a local farmer, briefly called in to ask Hall a question, then departed at 10:12pm. The station sat on the Waiōuru side of the river, and when Stephens drove home across the road bridge, the river appeared normal. A few minutes later, another motorist, Cyril Ellis, found it impassable: a thick torrent of water, mud, and volcanic debris was roaring over the road and rail bridges. This lahar had come from Ruapehu. An eruption in 1945 formed a tephra dam across the outflow of the crater lake, which grew in volume until that evening, when the dam collapsed.
Hall, at Tangiwai station, watched the express pass on time at 10:20pm; the sound of the lahar did not reach him. Ellis, riverside, noticed the train with horror and ran onto the railway track waving a torch and screaming. Parker and Redman saw Ellis or the flooded bridge, shut off the oil supply, applied emergency brakes, and sanded the rails heavily. But it was too late: the train flew into the air and the locomotive slammed into the opposite bank of the river. The first five carriages, all second class, followed it off the bridge and were torn apart by the force of the water—the fifth carriage came to rest 2.5 kilometres downriver. The sixth carriage, the leading first-class carriage, teetered on the bridge’s edge before toppling in. The remaining three first-class carriages, postal van, and guard’s van remained on the tracks. Hall could see the train’s tail lights motionless in the distance and thought it might have dropped the safeworking tablet until he reached the bridge, saw the devastation, and raised the alarm.
Of 285 people aboard the express, 151 died: 148 of the 176 second-class passengers, one first-class passenger, and the locomotive crew. Much of this entry is drawn from testimony held in files at Archives New Zealand or given in subsequent interviews. Ted Brett never forgot the shock of the water—it was icy, sulphuric, and oil from the burst locomotive tender made it all the more noxious. Other survivors have recounted similar bracing conditions. Ted was swept to a sheltered part of the river and lived, one of only two survivors from the second carriage. John and Douglas Cockburn died; John’s body was one of twenty never found.
The crew of the train demonstrated considerable bravery. Parker and Redman remained at the controls of their engine as it plunged off the bridge. Their desperate efforts to stop the train meant the last five carriages stayed on the track and saved the lives of over a hundred people. The guard, William Inglis, almost lost his life too. He, with Cyril Ellis, entered the sixth carriage as it teetered on the shattered bridge. As they assessed the situation, the carriage toppled into the torrent. All but one of the occupants survived through the quick actions of Inglis, Ellis, and John Holman, a passenger. Queen Elizabeth II, who began a tour of New Zealand the previous day, granted them awards for bravery: Ellis and Holman received the George Medal; Inglis and Arthur Bell, another passing motorist who rescued passengers, received the British Empire Medal.
Formal recognition for the deceased locomotive crew came much later. Awards for gallantry such as the George Medal were not made posthumously at the time. Parker and Redman’s bravery was never in question, nor did the board of inquiry into the disaster question their competence as enginemen. The board’s report states that Parker and Redman fulfilled all their responsibilities and were not responsible for the loss of life—although its tone is rather reserved, and the board could have gone further to underscore that the two men saved many lives. It was not until 2017 that a memorial to Parker and Redman was unveiled at Tangiwai; the original monument names only the victims.
I wrote at the start of this narrative that visiting Tangiwai was deeply personal. Close readers will have noticed I share a last name with Ted Brett and presumed a connection. Ted, who lived until 2008, was my grandfather. After the disaster, he grew close to Patricia Cockburn, the older sister of John and Douglas, and they married in April 1955. Earlier this decade flower stations were added to the original memorial to acknowledge the survivors, and for this year’s anniversary a new explanatory panel telling their stories is being unveiled nearby. Ted’s picture is on there, next to Anne Lennox, the other survivor from the second carriage.
The disaster also continues to resonate with railway workers. A wreath is traditionally thrown from the railway bridge into the Whangaehu on Christmas Eve. For the New Zealand Railways, Tangiwai was an “easy” disaster, an act of nature for which nobody was culpable. It contrasted sharply with the Hyde disaster of 4 June 1943, when a train derailed at speed in Central Otago and 21 passengers died. It was, at the time, the greatest loss of life on New Zealand’s rails. Officials readily let the driver—who may or may not have been drunk—receive all the blame, as this deflected serious questions about staffing and maintenance. As it happens, I am related to a survivor and victims of that disaster too—perhaps a second blog entry awaits next June…
Dr André Brett is a Vice-Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow in History at the University of Wollongong, Australia. He has previously written about the Tangiwai disaster for the Dominion Post and Arcadia. He is the author of three books, including one on the role of public works in the demise of New Zealand’s provincial governments of 1853–76. His next book will be an account of New Zealand’s shrinking passenger rail network, 1920–2020, in conjunction with mapmaker Sam van der Weerden, and he is writing an enviro-economic history of railways in Australasia, 1850s–1914.