The worst railway accidents for numbers of people killed and injured were:
- Ōngarue in 1923
- Hyde in 1943
- Tangiwai in 1953.
In early July 1923 heavy rain fell, swamping the country around Ōngarue, north of Taumarunui. As the Auckland–Wellington express approached near dawn on 6 July, a landslide engulfed the line. The train rounded a corner and ploughed into the slip. There was major damage to the first three carriages, and at least 12 passengers were killed instantly. In the third carriage a gas tank exploded, and the fire that broke out threatened the lives of trapped passengers. Fortunately another slip put out the flames before rescuers arrived. Seventeen people were killed or died of injuries, and another 30 were seriously hurt.
On 4 June 1943 the Cromwell to Dunedin express was heading along the Central Otago railway with 131 passengers, most bound for the Dunedin winter show. The train was travelling at high speed – it turned out that the driver was drunk. Near the township of Hyde, the train approached a sharp corner at about 112 kilometres an hour instead of the recommended 48. The engine rolled and all seven carriages were derailed, the first four piling into each other. Many passengers were thrown out, but others were trapped in the wreckage. Twenty-one people were killed, and many others were injured. The driver was later convicted of manslaughter.
Lahar damages bridge
The worst railway disaster in New Zealand’s history occurred on Christmas Eve 1953, at Tangiwai, north-west of Waiōuru on the North Island main trunk line.
A wall of the crater lake on Mt Ruapehu breached, and around 2 million cubic metres of water surged downstream, collecting rocks, silt, trees, chunks of ice and other debris along the way. The phenomenon, known as a lahar, swept away a pier of the railway bridge over the Whangaehu River at about 10.17 p.m., minutes before a train approached.
Train plunges into the river
A Taihape postal worker, Cyril Ellis, later said he signalled the driver of the north-bound Wellington–Auckland express before it reached the damaged bridge. Although the driver tried to slow down, he could not stop, and the weight of the train caused the rest of the bridge to collapse. The engine and first five carriages plunged into the torrent, and many passengers were thrown into the murky water or trapped in submerged carriages.
Preventing another Tangiwai
Following the Tangiwai disaster of 1953, lahar warning devices were installed on railway bridges across all rivers between Waiōuru and National Park. In 2003 a sophisticated alarm network was also set up on Mt Ruapehu, and engineering works were carried out to lessen the effects of another major lahar. The system worked perfectly when there was a lahar in March 2007.
A passing motorist, Arthur Bell, was able to rescue passengers from one carriage stranded on an embankment. The sixth carriage teetered on the brink of the ruined bridge, and Ellis and the train’s guard, William Inglis, entered it and urged the passengers to get out – but too late. It broke away from the last three carriages, toppled into the water, and was washed a distance before it came to rest. Ellis, Inglis and a passenger, John Holman, helped the occupants out a broken window and they clung to the rocking carriage until the waters abated.
The human toll
Rescue workers found a scene of devastation, and the task of finding and identifying victims took several days. Of the 285 people on the train, 151 died. Twenty bodies were never found, and another 21 could not be identified initially; this number was eventually reduced to eight. Queen Elizabeth II, who was touring New Zealand at the time, awarded Cyril Ellis and John Holman the George Medal, and William Inglis and Arthur Bell the British Empire Medal for their bravery.