Southerner (New Zealand train)

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The Southerner was a passenger express train in New Zealand's South Island between Christchurch and Invercargill via Dunedin along the Main South Line that ran from Tuesday, 1 December 1970 to Sunday, 10 February 2002. It was one of the premier passenger trains in New Zealand and its existence made Invercargill the southernmost passenger station in the world.[1]

Before the Southerner[edit]

Express passenger trains on the Main South Line were some of the last services to be hauled by steam locomotives in New Zealand. These services, especially in the late 19th century and early 20th century, were the flagship of the passenger network and received the newest and best motive power and rolling stock. In the mid 20th century these expresses were augmented by evening railcars between Christchurch and Dunedin.[1]

In the days of steam-hauled expresses, one particular part of the Main South Line gained an element of fame. Mail was carried as well as passengers, and the process of delivering and receiving mail at stations during the journey would often delay the express. For this reason, when locomotive drivers hit the relatively flat, straight track of the Canterbury Plains approaching Christchurch, they would seek to run as fast as possible and try to make up as much lost time as they could. Many claims were made of passing the official New Zealand rail speed record of 125 kilometres per hour (78 mph) set by a Vulcan railcar in trials, and the line came to be known as the "racetrack".[1]


By the late 1960s steam motive power had been phased out from the North Island, and a serious effort was being made to replace it with diesel-electric engines in the South. The introduction of the DJ class in 1968 sealed steam's fate, and in 1970 plans were made to introduce a diesel-hauled express to replace the premier express between Christchurch, Dunedin, and Invercargill, the South Island Limited, named the Southerner. It would be hauled by members of the DJ class, and unlike the steam-hauled expresses, it would not carry mail. It began service on 1 December 1970.[1]

The business model behind the Southerner was a limited-stop service, stopping only at major towns, with feeder bus services to smaller towns bypassed by the train. The introduction of buffet cars, the first time since the removal of dining cars in the 1930s as an economy measure, also eliminated the "pie and cuppa" refreshment stops, which added time and inconvenience to the journey. The Southerner was a single-class train using former first class carriages. As a result, all passengers enjoyed wide reclining seats arranged two-and-one, significantly greater comfort than other rail or bus options provided at the time.[1]

Despite the introduction of the Southerner, steam-hauled expresses continued to operate on Friday and Sunday evenings for almost 11 months. The last one ran on 26 October 1971; this was the last steam-hauled regularly scheduled revenue service in New Zealand. The service was replaced with a diesel-hauled train, which continued until 1979. The evening railcars lasted a few years longer, but the age of the Vulcan railcars was becoming increasingly obvious and the service was canceled in April 1976 without replacement. After 1979, the Southerner was the only long-distance passenger service on the Main South Line.[1]

Rolling stock[edit]

The original Southerner stock consisted of ten (later 12) single-toilet South Island Main Trunk Railway first class carriages, two (later three) full buffet cars, three vans and, in the 1980s, three wooden 50-ft bogie box wagons for parcels, formed into two trains. All passenger cars were rebuilt NZR 56-foot carriages dating from 1938–1945.[1]

A pressure-ventilated former composite first class (14 seats) and second class (28 seats) car and the only 56-ft car to serve in a Vice Regal capacity for a Governor-General as a kitchen carriage for the 1934-built North Island Vice Regal car[2] (hence the unique design) were rebuilt as full buffet cars, incorporating full length counters and 20 stools. In 1973, a former double-toilet (later designated a North Island Main Trunk Railway first class car) was rebuilt as a third buffet car. Two cars retained their "coupe" compartment for train staff, one car for each train, and one car in each train retained their compartments for hostesses.[1]

New bogies and seats[edit]

The buffet cars were fitted with new Japanese bogies of Kinki-Sharyo manufacture. Compared to the Timken spring bogies under the other carriages and vans, they bogies offered a superior quality ride - passengers complained about the riding quality of the other cars. The bucket seats were reupholstered in Teal blue vinyl.[1]

With the success of new Korean bogies underneath Northerner carriages, the Southerner cars were also fitted with this type of bogie. Work on car underframes was less substantial than that carried out on the Northerner.[1]

InterCity Rail upgrade[edit]

In the 1980s NZR Addington Workshops designed a new seat and these had proved successful in Picton/Greymouth cars, so the Southerner cars received these seats also, increasing seating capacity from 29 or 33 to 45 or 50 per car.[1]

Once new seats were installed, one 45-seat car with staff compartment and one 50-seat car without were sent to the North Island for use on the two Gisborne Expresses. In their place on the Southerner were two 32-seat Endeavour cars.[1]

With delays in the overhaul and refurbishment of all the InterCity Rail stock, the Southerner suffered most. From late 1987, with the Northerner requiring replacement stock, eight carriages from the Southerner were refurbished for the task. This resulted in the remaining three Southerner cars, cars from the Picton/Greymouth pool and two former Picton/Greymouth cars that were heavily refurbished and overhauled for the new TranzAlpine Express keeping the services running, and also saw the standard of service drop considerably. The three full buffet cars were still utilised. The two TranzAlpine cars had their Addington seat numbers reduced from 52 to 50. The seats were reupholstered and modified before being reinstalled, and were re-arranged into bays of four, alcove-style, around tables. These two cars, still retaining their small windows, were permanently allocated to the Southerner when the TranzAlpine was made an all-panorama train.[1]


At the same time the InterCity refurbishment programme started, a private tourist firm leased a Southerner carriage and marketed it as The Connoisseur car. It was thoroughly overhauled and refurbished, and offered users a more upmarket service.[1]

In 1988, three more red Picton/Greymouth cars and an Endeavour car were refurbished for the Southerner, entering service Monday, 4 July 1988, joining the two cars already fitted as such. The Endeavour car and one Picton/Greymouth car were fitted out as servery cars, each seating 31 in bays of four, alcove-style. The other two cars seated 50 alcove-style. The seats were reupholstered and new carpet laid down in all four cars. Two Mitsubishi FM vans were equipped with 11 kW generators on their handbrake ends and became power-baggage vans for the "new" trains. Its reintroduction also saw the ceasation of parcels traffic on the trains.[1]

This seating arrangement, while accepted on the TranzAlpine, Coastal Pacific, and Bay Expresses, proved unsuccessful on the Southerner, so one car from each set had seating re-arranged to a forward-facing layout.[1]

Replacement rolling stock[edit]

On 27 August 1993, a former Wairarapa Connection car turned NIMT servery car was brought in to replace the servery car damaged in the Rolleston accident two days earlier (see below), along with three refurbished Auckland excursion cars and their 37.5 kW FM van, and the first of the two Bay Express panorama cars was also allocated to the train as the initial attempt to re-equip it with panorama cars.[1]

In September 1995, five of the first batch of 11 non-air conditioned panorama cars were thoroughly overhauled, air conditioning and a new-style seat (as in the third three-car Northerner and Overlander set) were installed. Two of these were permanently allocated to the Southerner, the second two temporarily, with the fifth juggling duties between Invercargill, Greymouth and Picton. The two original servery/observation cars were similarly refurbished. The third TranzAlpine/Coastal Pacific and the first of the two Southerner 11 kW power/baggage vans were fitted with newer, more powerful generators (though less powerful than their NIMT counterparts) and the Southerner van had its public viewing module re-enclosed for luggage carriage again. Later that year, when the Bay Express was re-equipped with two of those seven refurbished cars, the original two Bay Express cars were similarly refurbished and permanently allocated to the Southerner.[1]

Additional services[edit]

After air-conditioned panorama cars were introduced, the trains' popularity increased to the extent that Tranz Scenic introduced extra Christchurch-Dunedin, Invercargill-Christchurch, Christchurch-Invercargill and Dunedin-Christchurch services on Fridays, numbered #903 to #906. These were short-lived, ceasing after the 1996 Waimate level-crossing accident (see below).[1]

Patronage continued to fall away, even when from 1993 onwards panorama cars were introduced to this service. Two cars came from the original Bay Express, two were Southerner cars turned panorama cars for the TranzAlpine and Coastal Pacific and one car that was formerly The Connoisseur car (also an original Southerner car). Two Picton/Greymouth cars turned panorama cars also served these trains until joining the Bay Express to Napier. The original TranzAlpine servery/observation car and its Coastal Pacific equivalent were assigned to the Southerner.[1]


On Wednesday, 25 August 1993, the southbound Southerner, consisting of a DF class locomotive, passenger car with luggage space at one end, servery car, day car and the second of three TranzAlpine and Coastal Pacific power-baggage vans, was hit at Rolleston by a concrete mixing truck. The bowl of the truck bounced off all three passenger cars, and ripped two wide open. Three people were killed,[3] one of whom was Louise Cairns, daughter of former New Zealand cricketer Lance Cairns and sister of then-representative Chris Cairns. Chris Cairns has since become a campaigner for safety around the rail corridor and level-crossings through the Chris Cairns Foundation, which later became known as TrackSAFE Foundation New Zealand.[1]

Two days later, a replacement train consisting of three recently refurbished cars and the Mitsubishi FM power and baggage van with 37.5 kW generator from the Auckland excursion fleet was brought in to supplement the remaining four Southerner cars. The first and second of these temporary replacement cars seated 50, alcove-style, like the Southerner cars, but with a more modern seat, seen on upgraded Masterton cars and the NIMT cars. The third car seated 54 in the same type of seat, but with all seats facing into two centre tables, one on each side of the aisle. The NIMT car turned buffet car in 1973 returned to the train as part of the replacement consist.[1]

On Thursday, 14 November 1996, one of the two Southerner trains was involved in a level-crossing accident at Waimate, killing four people.[1]

The train was involved in another accident in July 2000, colliding with a ute at Edendale, 53 kilometres (33 mi) north of Invercargill.[1]

On Monday, 8 January 2001, the southbound Southerner was again involved in a level crossing accident, with a cattle truck. The DC-class locomotive and two of three passenger carriages were derailed, injuring 21 passengers and forcing the destruction of ten cattle.[4]


The advantages of the new technology and the removal of delays caused by the carriage of mail, and the elimination of refreshment stops (with the inclusion of a buffet car) became apparent instantly, with the travel time between Christchurch and Dunedin cut by almost an hour from 7 hours 9 minutes to 6 hours 14 minutes. Typically, two DJ diesels hauled the train, and when a third was added to increase power on the rugged, difficult line between Oamaru and Dunedin, another 19 minutes was slashed from the schedule.[1]

Dining service[edit]

The Southerner was notable for being the first train to include a full dining service on New Zealand Railways since the abolition of dining cars as an economy measure in World War I. The Southerner had a full service buffet car with 20 seats that served hot meals and cafeteria style food, replaced in the early 1990s with a buffet bar service for passengers to purchase food to be consumed at their seats.[1]

Demise and withdrawal[edit]

By the 1990s, the DJ class had been largely withdrawn from service and other locomotives hauled the Southerner, including the DC and DX classes.[1]

The service ran at a loss and had been supported by government subsidies until these were abolished for all long-distance passenger trains in 1989. New Zealand Rail changed the seating configuration by replacing the very generous seat pitch three abreast configuration with a more standard four abreast, with reduced (but still generous compared to bus) seat pitch. The full service buffet car was replaced with a buffet servery. Both measures reduced costs significantly, but the service was challenged by the increasing number of low-cost shuttle bus services, particularly between Christchurch and Dunedin, which were significantly cheaper than the train. Nonetheless, the Southerner still operated seven days a week, one service each way.[1]

As branch lines were nearly non-existent, with those still in use not open to passenger trains, and as Dunedin's suburban passenger services had been withdrawn by 1982, it was the sole regular train to stop at the famous Dunedin Railway Station, once the country's busiest station. At this time, the typical consist comprised two/three carriages and a power/luggage van, and the southbound journey from Christchurch and Dunedin was timetabled to take 5 hours 46 minutes, with an additional 3 hours 19 minutes to reach Invercargill. Northbound, the journey from Invercargill to Dunedin was scheduled at 3 hours 28 minutes, with another 5 hours 27 minutes to Christchurch.[1]

It continued to face increased bus competition, and with increased car ownership and competition in the airline industry, the Southerner seemed unable to find a profitable niche.[1]

In 2001, a 50% share in long-distance passenger services was sold to directors of Australian company West Coast Railway, but neither it nor any other company elected to purchase the Southerner without the promise of a subsidy. The Ministry of Economic Development funded a feasibility study into the economic impact of subsidising the Southerner, but this failed to demonstrate a viable business case for the service - patronage had fallen to an average of between 40 and 50 people per day in each direction. This was roughly half what was necessary to make the train viable. As neither airline nor bus services along the route were subsidised, the government decided not to subsidise the train and its demise was inevitable.[1]

Public outcry failed to save the train, and the last services ran on Sunday, 10 February 2002. The carriages were re-allocated to the TranzAlpine between Christchurch and Greymouth and the TranzCoastal between Christchurch and Picton. Invercargill lost its status as the southernmost passenger station in the world.[1]

After the Southerner[edit]

The Main South Line is now almost wholly without any passenger trains. The northern portion between Christchurch and Rolleston is still used by the TranzAlpine, and Dunedin Railway Station and the Main South Line to Wingatui remain in use as by the Taieri Gorge Limited, a popular daily tourist train operated by the Taieri Gorge Railway along the former Otago Central Railway. Taieri Gorge Railway also runs the weekly Seasider on the section of line between Dunedin and Palmerston.[1]

With rising demand for travel, especially to and from Invercargill, there is now some talk of reinstating the Southerner on an Invercargill-Dunedin-Invercargill daily rotation. With Otago University and Southern Institute of Technology encouraging studies between the two popular campuses, students would benefit if enough interest was generated. KiwiRail has stated that it has no interest in services but said a private operator would be assisted if an attempt was made to operate the route.[1]

In December 2016 KiwiRail announced that it was considering establishing a new Southerner style service operating a Christchurch-Dunedin return service from June 2017. Rolling stock to operate the new service would utilise that previously used by Coastal Pacific service, which has been indefinitely cancelled following the large Kaikoura earthquake in November 2016 which caused major damage to the Main North Line between Christchurch and Picton.[citation needed]

In June 2017 the government made a grant of $50,000 to evaluate the business case for reinstating the Southerner.[5]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah Churchman, Geoffrey B., and Hurst, Tony; The Railways Of New Zealand: A Journey Through History, HarperCollins Publishers (New Zealand), 1991 reprint
  2. ^ "NZ History - Vice Regal Car". Retrieved 28 December 2011. 
  3. ^ "Rail Reports". Retrieved 2016-01-15. 
  4. ^ "21 hurt as train and truck collide in Canterbury". The New Zealand Herald. 9 January 2001. 
  5. ^ "$50k for Southern Rail business case". Stuff (Fairfax Media). 23 June 2017. 

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