Ohinemuri Regional History Journal 53, September 2009
(by J. A. T. Terry)
In 1925 from the Sentinel Wagon Works Limited at Shewsbury, England, the New Zealand Railways Department imported a Sentinel Cammell railcar, which was used for night service in the late 1920s on the Hamilton-Thames line.
It measured 56ft 6in overall with a width of 8ft and weighed a little under 20 tons in working order. The body was of steel construction, the power unit articulated and a vertical boiler mounted in the driving compartment supplied steam to two cylinders. Transmission from the crankshaft to the two driving axles was by chain and sprockets. The maximum speed was 45 mph. There was sufficient water for 50 miles and the bunker held enough coal for 80 miles. It could be driven from either end.
It had electric light and curtains in place of blinds. There was seating accommodation for 48 second-class passengers. The throw-over seats of the tramway type were upholstered in green buff-hide. It was numbered RM1.
In the 1925 Railway Statement (AJHR D2) the Minister, Mr J. C. Coates stated in respect of the trains: "The Sentinel steam-car has been in service for some months between Melling and Wellington and the working costs, suitability, etc., are being very closely watched so that results may be accurately gauged before such cars are placed on sections for which they may be found satisfactory".
The car worked the Wellington-Melling line up until the new year of 1926 when it was withdrawn for repairs. By mid-August, April, 1926, they had been completed and the car resumed running.
Efforts were made to speed up the timetable but it was found that although the vehicle was capable of 40mph it could not maintain that speed. The service was to be continued but it was not altogether satisfactory from the Department's point of view.
In his 1926 report on the subject of rail motors the Minister of Railways stated: "The Sentinel steam-car has been tried during the year on the Wellington-Melling line. Its construction does not admit of a speed in keeping with the requirements of suburban traffic and its usefulness is in consequence limited. Arrangements are being made to place the car of the Frankton-Thames section at an early date". The Ohinemuri MP, Mr O. M. Samuel, on June 25, 1926, confirmed this.
On Monday, September 13, 1926, the service commenced. It ran daily from Frankton, Saturday excepted, departing at 10.35 p.m., Paeroa at 1.05 a.m. and arriving Thames 2.15 a.m. It was No. 313. The return service, No. 312, ran daily, Sundays excepted, departing Thames at 3.30 a.m., Paeroa at 4.34 a.m. and arriving Frankton 6.49 a.m.
Both trains would stop when required for passengers and in addition No. 313 stopped to put out newspapers. Both trains ran without tablet between Hamilton and Thames. The Hamilton stationmaster had to see that the Hamilton shunting engine was not despatched to Claudlands before the arrival of No. 312 and that any shunting engines working between Hamilton and Ruakura had returned to Hamilton before despatching No. 313.
After arriving at Frankton at 6.49 a.m. on Saturday morning the car remained at Frankton until departing for Thames at 10.35 p.m. on Sunday.
From September 26, 1926, there were changes. No. 313 now ran without tablet between Frankton and Thames and No. 312 departed Thames at 3.15 a.m. arriving Frankton at 6.30 a.m. From December 5, 1926, No. 313 now ran without tablet between Morrinsville and Thames. This was necessary as a new passenger train, No. 315, left Frankton at 10.30 p.m., the railcar followed five minutes behind it. This required the tablets stations of Ruakura, Eureka and Morrinsville being open for tablet purposes.
Both the Waikato Times and New Zealand Herald in their issues of December 1, 1926, carried an item on the running of the car. The Herald stated that the service had received very satisfactory patronage during the few weeks it had been in operation. The average number of passengers carried on each trip had been 30. On Sunday nights, particular, the demand for accommodation had been very heavy and on several occasions the car had been full.
While a new crew was being trained during a trial run of the car between Frankton and Ohaupo a few days ago the car broke down. A steam box was broken and the car was out of commission for about 10 days until a new box had been cast and fitted. The service was being carried out with an ordinary engine, carriage and guards van.
The Waikato Times mentioned the car again missed the connection with the north bound express the other day owing to a breakdown. It did not pass through Morrinsville until 7 a.m. (normal time was 5.35 a.m.). This was the second time within a fortnight that this had occurred and several passengers from Morrinsville had been disappointed on consequence.
For the year ended March 31, 1927, the annual report of the Railways Board of Management stated: "During the year experiments with various designs of rail motors have continued. One steam rail-car is doing useful work as a subsidised newspaper train running between Frankton Junction and Thames."
On September 3, 1927, the car was towed to the Newmarket Workshops for repairs. On October 11, 1927, before returning to Frankton, for trial purposes it ran between Auckland and Papakura between noon and 4 p.m.
The Waikato Times on March 3, 1928, carried a report on the Morrinsville Chamber of Commerce monthly meeting. The steam car, although not paying the Department, had proved a great boon to the people between Frankton and Thames.
At its September meeting the Te Aroha Chamber of Commerce discussed the question of whether the car was to cease running. A member said the train was very important to Te Aroha and it would be a serious matter if it was discontinued. He had heard that the proprietors of the Auckland Star (whose paper was carried on the car) was going back to their old delivery system. The chamber decided to write to the publishers.
There was no doubt that the car was of benefit to passengers from Thames and other eastern stations. Previously passengers from these stations had to wait overnight in Frankton in order to catch either of the main trunk expresses for Auckland in the morning. Returning from Auckland by these trains in the evenings they were required to spend a night at Frankton. Now they could leave home early in the morning, spend the whole day in Auckland and return home in the evening.
The Waikato Times of February 2,1929, published a timetable amendment, no starting date was given but probably operating from Sunday, February 10. Railcar trains 312 and 313 ceased to run. In their place a mixed train left Frankton for Waihi daily (except Saturdays) at 10.23 p.m., arriving at 2.12 a.m.. A returned service departed Waihi (except Sundays) at 3.10 a.m., arriving Frankton at 6.30 a.m. The train numbers remained the same.
On May 27, 1929, under its own steam the car left Frankton for the Hutt workshops. It did not run again.
Years ago I spoke to some old drivers who had been at Frankton during the time of the car. All said it often laid up for long periods. For the year ended March 31, 1928, the first full year of the car running on the Thames line, it ran 16,888 train miles plus 1348 miles on shunting and miscellaneous duties. It was in steam for 147 days.
The distance between Frankton and Thames was 62 miles 53 chains and each week the car would make 12 trips. For a full year this would amount to 624 trips. Taking the distance between the two centres as 16.5 miles, in a full year the car should have run 39,000 miles, but it only ran 16,888. This confirmed what the old drivers told me.
On May 7, 1931 advice was given that car had been permanently withdrawn and could be written off.
(References: NZR Staff Bulletin Vol. 2 No 1; Railway Statements (AJHR D2) 1925-1939; NZR working timetables and train advices 192501930; Waikato Times, New Zealand Herald, Morrinsville Star odd issues.)