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New Zealand has seen some dramatic train crashes with the highest rates of injuries and deaths recorded between the 1920s and 1940s, our peak years of rail travel. One of these crashes is the Ongarue disaster of 1923 where 17 passengers lost their lives and 30 sustained serious injuries. Lisa McLean tells us more...

On 5th July 1923, the Auckland to Wellington express was timetabled to leave Auckland at 7.10 pm but was held for more than four hours while authorities waited for updates on swollen areas of the Waikato River, the express eventually left at 11.25 pm with 200 passengers on board. 

At around 5.52 am the next morning, as the locomotive rounded a curve just south of Ongarue it struck a landslip. Lodged within the landslip a boulder of roughly 1.5 metres in diameter caused the locomotive to derail causing the first and second carriages to telescope completely. The third carriage was partly telescoped onto the second. The postal van, between the locomotive and first carriage, was almost undamaged. About four chains (88 yards, 80 metres) of track were torn up.

The driver said that he had shut off steam and the train was proceeding downhill at a speed between 25 to 30 miles per hour (42–50 km/h). As the train rounded a bend he got a glimpse of the slip but the engine was ploughing through it before he could apply brakes. He thought the train could have cleared the slip safely but for the boulder which was carried along for two or three chains (44–66 yards, 40–60 metres).

The end of the line on the Stratford to Okahukura Line.

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. The train's guard sent a sleeping-car attendant back along the track to Ongarue to raise the alarm, it was two hours before a relief train from Taumarunui arrived.

A Detective who was travelling in one of the unharmed carriages said at the time he was not aware there were casualties until a call went out for doctors, and even then he disembarked
expecting to find people with only minor wounds. Instead he found a scene of carnage. The trains guard provided a graphic description of the aftermath and warm praise for the rescuers, which included a Maori representative football team. “Hedged in as we were, the work of rescue was rendered most difficult. With three carriages literally welded together and the passengers in an awful plight. Inside there were indescribable scenes of confusion and splintered wreckage. Some in the front end were dead and others pinned down.”

Seventeen passengers lost their lives while 30 were seriously injured, the Ongarue disaster standing as the third worst railway disaster in New Zealand’s history.


Pictured above: The end of the Stratford to Okahukura Line between Ongarue and Okahukura. Photographer: Lisa McLean