At its peak in the early 1950s, New Zealand’s rail system had more than 1,350 railway stations, ranging from grand urban monuments to simple country sheds. The station was a place of welcome and farewell, anticipation and sorrow. Politicians and government officials, businessmen and commercial travellers, sports teams, circuses and entertainers, soldiers bound for or returning from war, local holidaymakers and overseas visitors (including British royalty) all passed from station to station.
Trains offloaded mail, newspapers and magazines, movie reels for the local cinema, and parcels and products of every kind. The station was a vital commercial hub; local business activities often revolved around the train timetable. Many larger stations also had railway refreshment rooms, where crisply uniformed female staff served pies, sandwiches, cakes and steaming hot tea in the famously sturdy railways cups.
It’s like a railway station!
Stations in the main centres and important rail junctions like Frankton (Hamilton), Palmerston North and Marton hummed with constant activity. In the 1930s the writer Robin Hyde joked that Marton Junction contained ‘at a rough guess, more newsboys, cups of tea and large ham sandwiches to the square inch than any place else in the world’.1
Early railway stations, like most colonial buildings, were usually made of timber. From the 1870s staffed stations were built according to standard plans, ranging from the small Class 5 to the top-ranking Class 1 stations. Most common of all, though, was the unstaffed ‘flag’ station, a weatherboard shed similar to a bus shelter. From the turn of the 20th century more impressive stations were erected in many provincial centres. Most have since been demolished, but fine examples survive at Blenheim and Ōamaru.
Big-city stations were symbols of civic pride. The George Troup-designed Dunedin station (completed in 1906), with its soaring tower, stained-glass windows and mosaic floor tiles, remains New Zealand’s finest. In the 1930s large new stations were built in Auckland and Wellington.
Stations close – and open
The closure of branch lines and passenger services from the 1950s had a dramatic impact on the rail infrastructure. In the early 2000s New Zealand had fewer than 100 railway stations. New ones continued to be built, though, most notably downtown Auckland’s Britomart Transport Centre, which opened in 2003.
New Zealand Railways (NZR) ran dining cars on its main express trains from 1899 until 1917, when they were removed as a wartime cost-cutting measure. Over the next half century, the brief dash from the waiting train into the refreshment room (or ‘refresh’) for a ‘cuppa and pie’ became part of New Zealand folklore.
The ‘unseemly scramble’ for food and drink was often compared to a battlefield or a rugby scrum. Refreshment rooms have been celebrated in poems like A. R. D. Fairburn’s ‘Note on N.Z.R.’ and Hone Tuwhare’s ‘Steam loco on siding’, and in Peter Cape’s famous song ‘Taumarunui (on the main trunk line)’:
You got cinders in your whiskers and a cinder in your eye
So you hop off to Refreshments for a cupper tea and pie
Taumarunui on the Main Trunk Line.2
By 1935 NZR was running 30 counter refreshment rooms, plus four sit-down dining rooms and 18 station bookstalls. With 11 small refreshment rooms in private hands, New Zealand had one refreshment room for every 130 kilometres of railway. Customer numbers peaked during the busy Second World War years, when annual patronage topped 8.5 million.
After the war, with reduced passenger services and trains making fewer stops, many refreshment rooms were closed – Marton in 1954, the iconic Frankton and Taumarunui rooms in 1975, and Ōamaru in 1980. The last rooms disappeared in the late 1980s. It was the end of one of New Zealand's most distinctive dining experiences.