Track laying began in 1975 by Barry Brickell shortly after he established the pottery workshop on a corner of the 22Ha block of land he purchased in 1973. As a railway enthusiast he saw the practical and environmental advantages of having a narrow-gauge railway system through his rugged scrub-covered land to give all weather access to clay and pine wood kiln fuel.
Yellow plastic clay derived from the weathering of the old volcanic rocks. The scattered pine trees are self-sown from original pines planted by the early Californian gold diggers of last century. New Zealand’s first official gold discovery was made in this district in 1852. Most of the raw materials for the making of terracotta pottery garden wares, tiles and sculpture thus comes from the hills above.
Barry worked for 15 years and poured a considerable amount of money into railway construction before it was licensed to carry fare-paying public in 1990. This huge gamble has now paid off, while returns from the pottery have been steadily diminishing. A recent move into the tile and brickmaking industry is an exciting new development.
Today, the railway carries more passengers than raw materials because it has become a major and unique tourist attraction. Unlike most other tourist railways, this railway is newly built rather than being an old line that has been restored. It is New Zealand’s only narrow-gauge mountain railway. All earlier railways built to convey minerals and timber have been abandoned, some now made into heritage trails.
Early surveying of the tortuous route was done using a home-made instrument and miles of survey tracks had to be cut through the steep scrubby land. A maximum workable adhesion gradient of 1 in 15 was decided upon but the average gradient of the line is about 1 in 26. Despite the narrow gauge of 15 inches (381mm) which allowed for sharper curves, there are plenty of heavy earthworks along the line which necessitated the use of a bulldozer contractor and the digging of some very deep cuttings.
The trains are wide enough to accomodate two adults per seat.
There are several major civil engineering features on the railway. Some of the big viaducts were built under difficult conditions, reminding us of the early colonial engineering feats. The three short tunnels were made by the cut and cover process. Ceramic art works complimenting the engineering can be seen from the train.
The specially designed passenger trains were built at DCR’s own engineering workshop located beside the potteries.
“Possum” is a 14-seater twin-bogie diesel railcar built in 1994.
“Snake”, a double-articulated 3-bodied train-set, a truly ambitious project was built in 1992. Like a snake it can twist and turn around the sharp curves abounding up the line.
A new train called “Linx” is a more sophisticated design, completed in 2004, it has similar seating to the Snake.
These units have special features possibly unique in New Zealand railway engineering such as the use of hydraulic transmission and special designs for safe operation on the sharp curves and steep grades. The trains are also fitted with modern air-type braking, air operated track sanding and centre-mounted diesel engines. The “Snake” and “Linx” can accommodate up to 36 people each, which is a modern tour bus load.
There are two older diesel locomotives and various wagons still used for conveying clay, wood, native plants for the extensive forest replanting project up the line, and others for construction purposes.
There are five major bridges, five reversing points, as well as two horseshoe spirals on the main line route to the present summit. The double deck bridge is unique. In a return trip on the railway, trains pass over it four times in different directions on both levels. The two levels are connected by a spiral, all in very rugged forested terrain. The main span is 14 metres long and the total length of the upper level is 46 metres. Construction took two years.
The “Eyefull Tower” building at the half way piont is 165 metres above sea level and offers wide panoramic views over the island-studded Hauraki Gulf and valleys covered in native forest.