Picturesque New Zealand/Chapter 3

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Travel in New Zealand—Government and Tourist—Slow Express—State Railways

Travel in New Zealand is a pleasure; yet it has its inconveniences and discomforts. In almost every part of the country there is frequent steamer service, and about three thousand miles of railway are in operation; but many of the finest scenic districts can be reached only by stage-coach. There are still about as many miles of coaching routes as there are of railways, and for years horse and motor coaches will be important vehicles of transportation in New Zealand.

On the other hand, there are laudable conveniences. The tourist can avoid work and worry by having itineraries arranged by private booking agencies or by the Government Department of Tourist and Health Resorts, This department will book him to all parts of the country without charge; it will feed and lodge him in its hotels and accommodation houses; in its sanatoriums it will treat his diseases; it will furnish him with baths, pilot him on tours, provide him with recreation on bowling, tennis, and croquet grounds, and sell him books, photographs, and postcards.

Another convenient feature of travel in New Zealand is furnished by the express companies. These are as efficient as personal servants in calling for and delivering baggage to all parts of the Dominion. In this case, however, "express" does not imply quick dispatch, as it would in America. I had occasion to leave an order with New Zealand's largest express company for the dispatch of a valise from Auckland to Palmerston North, three hundred and forty miles distant. Several days after filing the order I called for the parcel. It had not arrived.

"Why," said I to the agent, "I thought the parcel would get here in one day."

"Oh, no," he replied; "it generally takes three days for that distance."

"What! Three days by express train?" I cried in amazement.

"It would come by goods train," the agent explained. "There are no express cars in New Zealand. Parcels must be forwarded in railway parcel vans or by boat. Usually parcels handled by the carrying companies are sent by steamer; it is cheaper."

Traveling in New Zealand is safe, especially on trains. Railroad wrecks are exceedingly rare. There are no mile-a-minute trains, no record-breaking specials, no strivings at all for what Americans call speed. With one exception, on its fastest runs the Government is satisfied with an average hourly speed of twenty-five miles, including all stops. The exception is on the Christchurch-Dunedin division, where the average speed for the two hundred and thirty miles is about thirty miles an hour. Nevertheless, there are New Zealanders who believe the railways of their country are nothing less than speedways.

"My! you go so fast on the Main Trunk Express that you can hardly see anything," said a New Zealand woman excitedly to a neighbor.

It was worse than this on the daylight-to-dark section of the Midland Branch. So rapidly did the train cover the ground in the tussocky hills that one frightened passenger publicly complained of the speed. The oscillation was so severe, said he, that women were thrown off their seats, and articles fell from the parcel racks. Probably this train was one of those composed of old and light carriages that, as I found, often rock like ships at sea.

West Coast trains are more conservative. One of these plodders participated in a handicap race on the Greymouth-Reefton line with two young men—and the men won! They missed the train at the depot, but they started in pursuit, and though it had twenty yards' start, they overtook it after running about two hundred yards. This was a splendid performance for an untrained scratch team, but a magistrate saw in it a violation of the trespass law, and fined the men.

Speed in construction is another popular joke subject with New Zealanders. A hundred miles of railway takes many years to build.

"When will the North Auckland line be completed?" I asked an Auckland manufacturer.

"God knows," he answered, with a sigh.

Government House Auckland-Picturesque New Zealand, 1913.jpg

"When do you expect railway connection with Gisborne?" I inquired of an Opotiki hotel-keeper.

"Not in our day," he grimly replied.

Once a Government minister assured a deputation that the Opotiki-Gisborne line was "pushing ahead rapidly"; whereupon a member of the delegation inquired:—

"Do you think the railway will reach our district during the life of our leases?"

"What is the term of your lease?" asked the minister.

"Nine hundred and ninety-nine years," responded the delegate.

With the exception of a few short lines built chiefly for freight haulage, all the railways of New Zealand are owned and operated by the State, and have been since 1876. Within this period more than $160,000,000 has been spent on Government railways, all of which are narrow-gauge. From its railways the State derives a gross annual revenue of about $20,000,000. The present net revenue approximates four per cent of the capital cost, or more than enough, according to an official statement, to pay the interest on the money borrowed for the system's construction.

Very likely the railways of New Zealand would be more profitable, or, at least, better managed, were they under the direction of a minister thoroughly experienced in railway affairs. Here is one just cause of complaint against Government ownership of public utilities. Too often their ministerial directors have had insufficient experience, or no experience at all, in the field over which they assume control. New Zealand's Railway Department has been fortunate for many years in the possession of an experienced general manager, but such an official, however efficient, can scarcely compensate for a less well-informed minister, particularly if that minister should not be inclined to heed the suggestions of tried assistants.

The equipment on New Zealand railways includes American-built locomotives and carriages based on the American saloon-car principle. This style of carriage is provided mainly for first-class passengers, though more are being built for second-class patrons. On nearly all trains I saw second-class passengers facing each other on uncomfortable leather-bottom seats running the full length of the car. In old coaches the distinction between first and second classes often is not pronounced. Sometimes the only advantages possessed by the first-class passengers are rough floor mats, leather backs to second-class seats, and a bit of gilt.

It is intended that every passenger shall have a seat, or, at any rate, that coaches shall not be overcrowded. New Zealand trains often are uncomfortably filled, but only with the consent of the passengers is this permissible. "No person," says a rule, "shall remain in a car with the full number of authorized passengers without the consent of the passengers." This rule is not always literally regarded, however.

Equally considerate is the no-tipping rule, which reads: "No railway servant shall receive any gratuity on pain of dismissal, and no person shall give or offer a gratuity to any such servant." New Zealand is no place for Pullman-car porters.

Of railway stations New Zealand has only one worthy of special mention, and that is in Dunedin. With this exception all the main depots are long, one-story brick buildings, with verandas running their full length and furnishing a roof for the platforms. The most conspicuous feature of the average station is its name. The majority have Maori names, and they are not noted for their brevity. On some lines seventy-five per cent of the stations have native appellations. The pronunciation of many of these is hard enough for the porter; to me they often were impossible. Soon after starting to pronounce them I found myself tacking like a ship in an adverse wind.

"The cost of travel is moderate," says a New Zealand authority, speaking of the Dominion's railways. It is reasonable, but equipment considered, it is, for "ordinary" tickets, quite enough. The rate is three cents per mile for first-class and two cents per mile for second-class. Holiday excursion tickets, mileage counted one way only, are respectively four cents and two cents per mile. For fifty dollars one can get a ticket valid for seven weeks on the lines of both islands, or for thirty dollars one can ride for four weeks on the lines of either island. Extensions of these tickets are granted up to four weeks for seven and one-half-dollars per week. Cheap tickets also are issued to workers, commutators, families, and to other classes of travelers. Schoolchildren not more than nineteen years of age and members of Parliament ride free. Children, however, are limited to a maximum distance of sixty miles.

The ticket system of the New Zealand railways has, with some warrant, been called cumbrous and antiquated; yet it is not so deficient as many complaining travelers allege. It is not true, as has been charged, that tickets can be purchased only on the day of departure. At all the chief cities and at about a dozen other places tickets can be purchased at railway stations the day before entraining. Nor is it wholly true that tickets cannot be purchased until within fifteen minutes of the departure of trains, but it is almost so, for only in a score of towns can they be bought at any time during the hours of business. At all other stations the fifteen-minute rule prevails, excepting on race-days and holidays. It is true, however, that the Railway Department has no uptown ticket agencies. This is an item of economy that means a large saving to the Government, but to the traveling public it is a cause of annoyance and inconvenience, second only to that occasioned by the apparently unnecessary time limit on ticket purchasing. Still it is compensated for in the principal cities by the passenger's ability to buy tickets at private booking agencies or at those of the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts.

Another very annoying circumstance is the lack of facilities for selling tickets on days of heavy travel. At the Auckland railway station, for example, only one ticket window has been open when two or three fast-filling trains were at the platform, with the result that passengers who were unable to get tickets before their train departed were subject to a surcharge of twelve cents on their fares.