En route we stopped at the Tangiwai Memorial Site, which commemorates the lives of the 151 people who died and the brave actions of the train driver, guard, fireman and three passing car drivers, who contributed to the saving of the other 134 passengers on board a train that shot off the end of a broken bridge on Christmas Eve 1953. The bridge was destroyed by a massive lahar (volcanic mudflow) when Mount Ruapehu erupted. There was no way of getting a message to the driver quickly enough to enable him to stop the train in time to avoid the disaster. But one of the drivers managed to catch his attention, which meant that just under half the passengers were saved (the driver and crew died).
I couldn’t help noticing that only one of the lost carriages was first class, and all those that were saved were first class (along with the postal carriage). Maybe that’s why they put the first class carriages at the back of trains?
I also couldn’t help noticing that they built the new bridge right by the site of the old one! And one of the noticeboards made the point that we still don’t really understand lahars enough to be able to predict when they are going to happen. And this bridge is still in a vulnerable spot if / when it happens again. I guess we understand more though, and we can send signals more quickly. And the bridge maybe stronger too. (Though I’m not sure there are bridge building materials that could hope to withstand the kind of forces involved.) In the meantime, the trainline is still used regularly, and indeed if you look carefully below, you should be able to spot a train making its way across the bridge as I watched.