The Auckland-Opua Express once carried passengers to the Bay of Islands, the Onehunga Boat Train used to be part of the main route between Auckland and Wellington, and the Rotorua Limited enabled tourists and the well-to-do to take the waters in Rotorua. Later trains like the Silver Star and Northerner – even the Kaimai, Geyserland and Bay Expresses, withdrawn in 2001 – had a distinctive character too.
Almost everyone in the first half of the 20th century travelled by train – including royalty. In 1869 the first royal train journey from Lyttelton to Christchurch carried the Duke of Edinburgh; the first fully-fledged royal train carrying the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall (the future King George V and Queen Mary) plied the route of the Rotorua Limited and the South Island Express; in 1920 the Prince of Wales traversed the country by train with Lord Louis Mountbatten. In 1927 the Duke and Duchess of York (the future King George VI and Queen Elizabeth) travelled more than 1700 miles by royal train. Other distinguished visitors whose stories are told in the book include the English comedian J.L.Toole and his company (1890), Australian poet Will Lawson, singers Dame Nellie Melba, Dame Clara Butt, Irish tenor John McCormack and Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin, Polish pianist Ignace Paderewski, ‘March King’ John Philip Sousa and his band, ballerina Anna Pavlova, the 17-year-old violinist Yehudi Menuhin, writers Rudyard Kipling, Zane Grey and George Bernard Shaw, and actors Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.
Last Train to Paradise describes the halcyon days of New Zealand rail, some of which the author was fortunate enough to experience personally. The ‘name’ trains and journeys cover a considerable period of New Zealand’s history, from the late 1800s, through the ‘golden’ era of train travel (the first four decades of the 20th century), and conclude with the introduction of new services in the last half of the century.
The railway lines described in the book cover every part of the country – and some that have almost been erased from popular memory.