The Ōngarue railway accident of 6 July 1923 caused the first major loss of life on New Zealand railways. The accident was the result of a landslip across the rail track, near Ōngarue, just north of Taumarunui in the North Island.
At about 6:00am on 6 July, 1923, the southbound Auckland to Wellington express rounded a sharp bend and ploughed into a landslip which had fallen across the railway line near Ōngarue, just north of Taumarunui.
Caught between the rails in the mountain of mud and rocks was a large boulder about 1.25 metres in diameter. The engine was able to push the boulder for a short distance, but then the weight of it threw the engine, tender and postal van off the track.
Passengers at the back of the train slept through the upheaval, but the first three passenger carriages suffered the most damage and the most casualties. The second carriage smashed into and through the first carriage, but was then hit by the following carriage which drove up onto the top of the second carriage. A gas container under the third carriage burst into flames, adding the danger of fire, but this was luckily smothered by a further slip.
The carriages following behind were around the bend and out of the line of shock, and so suffered only shaking and broken windows.
The first three carriages were smashed together, trapping the survivors who had to be cut free. Rescuers from Ōngarue worked with the uninjured passengers to help the injured. At least 12 passengers were killed outright in the impact. Three badly-injured people died on the way to hospital. The engine driver and the fireman were both badly burnt.
How many died?
17 people died and 28 were injured.
Other events and outcomes
The train crash at Ōngarue was the first major loss of life on New Zealand railways.
A board of inquiry found that the accident was the result of heavy rain which caused the slip.
The fitting of electric lights in railway carriages was made a priority to avoid the risk of fire from the gas containers, and carriages were strengthened to reduce the chance of “telescoping” into one another in future accidents.
More information and sources
- On the track: Tangiwai and other railway accidents, Geoff Conly, Wellington, 1991.
- Main Trunk Disaster from The Press, 7 July 1923 via Papers Past
- Search our catalogue for more about the Ōngarue railway accident.