POSTMARK TARANAKI P.74-78

MAILS BY RAIL

With the opening of the railway line between New Plymouth and Waitara in 1875 mails between both centres were carried by rail, on the mixed passenger/freight trains, or goods trains. Mailbags were taken by horse and cart from the New Plymouth Chief Post Office down to the railway station ahead of the scheduled departure time and handed over to the guard. Space for mailbags had to be set aside in his van and here they were stacked in such a sequence that they could be put off at each appropriate halt or station. In those days trains stopped at every possible place and with horses or coach mail routes now radiating away from the railway, quite a number of post offices received their mail over the railway.

As the railway branching southward, from Sentry Hill was extended mails were also carried as far as possible by rail. The opening of the line to Hawera in 1881made it a vital service in the receipt and distribution of mails in both north and south Taranaki, but it was not until December 1886 that a major improvement in the service became possible.

In New Plymouth the line from the New Plymouth station through Moturoa to the breakwater (2 miles 35 chains) had been opened for use 14 December 1885. Previously at least from January 1885, passengers to and from Onehunga had to travel from the breakwater on a H;arbour Board train of open tracks to a point where cabs could be caught to get into town railway station. Here they caught the southbound train to Wanganui, there linking with another train for Foxton, from where they travelled again by coastal shipping or overland by coach to Wellington. But now the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company's line north from the capital was linked with the Foxton - Wanganui line at Longburn, a little south of Palmerston North. Though travellers were now able to travel by rail from Wellington through to New Plymouth they had, at Longburn, to change from the company train to the Government train.

With the first through trains being run on 3 kDecember 1886 a railway travelling post office was also introduced. Using postal cars converted out of passenger carriages, the service was run in three sections. The new New Plymouth RTPO car was attached to the southbound train in New Plymouth and after forward mails and southward mails from New Pylmouth were loaded on board for sorting, the RTPO was run south to Wanganui, Here a team from the Wanganui Chief Post Office took over as the Wanganui RTPO and accompanied the postal car through to Longburn where they linked with a Wellington RTPO postal car brought up to the northward train from Wellington. At Longburn the Government train was turned around and with north bound passengers was run through to Wanganui (where the postal crews were changed over again) and thence to New Plymouth.

This meant a long working day for the New Plymouth RTPO crews. The southbound train left New Plymouth at 7am arriving at Wanganui at 1.35pm. After a break, the northbound train was boarded at 3.25pm with the crew arriving back in New Plymouth at 10pm. This 15 hour long day is unbelievable in this age of an 8 hour day.

The RTPO was staffed by one or two experienced mail sorters from the mailroom staff. These men were rostered in turn to take the RTPO duty with the RTPO itself being regarded as an extension of the mailroom. They were rostered one day on RTPO duty, 1 day mailroom duty, for 3weeks and then they had one full week (which was of six days) in the mailroom before returning to the day on / day off cycle.

The main task of the RTPO crew was to complete sorting, as the train puffed her way through the countryside, of the letters posted in New Plymouth for delivery along the line, or for Wanganui and further south. They were also required to sort inward provincial mails received from the Onehunga steamer, and also the Australian and British mails that were landed at intervals at Auckland. Letters had to be bundled and bagged and then put off for all post offices served by the RTPO along the line. Most of the bags were dropped off the postal car onto the station platform at all halts and inward mailbags taken on board. But at some places the rain did not stop -Bell Block and Normanby are two such recorded in Taranaki - and here the mail agent threw the bag off as the train whistled through that station.

In throwing off mailbags there was always the possibility of it bouncing back under the train. This happened once at Normanby bringing demands through the local Member of Parliament for the train to travel through at a lesser speed. But just how did such "throw off" places despatch their outward bags ? It is possible the local postmaster had to stand close to the line with his (or her) bag held out for catching by the RTPO agent as the train passed through.Automatic mail exchangers as used in Great Britain were not used here! But it is more probable that the outward bag was sent by a goods (or freight) train which stopped there anyway.

With the opening of the railway between Palmerston North and Napier in 1891 an increasing number of Hawkes Bay passengers (and mails) now found it quicker to travel by rail through to New Plymouth and thence to Auckland by sea.

After the Government had purchased the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Companys line, and the Wellington - Auckland Main Trunk railway service open ed in 1909, the west coast rail services were re-organised. The New Plymouth RTPO, by now named the Taranaki RTPO, ran right through Wanganui to Marton where the southbound train crossed with the northbound train. Here the Wellington or Manawatu and the New Plymouth mail agents changed trains and returned to their hame terminal. Marton was the normal changeover point but delays by either train could mean a changeover north of or even south of Marton, for instances of changes at Palmertston North and Longburn are known. Though the agents no longer had the break at Wanganui they did get back to New Plymouth a little earlier - at 8pm! For their arduous duty the agent were paid a travel allowance of 6d per hour or 6s6d each RTPO duty.

The RTPO services throughout New Zealand were reviewed in 1931, mainly because of the very high cost of their operation at a time of financial recession when Government expenditure was being tightened. The postal cars used on the Taranaki line were to be replaced with smaller cars from the now closed Ohinemuri service, but the New Plymouth agents refused to use them. The result was that the Taranaki RTPO was closed from 1 January 1923.

After the withdrawal of the Taranaki RTPO service all outward mails were sorted within the New Plymouth mailroom, with the sealed mailbags being carried in railway guards vans for throwing off. Though a record of what actually happened no longer survives it is possible that more responsibility for local carting and distribution was placed on the area circulating offices of Inglewood, Stratford, Eltham and Hawera.

Until 1909 each time loose mails were handled, or bundled letters were broken open for sorting, the back of each letter had to be stamped with the post office datestamp, including that of the RTPO. These markings have allowed postal historians to trace readily the travels of these fascinating letters. But after 1909, the only time the RTPO datestamp was required was to cancel postage on letters posted through the postal car posting slot at stations, or uncancelled postage noted during sorting. Of course the datestamp was also used on letterbills but these never reached the hands of collectors.

After many years under construction, and passing through rugged country requiring a series of tunnels through steep ridges, or bridges over narrow streams, the railway line running east from Stratford was opened through to Okahukura, on the Main Trunk , on 4 September 1933. Mails had earlier been carried by rail over each succeeding section of line as it opened and from 12 December 1932 had been carried by Public Works trains over the Tangarakau - Ohura section. With the opening of the through line a new passenger service, New Plymouth to Auckland was introduced and mails to and from Auckland were handled over this.

Diesel fuelled passenger railcars were brought into use between New Plymouth and Wellington from 16 April 1939, with mails being carried whenever the limited space permitted. This did allow for a fast transit time between the two centres but papers and second class mail had to be relegated to the "Flier" or "New Plymouth Mail" trains.

The passenger trains were taken off the New Plymouth - Wellington run in November 1956 when passenger travel was limited to the fast railcars. With the restricted amount of space available for mails the Post Office again turned to road transport, using the through passenger bus services or road freight services that now operated. In recent years the railcars themselves have disappeared and now all mail goes once again by road, or by air.

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