The Departmental Laptop

The Capital Connection is a long-distance commuter service that runs between Wellington and Palmerston North. Every weekday morning, the sleepy-eyed commuters clamber aboard at Palmerston North just after 6 a.m. and the train sets off on its two-hour southward trip to Wellington, stopping at most stations to Paraparaumu, from where it is non-stop to Wellington. In the evening, it takes them home again.

When I first started catching the Capital Connection in 1997, we nick-named it the Crappy Connection. It consisted of geriatric railway carriages hauled by whatever (it seemed) diesel locomotive could be spared by Tranz Rail. It was prone to delays and breakdowns, and many memorable hours were spent sitting in the carriages wondering how late we would be today. There were several diesel locomotive breakdowns (were we too heavy?) and at least one memorable occasion where the loco ran out of puff part-way up the hill, and we had to reverse back to the nearest station. Not an enjoyable experience on a busy commuter line where we believed the signalling system was in desperate need of maintenance.

But railways staff are resourceful. The guards whom we came to know by being regulars tried to keep us informed, and the diesel loco drivers reacted quickly as well. I well-remember one incident which resulted in our limping into Paekakariki Station on the northward trip home with a loco that had “burst its boiler” (so to speak) climbing up the Pukerua Bay Hill. Miraculously, within just over an hour, a replacement locomotive was scrambled and shot past us on the southbound track at Paekak. Station. In no time, it had been coupled up to the front of the train and off we went again to cheers and claps from the passengers.

On more than one occasion, the powerful electric commuter units have shunted the Capital Connection (minus diesel loco, of course) to a nearby haven. The Ganz Mavag electric units, purchased back in the 1980s (from memory) must’ve been one of the best investments NZ Railways ever made. Initially they were rather unpopular as they had the habit of steaming passengers with overzealous heating systems designed for the cold of a Hungarian winter. Now showing signs of age, they have undergone several interior refurbishments and are currently suffering an identity crisis as they prepare to be rebadged (yet again) in a new episode of our rather bumpy railway history. Despite this, their hearts are in the right place, and the powerful electric motors handle our steep Wellington terrain very well.

But back to the Capital Connection. Despite the breakdowns, the provision of a basic bar service and the virtually non-stop service to Paraparaumu resulted in patronage increasing. In November 1999, refurbished British Rail carriages were used to replace the old rolling stock, which continued running on other long-distance services. Boasting electric doors, air-conditioning, easy-access dunnies and an improved bar with free coffee, the Capital Connection really took off. The loco problems continued, but at least we had the comfort of a drink, easy-access dunnies and the lights stayed on more reliably. (Those tunnels are VERY dark when they forget to turn even the emergency lighting on!)

Over time, passenger loyalty has continued and the service reliability has improved. Not surprisingly passengers get to know each other quite well on such a long trip, and friends regularly sit together, and social events are held both on and off the train.

As I live nearer to Wellington, I no longer catch the Capital Connection but see it whizz past regularly. The British Rail carriages still look odd perched on their bogies which allow them to run on our ridiculous three foot six narrow gauge railway. But it has proven that railways that receive good patronage can attract investment. And soon, the other long-distance commuter service, the Wairarapa train, will receive a long-overdue upgrade.

Every so often as the Capital Connection zooms through the local station with its unique sound, I am reminded of one particular evening back in the late 90s. We were sitting on board it waiting for the shriek of the guard’s whistle when one of our regular fellow-passengers bustled aboard at the last minute. Under one arm he had a computer VDU and a beige computer box under the other. Puffing and panting he managed to navigate the aisle to his usual seat with his friends and unburden himself as the train jerked into motion.

One of his mates looked up from the Evening Post. “Ah, the departmental laptop!” he quipped. “You’re on call-out?” and he returned to his newspaper as we all roared with laughter.

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