Silver Star (NZR train)

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The Silver Star was a luxury passenger train that ran overnight between Auckland and Wellington on the North Island Main Trunk railway of New Zealand. The train ran from Monday 6 September 1971 until Sunday 8 June 1979. It replaced the Night Limited express passenger trains which provided a faster service than the "Ordinary" Expresses, by stopping at only six intermediate stations en route and not dragging postal or parcels vans at the rear.

Designed as a "hotel on wheels", its carriages were distinctive in New Zealand. Rather than being painted in the traditional red, the Silver Star's cars were made of unpainted stainless steel. Original planning for the train envisaged the sleeping cars being the basis of new-standard NZR passenger stock with future passenger trains of 6 cars and van, 7 stainless steel units of 30 tons each (210 tons) hauled by a 1,425 hp EMD Da-class locomotive. However, planning for this replacement for the 'Limited Express' became more ambitious in the early 1960s, moving away from 25-ton, 55-foot stainless steel cars of the type used on the 3 ft 6 in-gauge Queensland Rail Sunlander to sleeping cars with a 9 ft 9 in loading gauge. As a result, the usual Silver Star consist of 35-ton cars would weigh 410 tons and contribute to NZR's requirement for Dx-class locomotive of 2,750 hp from General Electric to haul them as well as express freight trains on the NIMT. This required a large trackside work project on the NIMT and on the Silver Star's alternative route via Marton-Wanganu-Stratford-Taurmaranui, to accommodate Standard-Gauge-width cars running on 3ft 6in Narrow-Gauge.


The train was NZR's attempt to compete with the introduction of jet aircraft for business traffic between Auckland and Wellington. It was intended to improve the Railway's staff morale and image, and the concept was based on a shorter version of NSW Railways' Standard-Gauge Southern Aurora, with its 75-foot, 20-berth sleeping cars introduced in 1962, providing Pullman-style luxury equal to the last US trains, the Broadway Limited, the Chief, the Crescent and the Panama Limited. Planning for the new Auckland-to-Wellington overnight express began in 1963, and the concept of the train—as 31 stainless steel cars (two trainsets each night) of 5 twinette cars, 5 single-berth sleepers (16 beds per car), a licensed buffet car and a power car—never changed.

The public announcement of plans for the new train was made in December 1965[1] Extensive study was made of other early 1960's Australian overnight trains, particularly the QR Sunlander, the Victorian Railways/South Australian Railways Overland, and similar designs in the USA such as the final Santa Fe Railroad 'High-Level' and Burlington Railroad cars. New Zealand-built cars were estimated by NZR CME, J. Black in 1958, to cost NZ£25,000 pounds for a 2nd-Class car and £35,000 for a 1st-Class car.[2]

By 1960, NZR had concluded that stainless steel cars—which reduced maintenance costs, including avoiding the need to paint—were preferable, even at a cost premium of 12–20%. That effectively meant, in 1970, a per-car cost of $100,000+ for Japanese or Australian stainless steel construction, with $60,000 to 70,000 for conventional Italian or Swedish-built 1st-Class cars. (In 1941, NZR-built, 31-seat 1st-Class cars cost £7,140, and 2nd-Class, 56-seat cars cost £5,920 pounds[3])

In 1967 the new train was vigorously promoted by Minister of Railways, J.B. Gordon, on the grounds that it would deliver a clear return on its purchase cost and operation. Ironically, most equivalent overseas passenger rail services ceased that year and—following US Mail ending its use of almost all North American rail passenger services for 1st-Class mail in Sept 1967—Santa Fe applied to the ICC to withdraw 33 out of 39 of its long-distance express passenger trains.[4] That is, all but the LA-Chicago Super Chief and its Frisco connection, the Texas Chief (Chicago-Houston), its Dallas connection, and 2 Los Angeles-San Diego locals. Nevertheless, approval for NZR to release tenders for the new train were belatedly made on 19 November 1968.

The Silver Star service broke new ground in New Zealand by providing a full on-board crew of car stewards (sourced from the inter-island rail ferry service) who doubled as dining car staff at meal times. A great deal of study had been made of on-train meal provision, particularly of German and British Rail. The high wage and other industrial demands of the ferry stewards were one of the reasons the service failed, however, the product was effectively ten years too late. Travel by National Airways Corporation Boeing 737 between Auckland and Wellington took just over one hour; the Silver Star, by contrast, taking around 12 hours and 30 minutes, thus the business market was lost. Due to the freeze on rail fares and charges imposed by the Kirk Labour Government—which effectively meant the price from Wellington to Auckland was held at $18 from late 1971 to early 1976—use of the train was high in 1974-5 and 1975-6. In the late 1970s the usual overnight patronage was only about 65 on most runs and only half the carriage stock was used for most of the year except during a few airline strikes.


New Zealand Railways at the time also ran another overnight train service, (the Night Express) which stopped at more than twice the number of stations than did the Silver Star, which had much older (1930s/1940s-built) rollingstock, and which had no on-board buffet service, but had cheaper fares (and three classes of accommodation). By refurbishing this train in 1975, to become the Northerner, many rail passengers had the option (and exercised it) to pay around 33% less for a large reclining seat or 15% less for a 2-berth sleeper cabin without shower or toilet, than pay for a Silver Star cabin. Those business travellers who chose to fly and needed to stop over preferred a big-city hotel room to the Silver Star's limited cabin space.

Rollingstock and motive power[edit]

The 31 cars were manufactured by Hitachi and Nippon Sharyo and hauled by diesel-electric locomotives (initially two DA class, and later one DX class) for a six-night-per-week service. All passengers were accommodated in sleeping cars, with 12 of these cars being designated "Twinette" (8 x two-berth cabins incorporating separate bathrooms/showers for each cabin) and 12 being "Roomette" cars (16 x single-berth cabins with toilet/basin facilities). Passengers could purchase dinner, breakfast and other refreshments during the night, including alcoholic beverages and souvenirs in the buffet car (of which three were built) with 42 alcove-style tables. Four power/baggage vans completed the fleet.


All 31 cars ran on bogies of a newer design, classed X28250 by NZR, which offered a superior quality ride through inertial dampers and better suspension, and bore a resemblance to the Kinki-Sharyo-manufactured bogies, classed X27250 by NZR, under steam- and postal vans built by Kinki. The bogies built especially for the Northerner trains four years later and the FM-class vans two to six years after that, and classed X28280, were heavily modelled on those under the Silver Star.


The Railways Department attempted to replace the Northerner and Silver Star with a refurbished version which would be a 50% seating and 50% sleeper train. This plan would include the redeployment of eight 30-seat cars from the Northerner fleet to the Wellington-Napier Endeavour service, and relocation of the three 32-seat and three 36-seat Endeavour cars onto the Christchurch-Picton route. These plans, however, came to nothing after the Silver Star stock was withdrawn from service and blue asbestos insulation was found inside the coaches. The union workforce refused to work with the dangerous material, and the cars lay parked in sidings for over ten years while their future was debated. In 1982, Minister of Railways, George Gair—facing a cost of $7 million for the asbestos removal and modernisation of the carriages, as well as rail losses and demand for other new rail equipment—commissioned Boston consultants, (then) Booz Allen & Hamilton, to review NZR and in particular to investigate the most economical way of providing rail passenger options. The NZ Ministry of Transport refused to accept NZR estimate that the rebuilt Silver Star would exceed the Northerner's patronage by 60% and operate profitably[5]

The Railways then suggested that higher utilisation of the rebuilt Silver Star cars would be achieved by using them on both night and day services on the NIMT allowing Silver Fern railcars, to be redeployed on other routes. In 1985 Minister of Railways, Richard Prebble[6] delayed a decision, and—with the full expected cost of removing the blue asbestos and reconstructing the train having reached $20 million—cancelled the conversion in line with the Booz Allen Report, which found modern railcar train-sets vastly more economic than small locomotive-hauled trains. By 1986, the NZR general manager considered conversion of the Silver Star into a seating-only train as an uneconomical way of renewing the Northerner or Endeavour trains.

In December 1987, the Silver Star cars were hauled from Wellington to Auckland, where private tourist firm Pacific Trailways intended to convert 27 of them into a luxury tourist train that would travel around both the North and South Islands for NZ$1,000 per passenger. Nothing eventuated and all the cars languished in Auckland for two more years.

In 1990, the 31-car fleet was purchased by the British luxury travel company, Orient-Express Trains & Cruises (an off-shoot of Orient-Express Hotels) and taken to A & G Price, of Thames, for regauging from New Zealand's 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) gauge to 1,000 mm (3 ft 3 38 in) gauge for Thai and Malaysian railway lines. 24 cars (19 sleepers, three buffet cars and two power vans) went to Singapore where an extensive internal rebuild and fit-out as well as exterior painting and badging was undertaken by the new owners at their (then) newly-constructed maintenance depot on KTMB land in Singapore's Keppel Road rail yards. A 25th car also went to Singapore, and was stored unrefurbished for some years, but was scrapped when E&O moved its engineering workshop from Singapore to Johor. Since then the refurbished consist has operated a regular 5-star luxury cruise-train service between Singapore (now the Woodlands customs terminal on the island's northern coast) and Bangkok as the Eastern & Oriental Express.

Six cars remain at A & G Price; two Twinettes, two Roomettes, and two power vans. All are owned by Orient-Express Trains & Cruises. They have had their interiors stripped, asbestos removed, and are no longer on bogies. They were for sale from December 2012 until 2016 when all six were sold to individual buyers.[7]


  1. ^ Dominion 20-12-65
  2. ^ NZR CME. Lightweight Rollingstock 8 June 1960. File 65/327 NZ National Archives
  3. ^ NZR CME 22/12/64
  4. ^ G. Glischinski. Santa Fe Railway. Voyaguer Press & MBI publishing (2008)p154
  5. ^ T. Hayward, CME, NZR to G. Gair Minister of Railways, 1 July 1983. National Archives
  6. ^ R.Prebble,Letter, 10 July 1985. Nat Archives
  7. ^ "Living on board a Silver Star train". Stuff. Stuff Limited. 13 April 2018. Retrieved 13 April 2018. 

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