Taumarunui Railway Station in the early 20th century
New Zealand is not famous for its railway songs and has produced little to compare with American folk classics such as ‘I’ve been working on the railroad’, ‘This train (is bound for glory)’ or ‘The Wabash cannonball’. But few New Zealand folk songs are as iconic as Peter Cape’s ‘Taumarunui (on the main trunk line)’, a tale of unrequited love between ‘an ordinary joker’ and a ‘sheila’ who works behind the counter at the town’s famous railway refreshment room:
You got cinders in your whiskers and a cinder in your eye
So you hop off to Refreshments for a cupper tea and pie
Taumarunui on the main trunk line.
The romance and utility of railways has inspired a number of other home-grown folk songs. Cape also wrote ‘The Okaihau Express’, which celebrates an obscure Northland railway. The ‘smallest train you’ve ever seen’, consisting of an ‘engine and a guard’s van with a carriage in between,’ this ‘Express’ carries everything from ‘puppies in an apple box’ to ‘pipis in a sack’. ‘The Fairlie flyer’ by Bill Timmins also recalls the long-lost heyday of the rural branch line:
So firemen stoke the engine, steam down that railway track,
This train that’s leaving Fairlie is never, never coming back.
Rod Derrett’s ‘Kiwi train’ and Barry Lineham’s ‘Wellington Express’ each evoke the infamous ‘battle for a little tea and supper’ at refreshment rooms. The latter song employs a jumble of battlefield and rugby metaphors:
Ten minutes for refreshments is the signal for the rush
As the famished hordes exterminate the feeble in the crush
No battlefield is grimmer, where battered heroes die than the bloody
Railway battle for a cupper and a pie.
In a scrum All Blacks would envy
Only hardy souls remain
To grab a bun and sandwich is the saviour of the train.