The crossing over the Waikato River at Ngāruawhāhia is one of two pinch points of single track on the rail line between Auckland and Hamilton, the other being through the Whangamarino swamp north of Te Kauwhata.

The crossing also is a hot spot of near misses and fatalities with an 11-year-old girl being struck by a train very recently. This follows a death on the crossing in 2003 and another in 2002. The bridge is popular with kids in the area with jumping off the bridge off it being seen as a right of passage.

A recent debate on Twitter led to the suggestion that maybe the bridge should be upgraded to accommodate this fact, acknowledging that kids are going to try jumping into the river, and that maybe the best solution is to provide somewhere safe to jump, very much like the places you can jump in Wellington.

My suggestion was that this would be very feasible as it would make sense to provide cycling, walking, and jumping facilities as well as upgrade the existing crossing to be double tracked at the same time.

This would:

  1. Give the community better cycling and walking connections;
  2. Give the kids a safer place to jump;
  3. Hopefully reducing track trespassing giving the train drivers peace of mind;
  4. Remove a pinch-point on the strategically important Auckland – Hamilton rail corridor;

Providing an upgraded crossing of the Waikato river at Ngāruawhāhia could be a great candidate for the Regional Development Fund ticking a whole bunch of boxes.

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69 comments

  1. In my personal opinion the bridge needs a walkway along one side and for the rail corridor to be fenced off as far back as practical.

    What is the likelihood of this line being dual tracked for future Auckland-Hamilton services?

  2. If you look on Google Maps, it is clear that there was a second (presumably rail?) bridge which has been removed. The piers are still in the river. Meanwhile, there is a barrier deliberately to stop jumping off the adjacent road bridge. Clearly, no-one is is looking at this in a whole of system approach.
    https://goo.gl/maps/QaqMW9qQpY32

    1. I think those piers are from the previous bridge which the current one replaced.

      Excellent idea to double track and make a multi modal project. At same time perhaps ease the 60km curves on the rail line.

        1. The chances of them being signed off both structurally and geotechnically is almost zero. In addition to that, there is a very high risk that they would have a significantly shorter lifespan than the bridge that would be built using them. As such, replacing them is the more economic approach for the total lifespan of a new structure.

  3. You would never want to actively encourage people to jump into the river as it has swirling currents and undertows. However, people will anyway, so I agree that providing a walkway would mean at least there is something to jump off that doesn’t impact clash with the railway line.

    In saying that many like to jump from the top of the bridge frame so they will probably still climb up there anyway.

  4. It is obvious they should build something for jumpers. It is obvious that they will not do so for fear of prosecution under health and safety. For example compare with Beachhaven wharf – the old wharf is a jumping spot but the new wharf goes to great and expensive lengths to prevent access to jumpers.

    A simple sign ‘this is a dangerous activity! do it at your own risk’ is needed. They could put it near the Glenfield bus-stops where I chose to cross the road rather than walking down the road and waiting for the pedestrian lights. Years ago council threatened to put a fence down the middle of the road but I would try climbing it – fortunately democracy won (or maybe finance) and nothing was done.

    1. On the flipside, the wharf at Murrays Bay was recently rebuilt and they went to great lengths in the new design to accomodate jumping, after plenty of consultation with the community. To be fair it is only used for jumping and fishing, but still they went and designed it in.

      1. It’s a significant drop from the rail bridge into the river quite different to Murrays Bay wharf, and rivers are generally more dangerous than harbours. I don’t think I would ever want to encourage it, but in saying that would probably have done it myself if I were a teenager in Ngaruawahia.

  5. Anecdotally it is the danger associated with the trains that gives the kids the thrill they seek. For instance when KiwiRail tried slowing the trains down to reduce the danger, kids were reportedly trying to jump on to them.

    Installing a legitimate walkway on the rail bridge is a nice idea but it might not solve the problem of thrill-seeking risk-takers. This is evidenced by the fact that there is already a road-bridge with a walkway which presumably can be jumped off, less than 50m away.
    https://www.google.co.nz/maps/@-37.6628719,175.1490451,3a,75y,4.38h,90.77t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1svGYYlUP5jF2HGBwuTZBxEw!2e0!7i13312!8i6656?hl=en

    Incidentally, there used to be two rail bridges here (built 1877 and 1931) and I understand that double-track operated for a time but the old bridge was subsequently removed. You can see the disused piers for it in the Google image above.

    And here is a 1959 view showing all 3 bridges, but it looks like only one was carrying rail tracks at this stage.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ngaruawahia_railway_station#/media/File:12_Nov_1959_Ng%C4%81ruaw%C4%81hia_railway_station.jpg

    1. “This is evidenced by the fact that there is already a road-bridge with a walkway which presumably can be jumped off, less than 50m away.”

      Think about how the bridge is actually used for jumping though. People are clearly jumping in from the bridge and returning to shore at the beach just downstream. In this case, it adds over 100m and requires people to jump out into the main stream instead of a quiet back eddy.

      1. As a grown up Ngaruawahia bridge jumper it is the ease of access from the river bank to the sleepers on the bridge that make it preferable. It is also higher and you do not need to cross a very busy road to go for a cool, refreshing swim.

        While I was home in January from the UK I was informed that Waikato District Council is looking to install a safe platform to jump off.

  6. I think that removing the “overhead” girder structure would go along way to reducing the incentive to jump from this bridge,….

      1. The other two through trusses were replaced by plain spans a few years ago after derailed wagons damaged them severely – I remember a photo showing a wagon that ended up sitting on top of a truss, with a load of mangled rolling stock etc below it completely blocking the line..

        1. I remember going through Ngāruawāhia a few times in the 1990s (by steam excursion and later by car) and at that time you could clearly see the distortion in the damaged trusses.

          1. When that incident happened, the bridge was originally penned in to be replaced with a new, twin tracked bridge, but Fay Richwhite and co were busy asset stripping Tranz Rail so the cheapest option was undertaken, the oversized girder.

  7. No, just no. There is only one consideration of any importance here, and that is §73(2)(a) of the Railways Act 2005 that makes it an offense to trespass on any railway infrastructure. Even the name of this article subtly implies that the problem is somehow KiwiRail’s fault. In response to the points offered in support of this proposal:
    1. I don’t see how the railway bridge has any role to play in providing the community “better cycling and walking connections” when a) the road bridge, crossing the river beside the rail bridge, already has a footpath on it, and b) generally speaking, railway bridges only have public access when there isn’t a nearby alternative for the public to use, such as with the Ava bridge in Lower Hutt. A road bridge is a place to which the public is deemed to have a right of access, a railway bridge is not.
    2. For KiwiRail to in any way condone, encourage, or facilitate a dangerous activity like jumping from one of their bridges into a river is to invite prosecution and severe penalties in the event someone engaged in this activity becomes seriously injured or dies. KiwiRail hardly needs another Morgan Jones case.
    3. “Hopefully” reduce incidents of track trespass? After KiwiRail has already tried numerous measures over many years to reduce the problem, unfortunately without much success? The locals need to respect the fact that the railways are not a place they should be without permission, and just obey the law. If they have no respect for the physical measures KiwiRail has already tried around or on the bridge itself, there is no reason to believe what has been suggested here will work either, short of posting security guards at either end of the bridge, which is just absurd.

    1. Heaven forbid that we allow the public to enjoy themselves or that we recognize that people commit minor offences like trespass all of the time and try to actually design to prevent it.

      1. Such a casual disregard for the law is why we get to read about cases like the recent tragedy on that bridge in the news. Trespass is NOT a minor offense when people die as a result.

        1. And that sort of approach is why Kiwirail continues to swirl itself down the plughole. Complete disregard for the fact that rail sits within a broader transport system, and interacts directly with urban and rural environments. Just quote the railways act while people die and lines continue to be abandoned?

          1. J90 sounds like David Gordon GM for Assets and Investment at KiwiRail and the son of JB Gordon aka ‘the great train robber’ Minister of Railways under Holyoake and Muldoon governments.

            He’s just continuing dad’s shameful legacy running down NZ rail to benefit road freight transport.

          2. Shame that this has descended into KiwRail- and individual-bashing, particularly when the points raised have nothing to do with the matter at hand (swirl itself down the plughole? lines continue to be abandoned? continuing dad’s shameful legacy? running down NZ rail to benefit road freight transport?).

            This is a real, important issue: can we get out of the swamp and back on (or preferably off) the bridge, please?

          3. What’s Kiwirail ever done for Ngaruawahia besides hide behind its ‘Kiwi’ name? Does the Northern Explorer ever stop there? There are no commuter trains between Hamilton and Auckland, and every sane person knows there should have been decades ago. And if there were they could stop in Ngaruawahia and all the other places along the line.

            I would suggest if the good people of Ngaruawahia could experience a reliable train serive actually helping their community they would soon respect trains and trains on the bridge.

            At the moment Kiwirail freight trains rumbling through Ngaruawahia are just antagonising this community and occasionally killing them. Imagine the hatred in Ngaruawahia for Kiwirail. Kiwirail need to start serving communities like Ngaruawahia and not abandoning them.

          4. Excuse me “Taumaranui”: Kiwirail has only existed since 2009, and that has been under a pretty restrictive business environment.

            Kiwirail was born out of Toll rail (NZ), which was basically the Australian company Toll holding asset-stripping NZ’s railways for 8 years. Prior to that; it was Tranzrail, which was owned by rail Wisconsin and had a deliberate focus on high profitability and freight services.

            So it’s a bit rich for you to blame Kiwirail for Ngaruawahia no longer having passenger rail services. Those passenger services were cancelled by entirely different people a long time ago and because not enough people were taking them. I’m sure that if Kiwirail ever got a more supportive business and funding arrangement from governments in NZ; they would happily try a commuter service between Hamilton and Auckland that also stopped at Ngaruawahia.

            Beyond the fact that it’s unjustifiable to not respect Kiwirail’s property: The fact is that the rail corridor and the bridge is not safe for humans to play around, so by playing on it; people are also disrespecting their own welfare.

    2. Thanks for a very interesting comment J90!

      I agree with your paras 1 and 2 (but absolutely not 3), however I wonder if you might have any knowledge as to why the kids jump off the rail bridge and not the road bridge. Can we design these things in a way that prevents dangerous situations arising, meaning that we acknowledge that NZ has a long tradition of kids jumping from high places into water, and design that into our crossings?

  8. I remember a story from when I was a kid that it was near here where the press used for for the pro Kingitanga newspaper Te Hokioi fell into the river when they moved it during the invasion. The pro colonial rival paper went out of print when Rewi Maniapoto seized it.

  9. How about another option, trench the railway line right through Ngaruawahia to get rid of the level crossings, and fence the whole track off. Build a new double track bridge which is much lower, has no overhead spans and much less exciting to jump off.

    This will then allow for the faster trains needed for a good regional rapid rail. I expect the bridge will need replacing at a minimum when they electrify the track.

    1. +1, they could also put the rail in a box over the river to prevent access and introduce a lower level platform with jumping access on the northern side.

    2. Which is what they did in Hamilton, and now no-one in Hamilton ever takes the train. Amazingly, they could have an underground station right in the middle of Hamilton – but instead, they have a desolate windswept station only on the outskirts, in the ‘burbs. But it sure stopped people in Hamilton from accessing the tracks. (or the trains….).

        1. Still just as relevant now, rail is useless for passengers if they can’t access it. I can’t think of any instances in Europe where passenger rail has been purposefully deviated passed a town.

          1. Actually bypassing Ngaruawahia would improve the experience of almost all potential passengers on any new Hamilton-Auckland service. Shorter distance, able to run at 110km/hr on a modern alignment all the way from Te Rapa to Taupiri. The priority on any new train service between Hamilton and Auckland is speed not stopping at every tinpot town and ending up as fast as Thomas the Tank Engine. For the very few potential passengers in Ngaruawahia, maybe the Huntly bus can stop at the new Te Rapa Station.

          2. Palmy’s rail line was deviated around the city in the 60s. Terrible idea! Admittedly, the Square would not be the much-used park it is if it had a railway line right through the middle, but the Capital Connection might get a lot more patronage if the railway had been undergrounded through the CBD rather than deviated.

            But given they would have had to construct the deviation for freight anyway I guess there’s no way they would have spent that kinda money on undergrounding.

          3. “I can’t think of any instances in Europe where passenger rail has been purposefully deviated passed a town.”

            Totally off topic, but, TGV Haute Picardie. (And other HS alignments of course. This one stands out because going through the cities was seriously considered but they wound up building a station in the middle of nowhere.)

          4. Zippo – have you caught an Intercity bus? What you will notice with these is that even if a town is off the main road the bus will leave the main road to pick up and drop-off passengers in the town.

            This slows the A to B journey time, however the bus companies are well aware of the overall network benefit of offering multiple points where you can board or leave the bus.

  10. The photo at the top of this page tells the story.

    The road bridge has barbed wire to prevent jumping, the rail bridge doesn’t.

    The disused spans are from the 1877 bridge, replaced by the current one in 1931 and demolished in 1968, except for the piers. Probably the piers would still be strong enough to support a footbridge/diving platform.

    Part of the rail bridge has no overhead trusses as it was rebuilt after a 1998 crash.

    If the line were to be rebuilt for higher speed, it’d make sense to follow the shorter route of the Expressway, rather than go through Ngaruawahia.

    The same district council has tried to stop jumping off the Raglan footbridge, where one person has died and others been injured, but notices don’t work. They believe that diving platforms would make them liable for any accident, yet they provide skateboard ramps, which regularly have ambulances along.

    The Morgan Jones case was rather different, in that the child was able to slip through the railing between coaches, an unsafe, though long-used design.

  11. You will notice on many consumer products these days, lists of inane instructions about what to do and what not to do with an item. This is largely to get around lawsuits from foolish people who do something completely dumb with a product and harm themselves as a result. Sure, the manufacturer must take all reasonable steps to make their products idiot-proof, but there is a limit to how far they can or should go.

    Can’t such a disclaimer be posted on the bridge, to the effect that public access is prohibited for safety reasons and that KiwiRail will not be held responsible for any harm suffered by any person who disregards this? And put the ball firmly in the court of others to come up with ways of getting the message through to the youth of the town, if a tragedy such as has just happened still fails to deter them? Or is this over-simplistic, from a non-lawyer such as myself?

    After all, we do not fence off roads and yet children die on them all the time.

    1. There are (or have been) at least four warning signs at the north end of the bridge, plus fencing – see the photos at https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/crime/102380185/friends-witness-girl-11-struck-and-thrown-by-train-at-ngaruawahia. I don’t think anyone is holding KiwiRail legally responsible, so what would such a disclaimer add?

      To my mind what needs to be looked at (if it hasn’t been done already) is why there is this particular problem in this particular place, and then look at addressing the issues behind it. Any number of fences, signs (or even deaths) don’t seem to be sufficient to solve the behavioural and psychological issues – but what will do that is beyond my ken (and beyond the ken of the average consumer of this blog, too, I suspect).

      1. I guess what I am saying is, no pressure on KiwiRail to do any more to prevent trespassers. Operate the railway as it should be operated and let the community, its parents and its guardians decide how best to rein-in their youngsters. As they would over road safety and reckless driving, one hopes. Perhaps the police could swoop from time to time, but at the end of the day, short of posting intimidating-looking guards there 24/7, people remain free to put themselves at risk on the bridge if they want, and the consequences are their choice. This is similar to driving dangerously or under the influence (although the risk there is also to others, not just self). But the onus is not on the road-controlling authorities nor on law-abiding other divers to modify what they do to stop this behaviour. Other approaches are taken and that is perhaps what is needed here.

  12. Everyone knows that the bridge is used by a hell of a lot more kids than trains. So, the obvious question is why the heck can’t the train simply slow to a safe speed when crossing the bridge?

    1. They tried this but reports are that the kids started climbing onto the moving train (and jumping from that??) – Way more fun of course.

      But it is stretching things to say that the bridge is “used” by the kids. Abused more like. Take the argument to its conclusion and you simply stop the trains altogether and hand the bridge over to the kids (and then they’ll probably lose interest!).

  13. It is a pretty dangerous activity because so many things could go wrong. I can understand why council wouldn’t want to endorse it as it suggests that it is a safe activity and ACC would blame them for enabling it.

    On the logic of enabling this dangerous activity for the sake of fun:

    How about we also create special speeding lanes on all roads for those cheeky, young rascals speeding around just wanting to have a bit of fun? I mean, they are going to do it anyway, so why not make it safer?

    How about we create some drug zones where those passionate, care-free, adventure-seekers can have some harmless fun and take all the drugs they like with impunity? I mean, they are going to do it anyway, so why not make it safer?

    How about we remove all restrictions on alcohol and cigarettes so those divergent, happy-go-lucky, youth can partake in those wonderful activities at their pleasure? I mean, they are going to do it anyway, so why not make it safer?

    These young people are immature, just like me when I was younger. We have an obligation to protect them from their own stupidity until they are mature enough to judge the risks for themselves. Not enabling it. After that, it is their darn own business to weigh the risks and decide if they want to do stupid things.

    1. Yeah no way they should ever try an enable a dangerous activity just for fun and enjoyment. That would be like building… er… community rugby fields, or BMX tracks, or something. Like who would even dream of using public monies to set aside a special field set aside so that young kinds can spend 80 minutes each week slamming into each other in the middle of winter.

      1. Meh. Rugby should be banned from schools.

        Fair point though. I guess it depends on the level of risk and whether public money should be spent enabling a dangerous activity instead of protecting the public. Some activities are below a level of risk deemed socially acceptable.

        There is no problem with council providing some multi-purpose flat grass. If people want to form private clubs to use the flat grass and they don’t mind brain damage, that’s not my problem or my business. Even if I have to pay ACC to cover their costs, I still prefer ACC.

        Arguably the health benefits of social sports far outweigh the resulting brain damage and spinal injuries.

        1. You could build a spanking new, purpose-designed, safety-compliant jumping platform, somewhere out over the river (away from the railway) and encourage the kids to go there with unlimited free burgers and ice cream. But what are the odds they would still trespass all over the rail bridge?

  14. Nobody at all here mentioning that the issue on jumping from bridges could be seen as a particularly Maori thing to do? There may be a tradition in many countries of jumping off bridges, but Ngaruawahia has a particularly strong Maori community, and it is, in effect, a “rite of passage” in the local Maori youth to jump off the bridge. I’m not aware that it is such a thing amongst Pakeha or Asians at this bridge – or, really, at other bridges too.

    It is similar to children jumping off the bridge in entrance to Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa bridge (all-Maori community, all Maori jumping from bridge) and Porirua’s Paremata road bridge (predominantly Ngati Toa community, only Maori kids jumping off the bridge). There are signs all over the Paremata bridge saying “No Jumping”, and “Danger Boat Channel Under”, but still, every single day in summer there is a steady stream of young brown bodies making the jump. Its a rite of passage and an everyday occurrence there, because it is fun. Have yet to see any white kids do it though, although there are plenty of white people living in Mana.

    When RadioNZ interviewed the local kaumatua at Ngaruawahia last week over the death of the 11 year old girl killed on the KiwiRail bridge, he said that things would be different now as someone had died, and he would be taking steps to stop this “rite of passage”. I believe he said “it stops now. There is no longer any such rite of passage.” Would be interesting to see if this was indeed the case and if he could indeed stop this. But then again – when have the young ever listened to the old?

    Of course – being Maori or not does not solve the issue of whether to try and add a walkway onto the railway bridge. But perhaps the example of AJ Hackett bungy-jumping off the Kawerau bridge in Queenstown could be looked at. After initially doing this (presumably illegally) for a number of years, and presumably blocking the small amount of traffic when they did, Hackett has now built their own platform, their own entry building, their own car-parking, and in typical capitalist fashion, monetised the whole thing, making millions into the bargain. No idea whether AJ is a Pakeha or a Maori, nor indeed does it matter – but he is certainly more attuned to making money out of the situation.

    Could the local Tainui do a similar thing here? Paying for a new jumping platform, working with Kiwirail to fence and restrict, working with the Council to provide car-parking access etc – by Ngaruawahia capitalising on the jumping thing, could this become a major tourist drawcard to the town? Worth considering?

    Or is this just going to be dismissed as an irrelevant comment because it talks of race?

    1. Sounds like a great plan. Am I really the only one here who used to indulge in this pastime? I had ten years of back pain after jumping off the bridge at Mercer when I was a teenager. Finally the pain went when I discovered a type of exercise called Feldenkrais. (It shouldn’t have taken that long but I wouldn’t admit what I’d done so that I could ask for help.) Stupidest thing of all was that I did this only about an hour after someone else was carted off to hospital in an ambulance.

      Was it rite of passage for me? No, it was ‘prove I was wilder than the boys’. Almost as mad as what I used to do in surf.

      I think kids will go to wherever the action is. If there’s another platform or a walkway and that’s where most of the not-too-stupid ones are hanging, that’s where they’ll all go. You don’t want to miss out on the social stuff going down.

  15. If you look at the place in your favourite mapping app, you can see that to walk from the north side of the town to the park by the river is about thee times as far by the official footpath as it is by sneaking over the railway bridge, and requires crossing a main road twice. To an able bodied person with only conditional respect for authority that is quite a temptation…
    Anyway, if you are going to choose a spot for diving off a bridge, you need deep water and a high, stable platform without annoying handrails in the way. You need to be able to jump off the downstream side for safety, so you can more readily see those already in the water, so that anyone who gets into trouble is more easily spotted, and so those who have jumped can more readily signal to those still on the platform. You need a good clear section of river bank downstream to easily and safely climb out, and this is also somewhere where an audience can gather (and more readily help or seek help when needed). The platform needs to get afternoon sun (so its pleasant to be on) and the clear bank downstream needs to face the sun too and be a place where people will gather anyway (so the jumpers can show-off properly, but also so there are more likely to be people around to get help if anything goes wrong). The spot should also be close to the middle of things so its easy to get to, and again to ensure that there will be more bystanders around. The surface of the platform and its access should be timber or something similar so it doesn’t get too hot for bare feet on a summer afternoon.
    For better or worse the Ngaruawahia railway bridge is about perfect on all these counts, and if it weren’t for the trains it would be the safest place in the town to dive into the river. (Arguably much safer than driving aggressively in clapped-out cars or experimenting with methamphetamine.) A walkway attached the west side of the rail bridge with dive platforms along it would be nicer and safer for everyone, and the kids would still get to have fun. If it is official, a diver can check the riverbed for submerged hazards at intervals (especially after floods), and I’d expect a volunteer could be found for this pretty easily. If there were multiple dive platforms along the walkway they could be locked off as necessary should the river channel shift or other hazards appear. The walkway could be fairly narrow and quite lightly built, and should probably have a stair access down to the south riverbank. It would of course have a high chain-link back side to keep people off the tracks. Structurally it shouldn’t be an issue, bearing in mind that an empty coal wagon weighs about as much as four hundred children.
    So Harriet, yes, I agree.

    Oh, and Guy, what about an annual national bridge diving competition in Ngaruawahia? The platform being public and non-commercial, but a big event to bring people in each year in late summer?

  16. Double tracking the Wangamarino Swamp could be tricky. Dumping rock into the swamp to create a formation for rail track may not work if rocks float away. Hard to visualise rocks floating but it is a commonly observed thing in attempts to engineer transport pathways across swamps

    The best long term solution may be to deviate away from the swamp altogether.

    1. That’s what we proposed in the Regional Rapid Rail Plan. Realign and double track about 1 to 2km west, using cut and fill through the solid ground.

    2. Railway engineers have been tackling swamps successfully since George Stephenson discovered at Chat Moss in 1830 that dumping rocks etc didn’t work. So he floated the Liverpool and Manchester Railway across that swamp, and it’s still part of an important main line, recently electrified, over 180 years later. That’s pretty long term!

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