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 carriages were made of stainless steel, and silver in appearance.
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 Railways staff morale and image, and the concept was based on the more modern Australian east coast sleeping car trains of the day. The 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. The high wage and other industrial demands of the ferry stewards used, were one of the reasons the service failed. However, the product was effectively ten years too late. Travel by National Airways Corporation 737 took just over one hour; the Silver Star, by contrast, took around 12 hours and 30 minutes. Due to the freeze on rail fare and charges imposed by the Kirk Labour Government, which effectively meant the overnight 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 double the stations of the Silver Star, which had much older (1930s/1940s-built) rolling stock, and which had no on-board buffet service, but had cheaper fares (and three classes of accommodation). By refurbishing this train in 1975, which became the Northerner, many rail passengers preferred 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 - more upmarket travellers simply preferred to fly.
Rolling stock and motive power
The 31 coaches were manufactured by Hitachi and Nippon Sharyo and hauled by diesel locomotives (initially two DA class locomotives, and later one DX class) for a six-night-a-week service. All passengers were carried in sleeping cars, with 12 being eight two-berth (incorporating separate bathrooms with showers for each cabin) "Twinette" and 12 being 16 single-berth (with toilet/basin facilities) "Roomette" cars. Passengers could purchase dinner, breakfast and other refreshments 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 consists.
All 31 cars ran on bogies of a newer design, classed X28250 by NZR, which offered a superior quality ride, through better absorption of inertial dampers and better suspension, and bore a resemblance to the Kinki-Sharyo -manufactured bogies, classed X27250 by NZR, under steam vans 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, classed X28280, were heavily modeled after those under the Star cars.
The Railways Department attempted to replace the Northerner and Silver Star with a refurbished Silver Star which would be a 50% seating and 50% sleeper train, redeploy eight 30-seat cars from the Northerner rolling stock on the Wellington - Napier service, and relocate the three 32-seat and three 36-seat Endeavour cars to the Christchurch - Picton route, but these plans came to nothing after the Silver Star stock was withdrawn from service and blue asbestos insulation was found inside the coaches. The relevant union refused to work with the dangerous material, and the carriages lay parked in sidings for over ten years while their future was debated. Options included continuing with the refurbishment and using the trains on a double daily service (both overnight and daylight) to improve utilisation and enabling the train's externally similarly-styled daytime equivalent, Silver Fern railcars, to be redeployed on other routes. However, the government baulked at the cost (which was estimated at being over $20 million to refurbish the train) given a large budget deficit and public debt, so decided against funding the refurbishment plan.
In December 1987, the Wellington-based Silver Star cars were hauled to Auckland, where private tourist firm Pacific Trailways intended to convert 27 passenger cars into a luxury tourist train that would travel around both the North and South Islands for NZ$1000. Nothing eventuated and all the cars languished in Auckland for two more years.
In 1990, the 31 cars were purchased by the British luxury travel company, Orient Express Trains & Cruises (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 3⁄8 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 on 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 the E&OE moved its engineering workshop from Singapore to Johor. Since then the refurbished consist has, along with non-Silver Star stock, operated a regular 5-star luxury cruise-train service between Singapore and Bangkok as the Eastern & Oriental Express.
Six cars remain at A & G Price - two double sleepers, two single sleepers 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 have been for sale since December 2012.
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