Anthonie Tonnon is realising a long-held ambition in Te Tairāwhiti on November 1st. Not only is he bringing his Rail Land show to the region – with the help of Arts on Tour and InCahoots, he is inviting an audience to join him and travel by train from Gisborne Station to Te Whare Maumahara mo Ngā Hoea O Te Muriwai – the hall at Te Muriwai marae.

A journey of the mind, through song and story about New Zealand’s on-and-off again love affair with its passenger railway system, Tonnon has taken Rail Land around Aotearoa twice, and this year will take the show beyond the main centres to 21 towns.

In the show, Tonnon weaves his current, past and future songs together with new custom material written for Rail Land – synthesizer soundscapes with spoken word narratives on topics like the closure of the Blue Streak Railcar, the 90s revival of the Silver Fern Carriages, or how to take the great Capital Connection train from Palmerston North to Wellington – a train Tonnon calls ‘the last of its kind.’

But like the space-themed visual spectacle A Synthesized Universe, which Tonnon performed for Te Tairawhiti Arts Festival last year, Rail Land has an immersive element too. This time it’s in the form of a real, communal journey rather than a virtual one. Where possible, Rail Land aims to get the entire audience to an extraordinary venue by public transport rail. Where no such transport exists, the goal of Rail Land is to make it exist, if only for one day. 

The first place Tonnon achieved this was his hometown of Dunedin – a city where suburban trains ran until 1982. In 2018 and 2019, Tonnon chartered a Dunedin Railways train from Dunedin Station to a hall in the seaside settlement of Waitati.

‘The goal of Rail Land is to do something practical and joyous – while the story of rail in Aotearoa is often quite tragic, I didn’t want to just dwell on those tragedies, and I wanted to do something beyond just talking. I realised that if we could get enough people to go along with me, we could actually bring a train into existence in the present moment. Taking a train together with people in Dunedin to get to a show, something most of us haven’t done in our lifetime, was really euphoric – I think it expanded everyone’s sense of possibility.’

But chartering trains is no easy feat – fees to use the lines can be extraordinarily prohibitive, and rail operators outside the main centres have been under strain, even before Covid. This year, Dunedin Railways was mothballed during the first lockdown. Responding to the difficulties, Tonnon has expanded this year’s tour to include heritage buses and ferries in Dunedin, and is celebrating bus systems in towns like Queenstown which he says has shown the power of improving public transport, even if only on humble rubber wheels. 

Tonnon says that in the places where freight trains don’t run, like the Weka Pass Railway in Canterbury, there can actually be more possibility for passengers “Because Gisborne’s line is currently disconnected from the main system, and because I’d seen Gisborne City Vintage Railway was doing regular trips, I thought it might just be possible here.” When performing at Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival last year,  he asked In Cahoots’ Melody Craw if she thought she could help him pull it off. Nine months later, I got an email from her that said “here in Te Tairāwhiti everything is possible.” 

Tonnon says that while the show is just the second on this year’s Rail Land tour, it’s the most ambitious journey planned on the tour. ‘Melody’s right – perhaps anything is possible here.’

Sunday November 1, Te Tairāwhiti / Gisborne – Te Whare Maumahara mo Ngā Hoea O Te Muriwai, 3pm Get your tickets here

* Travel to Muriwai by Vintage Train and experience Rail Land in Te Whare Maumahara.Train leaves at 3pm and returns approx. 6.45pm