Bike trail preserving the colourful history of the Otago Central Railway Line

The Otago Central Rail Trail is today a “must do” for New Zealand and international cycling enthusiasts, but few of the thousand who ride it are aware of the struggle involved in the building of the railway line which preceded it.

The route diverts from the Main South Line at Wingatui south of Dunedin, winds through the Taieri Gorge, across the Maniototo Plain and terminates at Cromwell.

It took 42 years to build and was the cause of much frustration with Central Government and parochial disputes within Otago.

The man who more than any other was responsible for getting it built was Vincent Pyke, a former English immigrant who had been superintendent of the Otago Central goldfields before becoming an MP.

He’d seen the development of farming and fruit growing that had followed the gold rushes and he, along with Otago pioneer administrator and MP James Macandrew, believed a railway line was the best way to open up the land.

In Parliament, he talked about a “magnificent land now a wilderness”. “I want to see that country as my poor old friend Mr Macandrew would say if he were here, ‘blossoming like a rose’,” he told the House.

Getting approval was one thing. Agreeing on a route was another. North Otago interests wanted a route from Oamaru to the Maniototo across Dansey’s Pass. They were deeply suspicious that Dunedin businessmen were in cahoots with Strath Taieri runholders to frustrate them.

In the end, the Strath Taieri route prevailed and approval for a line was granted in 1877 under the Railways Construction Act. Vincent Pyke turned the first sod at Wingatui in 1879.

But the green light to proceed had coincided with the onset of financial recession. In the 10 following years, the line only advanced 17 miles.

Pyke died in 1894 with his dream only partly fulfilled. In the year before his death, he and another pioneer legislator, William Barron, were significant figures in the formation of the Central Otago Railway League to push the line ahead.

By the time the line was opened, road transport was beginning to improve. Over the years, the line’s profitability declined.

After the Clyde Dam was completed, the line inland from Middlemarch was closed in 1980, to be replaced in 2000 by the Otago Central Rail Trail.

The line between Wingatui and Middlemarch has remained open and now used daily for tourist trips by Dunedin City-owned Taieri Gorge Railway.

Sources: New Zealand Dictionary of Biolgraphy; A History of Otago, A H McLintock, 1949.