Port Chalmers branch the first narrow gauge line

The Port Chalmers Branch railway line which links Port Chalmers to Dunedin City, was the first in the country to be built to the newly adopted narrow track gauge of 1067 mm and the first line to be built in the province of Otago.

It is best remembered in Otago today as the line on which the locomotive Josephine, the centre-piece of the Otago Early Settlers’ Museum collection, first ran.

Josephine and her sister locomotive Rose were designed by Scottish engineer Robert Fairley and built at the Vulcan Foundry in England. They arrived at Port Chalmers on the Wave Queen in 1872, helped lay ballast while the line was being built and pulled freight and passengers when the line formally opened in 1873.

The Port Chalmers Line is today largely incorporated into the Main South Line. It dates back to 1869 when the Otago Provincial Council appointed a Dunedin firm to build the line for seventy thousand pounds and for it to be operated by the Dunedin Port Chalmers Railway Company.

By that time, short stretches of broad or standard gauge railway lines had been built by provincial governments in Christchurch and Invercargill But the Port Chalmers line coincided with the centralising policies of Colonial Treasurer Julius Vogel, regarded as the “father of railways” in New Zealand.

A Select Committee of Parliament decided that a narrow gauge of 1067 mm was the most affordable option for an extensive network linking major centres.

The line had been barely finished when Government bought it for one hundred and seventy five thousand pounds. It was officially opened on 1 January 1873 by the retiring Governor General Sir George Bowen as part of his farewell tour of the colony.

Josephine subsequently had a chequered career which ended as a work locomotive helping build the North Island Main Trunk Line. She survived an attempt to scrap her and stood outside the museum, just south of Dunedin Railway station, for many decades until the museum decided to make her a centre-piece display in its refurbished foyer. When the first stage of the Main South Line opened in December 1877 a junction was created at Sawyers Bay. The two kilometres between Sawyers Bay and Port Chalmers became the Port Chalmers Branch. In 1880 the line was vested in the newly established New Zealand Railways Department.

Sources: A History of Otago, A H McLintock, 1949; Wikipedia.