1850 - 1900

Building the Network

First Steps

The first New Zealand ‘railway' was a private mining line at Dun Mountain near Nelson. It opened in 1862, but its wagons were hauled by horses rather than locomotives.

The country's first steam-powered public railway was a 7km line from Christchurch to Ferrymead on the Heathcote River. This was built by the Canterbury provincial government and opened on 1 December 1863. It used tiny British-built tank engines and a broad 1,600mm gauge track. Meanwhile, work had begun on a far more ambitious project - a 2.6km tunnel through the Port Hills linking Christchurch with the deep-water port of Lyttelton. This tunnel was opened in December 1867.

Early rail in Southland

The Southland provincial government was another early rail pioneer. It imported a locomotive from Australia in 1863 and by October 1864 had completed a 12km railway between Invercargill and Makarewa. In an effort to save money, this line was laid using thick wooden rails. Unfortunately, these became slippery in wet weather and were crushed by the locomotives. In dry weather sparks set the tracks alight. A more successful iron-railed line to Bluff, built to the standard 1,435 mm gauge, was completed in 1867, but the effort bankrupted Southland province.

Travelling on these early railways was an adventure. Journeys were slow and often uncomfortable. A journalist visiting Southland recalled an occasion when he and fellow passengers were "politely requested by the guard to leave the carriage and help to push the carriage and engine to the summit of the bank. This we did with colonial cheerfulness, and on returning to our seats the guard promptly collected 2s. 6d. apiece from us as our fares!"

A slow start

In 1870 New Zealand had just 74km of railway, all of it on the eastern and southern plains of the South Island. By comparison, the United States had almost 50,000km.

Still emerging from the turmoil of the New Zealand Wars, the North Island provinces lacked the gold or pastoral resources of their southern counterparts. Northern settlers looked to central government to deliver rail's promise of progress and prosperity.

Early Times

New Zealand's first railways were built by provincial governments or private companies, with mixed results. In 1870 the central government took centre stage. Colonial Treasurer Julius Vogel announced an ambitious programme to build more than 1,600km of railways in nine years, financed by massive overseas borrowing.

Narrow gauge

To speed up construction and reduce costs, the government decided that all railways would be built to the narrow 1,067mm gauge. The broader Canterbury and Southland lines were converted later that decade. Although the gauge itself was not an obstacle to performance, the severe gradients, tight curves and narrow tunnels of the network would constrain rail development in later decades.

The government engaged the British firm John Brogden and Sons to build the first of Vogel's railways. This company recruited 1300 labourers in England and brought them to New Zealand. Despite numerous delays and problems, by the mid 1870s short lines had been completed in or around Auckland, Napier, Wellington, Picton, Oamaru and Invercargill.

The most challenging project of the 1870s was the Rimutaka Incline railway, which connected Wellington's Hutt Valley with the Wairarapa. The steepness of the eastern side of the Rimutaka Range required special Fell locomotives, which used horizontal inner wheels to grip a raised centre rail. The Incline was opened in 1878 and remained in use until 1955, when it was superseded by a tunnel.

First main trunk completed

The late 1870s saw the completion of New Zealand's first ‘main trunk' railway between Christchurch and Invercargill. The Christchurch-Dunedin line was completed in 1878, slashing travel time between the two cities to under 11 hours. From January 1879 trains ran all the way to Invercargill. By 1880 New Zealand Railways (NZR) was operating more than 1,900km of track, and carrying almost 3 million passengers and 830,000 tons of freight a year.

The rail-building pace slowed during the 1880s, a time of economic depression. The government offered generous land grants to encourage private rail ventures, and in 1886 the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company completed an important line between Wellington and Longburn, near Palmerston North. This railway joined up with the government line to New Plymouth, where steamships ferried travellers to and from Auckland.

Expanding the network

The 1880s and 1890s also saw important improvements to the Vogel-era railways: light iron rails were replaced by heavier steel ones, larger stations were built, and signalling and safety measures were improved. More comfortable passenger carriages and more powerful locomotives - some of them built in the Railways Department's own workshops - were introduced. New Zealand's rail system was emerging from its rough pioneering phase to take a central role in the nation's economic and social life.

Vogel's visionary plan changed New Zealand forever. Railways opened up vast new districts to settlement and exploitation, and connected farms, forests and mines to markets and ports. Central government's leadership in rail-building contributed to the abolition of the old provincial governments in 1876. For more than a century after 1870, New Zealand's rail network would - with a few exceptions - be built and operated by the state.

North Island Main Trunk (NIMT)

A main trunk railway between Auckland and Wellington had been discussed since the 1860s, but Julius Vogel's rail-building boom initially had little impact on the central North Island. By 1880 Auckland's southern line reached as far as Te Awamutu, and isolated sections had been built in Taranaki, Manawatu, Hawke's Bay and Wellington-Wairarapa. Between southern Waikato and Manawatu lay a vast upland of broken country, mountains, ravines, forests and Maori land.

Despite these obstacles, survey work began in 1882. In 1884 a parliamentary committee opted for a central route over western or eastern alternatives. The government also reached a crucial agreement with Ngati Maniapoto leaders to open up the King Country to rail development. On 15 April 1885 politicians and Maori leaders ceremonially turned the ‘first sod' of the central section at Puniu, near Te Awamutu.

Engineering challenges

It would take 23 years of exploration, engineering challenges, parliamentary enquiries, and sheer hard work with pick and shovel to complete the North Island Main Trunk (NIMT). Progress was slow in the 1890s, but work intensified after 1900. By 1904 the northern and southern sections had reached Taumarunui and Taihape. South of Taumarunui, the steep climb up to the Waimarino plateau was accomplished via the Raurimu Spiral, with its two tunnels, three horseshoe curves and complete circle. Massive steel viaducts were built to bridge deep ravines at Makatote, Hapuawhenua, Mangaweka and Makohine.

Official opening

By May 1908 only a 24km gap remained between Makatote and Ohakune. The Public Works Department rushed to complete the line by August, in time to carry MPs north to greet the US Navy's Great White Fleet in Auckland. This ‘Parliament Special' train took more than 20 hours to complete the trip. The NIMT was formally opened on 6 November 1908, when Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward hammered the final spike at Manganuioteao. Regular services began soon after. The following month the government took control of the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company, whose line now formed part of the NIMT. In February 1909 an Express service began, linking Auckland and Wellington in 18 hours. In 1924 the new ‘Night Limited' Express cut the journey to 14 hours.

Symbol of progress

The completion of the NIMT was a major landmark in New Zealand's history. It fuelled economic development and population growth in the North Island, and confirmed Auckland and Wellington's status as the country's leading cities. It paved the way for the European settlement of the central North Island, an area previously dominated by Maori. It also accelerated the destruction of the great forests that once covered much of the island. Most New Zealanders, though, saw the NIMT as a shining symbol of progress, heralding a golden age of rail transport in the first half of the 20th century.