Early provincial railways linked towns with ports

New Zealand’s earliest railways were built by South Island provincial governments so that people and goods could travel more easily between ports and the towns they served. Transport through a rugged, bush-covered country was one of the biggest obstacles to settlement in the young colony.

North Island settlers faced the same challenge, but the land wars in the north and greater prosperity in the south gave the southern provinces a head start.

In Christchurch, the choice of journey facing settlers was between the bridle path over the hill between Lyttelton and the town or boats which sailed around the coast and up the Heathcote River. A steamer service was introduced, but to settlers accustomed to the benefits rail had brought to the United Kingdom, wanted more.

The first railway line to carry passengers in a train pulled by a locomotive connected Christchurch to the Heathcote River at Ferrymead. It was a stop-gap measure while a tunnel was built through the Port Hills to Lyttelton.

The seven-kilometre line was officially opened on 1 December 1863. An imported British-built tank engine, Pilgrim, pulled the train and according to the London Illustrated News, “the event, as may be supposed, was one of no ordinary interest to the province and drew together a large number of inhabitants.

“Trains continued to run up and down throughout the day and afforded gratuitous rides as well as immense amusement to crowds of colony-bred young people to whom a ride in a railway train was perhaps a novelty.”

Meanwhile, the Provincial Council hadn’t lost sight of the bigger project – the link with Lyttelton. A delegation had been sent to England to consult railway pioneer Robert Stephenson. That resulted in a conditional contract being signed with an English firm to build a railway connecting the town and the port within five years. But the project was vetoed by the Governor and when approval was finally given, the contractors pulled out.

Undeterred, the Provincial Government led by Superintendent Sefton Moorhouse pressed on, securing another contacting firm and commissioning geologist Dr (afterwards Sir Julius) von Haast to advise on the problem of hard rock on the chosen route that early work had encountered. Von Haast’s advice was that hard rock was only an outer core. This gave the council the confidence to appoint Melbourne firm Geo. Holmes and Co. to build the tunnel and the railway at a cost of £240,500.

The first sod of the work was turned at Heathcote on 17 July 1861 and the work completed in November, 1867.

The experience further south was not as positive. While Otago was agonising over a railway line between Dunedin and Port Chalmers, Southland, which had broken away from Otago, had acquired a locomotive from Australia in 1863.

The Southlanders pressed ahead with a line spanning the 12 kilometre distance between Invercargill and Makarewa. They opted for wooden rails to save money but this turned out to be false economy because trains slipped in wet weather and created sparks which set the track alight when it was dry. An iron-railed railway linking Invercargill and Bluff was built in 1867, but the cost bankrupted the province and forced a return to Otago.

Sources: New Zealand Railways, the First 125 Years, David Leitch and Bob Stott, 1988; The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 1, Issue 2 (June, 1926), Early New Zealand Railway Days, NZ Electronic Text Collection.