Narrow gauge railway a pragmatic concession to reality


New Zealand’s narrow gauge railway network was a pragmatic concession to the challenges that topography and a small population presented to the country’s early railway builders.

Provincial governments, New Zealand’s early railway builders, favoured the broad gauge standard adopted in Britain and the northern hemisphere.

Canterbury adopted a 1600 mm broad gauge for its first railways while Southland opted for the British Standard Gauge 1435 mm when it built a railway line connecting Invercargill to Bluff in 1867.

Broad gauge railways covering short distances might have served well enough, but they would have been expensive and time consuming to turn into a network that linked major centres.

When the Government began planning for such a network, an 1870 Select Committee chose the 1067 mm gauge because it was considered adequate to carry traffic economically.

Narrow gauge – also known as Cape Gauge – is credited to Norwegian engineer Carl Abraham Pihl in 1862.

It was used first in New Zealand in1873 for the Port Chalmers Branch Railway which linked Port Chalmers to Dunedin city.

The introduction of narrow gauge created lively debate. Even New Zealand’s first Railways Chief Engineer, John Carruthers, conceded that the Canterbury’s wider gauge made for a better, more effective railway.

A former New Zealand Premier of the time, Sir Robert Stout, put the issue in perspective in a contribution to The New Zealand Railways Magazine in June 1928.

“Before the 3ft. 6in (1067 mm) gauge was adopted there was much public discussion on the question,” he wrote. “Meetings were held and many supporters of the existing (wider) provincial gauges advocated their retention.

“The opinion of one of our legislators, the Hon. J. C. Richmond, had a great effect in getting the 3ft. 6in. gauge adopted. He was a railway engineer and he had been in the service of the French Government in Algiers.

“His services were much thought of by the French Government. In urging the adoption of this narrow gauge it was pointed out that we were a small community. Our population was, according to the census return of February, 1871, only 256,393 people, excluding our Maoris.”

In hindsight, Sir Robert Stout considered that the decision to build a narrow gauge railway had been the right one.

He concluded that had the decision not been made, New Zealand would not have been able to build the network that ultimately eventuated.

Sources: New Zealand Railways- the first 125 years: David Leitch and Bob Stott, New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 3, June 1928, Electronic Text Collection