North Island Main Trunk – 30 years in the ‘too hard basket’

Linking Auckland with Wellington by rail was one of New Zealand’s great national building-blocks, but for many years it sat in the “too hard basket”.

The land wars of the 1860s, provincial rivalries, a flagging economy, rugged terrain and opposition from Central North Island Maori all played a part in delaying completion of the Main Trunk until 1908, 30 years after the line connecting Christchurch with Invercargill had been opened.

In the last quarter of the 19th century the South Island was more wealthy, more populous and more politically powerful than the north which was still recovering from the land wars.

As a result, Canterbury and Otago had grabbed the lion’s share of the early rail building. By the time the north had recovered, a world recession had all but brought progress on railways to a stand-still.

This was the cue for the re-entry to New Zealand politics of Sir Julius Vogel, the man who a decade earlier had taken railway building from the provinces and transferred it to the national stage.

Returning to the role as Colonial Treasurer in 1884, he hoped a revived public works programme would reignite the colony’s flagging economy and help him restore his political career and personal finances.

Along with Premier and business partner Sir Robert Stout, he saw some encouraging signs for an Auckland-Wellington link.

The line south from Auckland had been extended as far as Te Awamutu by 1880. At the other end of the country, the private Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company was building the line out of Wellington which would provide a connection with Palmerston North and from there to New Plymouth.

In the central North Island the tribal leaders were bowing to the inevitable and considering lifting the aukati or barrier which restricted Pakeha entry into the King Country, known as Te Rohe Potae.

In 1883, five tribes – Ngati Maniapoto, Ngati Hikairo, Ngati Raukawa, Ngati Tuwharetoa and Whanganui – had signed an agreement with the Crown that the North Island Main Trunk could proceed through the King Country.

This enabled a start on survey work to determine the best route, an issue that itself became entangled in provincial rivalries. Taranaki interests wanted the line going through their province while others favoured a central route, on one side or the other of Lake Taupo.

A Select Committee of South Island MPs was asked to make a recommendation and it opted for a Central route. The first sod was officially turned on the banks of the Puniu River, about five kilometres south of Te Awamutu, in April 1885.

Ngati Maniapoto was represented by three chiefs, Te Wahanui, Rewi Maniapoto and Taonui while Premier Sir Robert Stout and Native Minister John Balance were present to represent the Crown. Contracts were let for the first sections southward from Te Awamutu and northward from Marton. By 1888, the line had inched south from Te Awamutu to Te Kuiti and from Marton to just north of Hunterville.

At that stage the money ran out and the whole debate over which route should be followed, was re-ignited. It took a 1890 Commission of Enquiry and a strengthening economy to settle the route and get construction moving again.

The last great viaduct, Makatote, was completed in June 1908. That was just four weeks before a special train, the Parliament Special, made the historic first journey to carry MPs from Wellington to Auckland to attend functions associated with the visiting American “Great White Fleet”.

The Parliament Special had to travel on temporary tracks because the two railheads hadn’t at that stage met. The ceremonial “last spike” was not driven by Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward until 6 November.

The final section was handed over to the Railways Department in February 1909. Regular overnight express trains took almost 20 hours to travel 426 miles between Auckland and Wellington, but it was a vast improvement on the days when travellers used a combination of rail, stage-coach and coastal steamer to complete the journey. The completion of the North Island Main Trunk accelerated the opening up of the Central North Island and the growth of industries such as forestry and farming. Towns grew alongside the railway and some of them – Taihape and Taumarunui – became synonymous with the railway.

Sources: : New Zealand Government Year Book, 1963; ONTRACK Parliamentary Special Programme, August 2008.