Famous train journey owes origins to provincial rivalry and financial ambition

Midland Railway Company ceremony. Heinz, William Frederick, 1900?-1976: Photographs and negatives of gold mining and other facets of West Coast life. Ref: 1/2-044392-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

The railway line that today provides international tourists with one of the world’s most popular train journeys, owes its existence to provincial rivalries and what would be regarded in today’s political world as dubious financial conflicts of interest.

The Midland Line connects Greymouth on the West Coast to the Main South Line just south of Christchurch.

The final connection wasn’t made until the Otira Tunnel was opened in1923, some sixty years after settlers first started agitating for a railway linking Christchurch with the West Coast.

Part of the early impetus for a railway was a desire to create jobs at a time of considerable unemployment. But just as important was the feeling that Canterbury wasn’t getting its fair share of the money being allocated to railway building during the latter stages of the “Vogel rail boom”.

History student G J Rosanowski in a 1968 thesis, the West Coast Railway and New Zealand Politics, 1878 – 1888, paints an interesting picture of Vogel era railway politics.

In his view, politicians advanced railway projects for parochial provincial reasons and often to their own personal advantage as a result of the business investments in which they were involved.

The focus of the first wave of rail building during the 1870s had been linking main centres, particularly in the South Island. When recession set in during the 1880s, rail building slowed and provinces fought with one another for the limited money on offer.

A West Coast railway had been mooted as early as 1867 – often in association with a link to Nelson. Pressure continued to mount, culminating in the formation of an East and West Coast Railway League in 1882.

The official view was somewhat different. The Engineer in Charge of Public Works, John Curruthers looked at survey reports and concluded that the railway didn’t stack up.

His view was supported by the Engineer-in-Chief for South Island Public Works, W N Blair. He dismissed the Nelson link and was lukewarm about the West Coast-Canterbury connection, believing that commercial advantages were outweighed by the enormous cost of construction and the likely loss on operating costs.

A Royal Commission on Railways took the same view but by this time support for a railway was growing. Cantabrians became increasingly frustrated at the line’s omission from annual Public Works estimates.

Their enthusiasm for a railway, coincided with Vogel’s return from London to New Zealand politics. His biographer Raewyn Dalziel paints a picture of a man whose health and finances were failing in equal proportion.

An electorate seat in the 1884 election and a resumption of position as Colonial Treasurer gave Vogel an income and a chance to rescue struggling investments in branch railway and land speculation ventures he shared with Sir Robert Stout.

But times had changed and money for railways wasn’t as easy to raise for the Stout and Vogel-led ministry as it had been ten years earlier.

G J Rosanowski argues the two men needed the support of Canterbury representatives to get a Bill through the House that would empower the Government to buy struggling private enterprise railway ventures – some of them companies in which they had a personal interest.

Unable to get money approved for the West Coast railway, their solution was to let a private company build the line. The East and West Coast and Nelson Railway Act of provided the formal authority and it led to the formation of the Midland Railway Company.

The company’s backers sought money in London and eventually raised enough to grant a contract in April 1886.

There had been considerable debate about the route to be followed but by 1884, the choice had narrowed to two: the more direct, but technically difficult, Waimakariri Valley-Arthurs Pass route, or a somewhat easier but longer Hurunui Valley-Harpers Pass route. A Royal Commission opted for the Waimakariri Valley-Arthurs Pass route.

By 1894, 120 kilometres had been completed at a cost of £1.3 million but by then the company had run out of money and was struggling with the enormity of the task it faced in an age when railways were built by men wielding picks and shovels.

The following year, the Government took over the project. A legal dispute between the Government and company dragged on for a number of years before being resolved, largely in the Government’s favour.

The West Coast section reached Ōtira in 1900. By1906 trains were running to a temporary terminus at Broken River enabling the journey, by rail and coach, from Greymouth to Christchurch to be completed in one day.

Building the 8.5 kilometre Otira tunnel, which would complete the link, started in 1907 but wasn’t completed until 1923.

Work on the route between Īnangahua and Nelson was eventually abandoned in 1931 That left Nelson isolated from the New Zealand rail network – but that’s another story.

Sources: G J Rosanowski, 1968 thesis, the West Coast Railway and New Zealand Politics, 1878 – 1888; Raewyn Dalziel. Julius Vogel, Business Politican, 1986; IPENZ Engineering Heritage New Zealand.