1900 - 1950

Golden age of rail

The first half of the 20th century is often celebrated as the heyday or golden age of rail. By the early 1920s New Zealand Railways (NZR) was carrying more than 6 million tons of freight and 28 million passengers a year, a remarkable achievement for a nation of just over a million people. The North and South Island main trunks, linked by the Union Steam Ship Company's Wellington-Lyttelton ferry service, formed the backbone of the national transport system. That decade also saw the completion of important secondary lines between Christchurch and Greymouth (1923), Auckland and Whangarei (1925) and Auckland and Tauranga (1928).

Once a startling novelty, the railway was now a familiar part of daily life for many New Zealanders. Almost everyone travelling between major centres - politicians, businessmen, public servants, soldiers, sports teams, circuses and theatre groups, local holidaymakers and overseas visitors (including British royalty) - took the railway. Trains also ferried schoolchildren to the classroom, suburban workers to factories and offices, and thousands of day-trippers to beaches, parks, shows and racecourses. Rail travel fostered the formation of regional and national organisations, the distribution of newspapers, magazines and movies, and touring by local and international entertainers and sports teams.

Railway stations - a local landmark

The railway station was a familiar landmark in many cities and towns, a vital community hub at the heart of commercial and social life. New Zealand once had more than 1,350 stations, ranging from grand urban monuments to modest country shelters. Some featured Railway Refreshment Rooms, where crisply uniformed female staff served pies, sandwiches, cakes and steaming tea and coffee in the legendarily thick NZR cups.

Even in its heyday, rail faced a serious challenge from motor transport. New Zealanders were quick to embrace cars, and rail passenger numbers began to fall in the late 1920s. In response, NZR launched its own coach and bus services, published a popular monthly magazine, established a Publicity Branch and became the country's leading tourism promoter. In the interwar years railways provided tens of thousands of ordinary New Zealanders with affordable access to beaches, lakes, mountains and parks.

Depression and recovery

The Depression of the early 1930s hit railways hard, but government restrictions on road transport, the expansion of tourism, and innovations like railcars and suburban electric units sparked a strong recovery later that decade. During the Second World War troop transport and petrol rationing boosted passenger numbers to all-time record levels, with 38.6 million journeys recorded in 1943/44. Meanwhile, another burst of rail-building saw the completion of lines between Napier and Gisborne (1943) and Christchurch and Picton (1945).

The end of an era

By the 1950s railways' golden age was coming to an end. Just as the national network reached its greatest route length - 5,689km in 1953 - rail transport (especially passenger travel) began to struggle in the face of intense road and air competition. Over the following decades many branch lines, long-distance passenger services, stations and other facilities would be closed.


New Zealand has a long history of electric-powered railways. Before the 1980s they were confined to Wellington's commuter lines and two South Island tunnels. Our first electric railway opened in 1923. This was a 14km section running through the long Otira tunnel on the transalpine line between Christchurch and Greymouth.

In 1929 electric locomotives were introduced on the Christchurch-Lyttelton line, which included the Lyttelton tunnel. Electric propulsion was seen as ideal for use in tunnels, to avoid the smoke nuisance caused by steam locomotives. Both of these sections were subsequently converted to diesel haulage - the Lyttelton line in 1970 and Otira in 1997.

In 1938, following the completion of the Tawa Flat deviation out of Wellington, the old Johnsonville route (originally built by the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company in the 1880s) was converted into an electrified suburban line, served by English Electric multiple units. By 1940 the North Island Main Trunk (NIMT) out of Wellington had been electrified as far north as Paekakariki (extended to Paraparaumu in the 1980s). In the early 1950s electric multiple units were introduced on the busy Hutt Valley suburban lines.