Monday, April 21, 2014

The A to Z Challenge: R is for Railway

In the early decades of European settlement in New Zealand, most travel of any distance was by water. Towns and villages grew up along the coast, or on navigable rivers, and for many years the little coastal steamers transported the bulk of passengers and freight.

New Zealand's first railway lines were built in the South Island in the 1860s. By 1880 the South Island's main trunk line had been completed—and the North Island's had not yet been started.

The South Island's eastern plains, where the island's largest settlements were, made building the railway comparatively straightforward. It was a far more difficult task to build a railway line through the central North Island, with its mountains and ravines, requiring some impressive feats of engineering. The central section has towering viaducts and the dramatic Raurimu spiral, with tunnels and sharp curves and a line that circles back on itself.

Makatote Viaduct, Mt Ruapehu in background, c.1910
Raurimu Spiral. Whites Aviation Ltd :Photographs. Ref: WA-42886-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
Building began on the North Island Main Trunk in 1885, and the 680-kilometre track was completed 23 years later, in 1908. There was a rush to complete the final 24-kilometre section in time for a Parliament Special train to take MPs to Auckland in time to greet Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet in August  of 1908.

The North Island Main Trunk line was officially opened a few months later, in November 1908, when the Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward ceremonially drove home the final spike.

Passengers who travelled on the first Main Trunk train, including Sir Joseph Ward. Making New Zealand: Negatives and prints from the Making New Zealand Centennial collection. Ref: MNZ-1685-1/4-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

The last scheduled steam train service was in 1971, but today journeys by steam train are a popular recreational activity.

Kingston Flyer


  1. That spiral railway must have been something else. Stomach churning, to say the least. Very interesting info.

    1. Yes, a real achievement, especially with 19th century technology - and no chance of an aerial survey when they were designing it!

  2. The pioneers must've been made from very stern stuff.


  3. There are some amazing rail journeys around NZ. I'd love to do one some time.

    1. Oh, there are! I've done a couple, but I'd like to do more eventually.