The history of railways in New Zealand started in Christchurch with the opening of a railway to tide water at Ferrymead in 1863, built to the gauge of 5’ 3” (1600mm.) Railway construction in the North Island followed with starting of a line from Auckland to the port of Onehunga in 1864 but railway construction in North Island was much slower than in the South Island. From 1873 all lines were built to the “Cape” gauge of 3’ 6” (1067mm) and broad gauge lines were converted avoiding the break of gauge problems that beset Australia.
The first major route was completed between Christchurch and Dunedin in 1878, extended to Invercargill the following year. The North Island Main Trunk linking capital city Wellington with largest city Auckland opened in 1908 after 23 years of construction. The Midland Line between Rolleston (south of Christchurch) and Greymouth (West Coast) was completed with the opening in 1923 of New Zealand’s first electrified line through the Otira tunnel at Arthur’s Pass (then longest in the British Empire.) Some isolated sections were not connected until the 1940s (Dargaville, Gisborne, Blenheim and Westport.) The networks of the North Island and South island were independent of one another until the introduction of the inter-island roll on–roll off rail ferry service in 1962, now branded The Interislander.
The New Zealand rail network has around 4,128 kilometres (2,565 miles) of line, of which about 506 kilometres (314 miles) is electrified (not including Auckland network under construction.) The highest elevation is 832m (2,730’) at Pokaka (near Makatote Viaduct) between Ohakune and National Park on the North Island Main Trunk. The highest elevation in South Island is at the eastern portal of the Otira Tunnel on the Midland Line.
The rugged terrain in both islands dictates steep gradients on many lines and generally the ruling gradient is 1 in 50 (2%.) This is exceeded in several places with the steepest gradient 1 in 33 (against loaded coal trains) on Midland Line between Arthurs Pass and Otira (a 14Km section which was electrified until 1997.) There are 1 in 35 grades north of Wanganui in the North Island. From 1878 to the opening of the Rimutaka Tunnel in 1955 there was a famous incline with Fell system centre rail and a gradient of 1 in 15 for 5Km on the eastern slopes of the Rimutaka ranges (on the line from Wellington to Featherston and Masterton.)
Other new railway construction from 1950s onwards included lines to new paper mills at Kinleith and Kawerau, a more direct connection for the Bay of Plenty ports of Tauranga/ Mt Maunganui via a tunnel under Kaimai ranges which opened in 1978 and major re-alignments and the opening out of several tunnels as part of the electrification of North Island Main Trunk between Hamilton and Palmerston North in the 1980s.
During the steam locomotive era most locomotives were either built in UK or in New Zealand (at the Hillside works in Dunedin.) Early diesels in 1950s were mostly English Electric types. In the era since the end of steam in 1967 (North Island) and 1971 (South Island,) most locomotive types have been General Electric or EMD types built in US/Canada or Australia. Notable exceptions have been the DJ from Mitsubishi, Japan and the DL class built by Dalian Locomotive/ CNR in China (the first new locomotive for 20 years.)
Commuter rail networks once served Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin but only Auckland (being electrified at 25KV AC from 2014) and Wellington (electrified at 1500V DC progressively from 1938) remain and are being up-graded and extended. For commuter train sets, English Electric types gave way to Ganz Mavag units from Hungary from 1982 and in recent years units made in Korea (and Spain for the Auckland Transport.)
The railways were nationalized from 1908 becoming New Zealand Government Railways, later to become the New Zealand Railways Corporation. In 1990 operation of the network was transferred to a state enterprise Tranz Rail and privatized in 1993. Over the next decade most the locomotives received a Tranz Rail livery. In 2003 Toll successfully bid to take over operations from an ailing Tranz Rail with track vested in Ontrack, a division of the Railways Corporation. Many locomotives were painted in Toll Rail colors. Track access negotiations broke down in 2008 and the Government bought back the assets such as rolling stock and KiwiRail was born. Since then there has been huge investment in both Ontrack and KiwiRail with new locomotive orders and new trains built (both overseas and at Hillside.) The fern symbol is incorporated in the branding of both KiwiRail and Ontrack.
There are currently 150 tunnels (totaling 80 km in length) on the rail network. This total includes some not currently in use (including Tikiwhata 2989m long and many others near Gisborne.) The longest is Kaimai (8879m) followed by Rimutaka (8798m – longest with passenger services,) Otira (8556m – electrified until 1997), Tawa 2 (4324m – longest with double track) and Lyttleton (2596m – oldest tunnel opened 1867.)
The longest rail bridge has 143 spans (1743m total length) over the Rakaia River between Christchurch and Ashburton.
The highest bridge in New Zealand is the Mohaka Viaduct, a steel trestle 97m (318’) high on the Napier – Gisborne section. The line has not been in use since 2012. The highest rail bridge in use is North Rangitikei Viaduct, 81m high, on North Island Main Trunk. The spectacular South Rangitikei Viaduct, 78m high, and Makatote Viaduct, 79m high (also on North Island Main Trunk) are better known and accessible for photography. The highest rail bridge in the South Island is the remote Staircase Viaduct, 73m high, between Springfield and Arthur’s Pass on the Midland Line used by the Tranz Alpine train.
Passenger trains today range from long-distance commuter trains between Masterton and Wellington, the Capital Connection between Palmerston North and Wellington, the Northern Explorer between Auckland and Wellington, the Coastal Pacific between Picton ferry and Christchurch and Tranz Apline between Christchurch and Greymouth.
In addition, there are charter trains which can be using KiwiRail motive power and cars or trips run by heritage rail operators using preserved steam and vintage diesal locomotives. Prominent heritage operators are Mainline Steam Heritage Trust, Steam Incorporated, Railway Enthusiasts’ Society and Otago Excursion Train Trust. On many lines light traffic and track warrant operation allows for photo stops, one reason heritage operators attract railfans from all over the world for steam hauled excursions. (Other reasons being, of course, the amazing scenery and engineering feats that can be enjoyed on the KiwiRail network.)
There are a number of private lines, all of which are heritage lines such as Glenbrook Vintage Railway (near Auckland,) Silverstream Railway (near Wellington,) Ferrymead Railway (Christchurch,) and, by far the longest and most spectacular preserved line, Taieri Gorge Railway (a Dunedin City Council enterprise.)
Information courtesy of John Russell (September 2013)