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Graphic: An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand 1966.


This information was published in 1966 in An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. It has not been corrected and will not be updated.

Up-to-date information can be found elsewhere in Te Ara.


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The term “tramway” could be applied in New Zealand from 1860 onwards to lines constructed to carry timber from bush to sawmill. But this article will consider tramways only as they were used in passenger transport in the larger towns and cities. The Dun Mountain Railway, which carried passengers in the Nelson area from 1862, was a horse-tramway service. The line of 3 ½ miles from Grahamstown (now Thames), opened in 1872, was run by steam locomotives. Steam-tramway services began in Wellington in 1878, in Dunedin in 1879, and in Christchurch in 1880. Steam trams met with considerable opposition, both from their competitors, the cab owners, and from citizens who objected to the soot and cinders or whose horses were frightened. Horse-drawn trams were found to pay better in Wellington and Dunedin, but in Christchurch the steam trams continued to run until they were replaced by electric trams. Auckland, possibly profiting by the experience of Wellington and Dunedin, used only horse trams from 1884 until electric-tram services began, although the Takapuna Steam Tramway Co. ran services from 1910 to 1927. The electric tram was a considerable improvement. Auckland began the first service in 1902, followed by Dunedin (1903), Wellington (1904), Christchurch (1905), Wanganui (1908), Invercargill (1912), Napier and Gisborne (1913), and New Plymouth (1916). The Gisborne tramway services were notable because their power came from storage batteries and not from overhead wires. Tramway services were at their peak during the first two decades of the present century. From 1921 onwards the effects of competition from motor buses began to be felt, and the trend was for less passengers per car-mile.

Local Authority Transport Undertakings
1960 1961 1962 1963 1964
Passengers carried No. 141,223,041 137,462,118 134,805,724 130,989,239 126,957,915
Miles run No. 21,798,156 21,453,267 21,309,013 21,330,137 21,443,646
Average passengers per mile run No. 6·48 6·41 6·33 6·14 5·92
Passenger fares £ 3,893,025 3,910,638 3,936,651 ,912,609 3,966,185
Average fare per passenger d. 6·62 6·83 7·01 7·17 7·50
Revenue £ 3,974,841 3,989,094 4,013,777 3,991,688 4,049,053
Revenue per mile run d. 43·76 44·63 45·21 44·91 45·32
Expenditure £ 4,402,565 4,459,892 4,561,977 4,667,019 4,763,451
Expenditure per mile run d. 48·47 49·89 51·38 52·51 53·31

Tramways have been an important part of town life – 220 million passengers were carried in each of the peak years, 1944 and 1945. The Auckland system was by far the largest, carrying 100 million passengers in 1944. In the same year the Wellington system carried 60 million passengers; Christchurch, 30 million; Dunedin, 21 million; and New Plymouth, Wanganui, and Invercargill, 3 million each. The Gisbore battery system lasted only until 1929, and earthquake damage made an end to the Napier system in 1931. In 1929 there were 170 miles of tramway line in use; by 1950 there were 158. Wellington was the last place to use trams, the service ending on 2 May 1964.

Cable tramways have run only in Wellington and Dunedin. The last Dunedin service ended in 1957, but the Wellington cable tramway to Kelburn is still in use.

by Norman Frederick Watkins, M.COM., Research Officer, Transport Department, Wellington.


Norman Frederick Watkins, M.COM., Research Officer, Transport Department, Wellington.