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by Neill Atkinson

From the 1870s railway lines opened up areas of New Zealand for settlement. Railways connected farms, forests and mines to markets and ports, and fostered the growth of towns. For most of the 20th century the steam railway, and its stations and refreshment rooms, were a familiar part of life.

Building the rail network

Travel before rail

Most of New Zealand’s early colonial settlements were built on the coast. European settlers, like Māori before them, relied on sea and river transport to link their isolated communities. Overland travel was often extremely difficult, especially in heavily forested, swampy or mountainous areas.

Many colonists, familiar with Britain’s extensive rail network, saw the steam railway as a solution. But rail construction was a complex and expensive undertaking, and New Zealand lacked Europe or North America’s resources of capital and labour. Other obstacles – a rugged and unstable landscape, dense forests, fast-flowing rivers, provincial rivalries, and (in the North Island) Māori who were unwilling to sell their land – also hampered rail development.

Early steam railways

New Zealand’s first steam-powered public railway was a 7-kilometre line from Christchurch to Ferrymead, which opened in 1863. Built by the Canterbury provincial government, this line used tiny British-built tank engines and a broad 5-foot 3-inch (1,600-millimetre) ‘Irish’ gauge track. Work also began on a 2.6-kilometre tunnel through the Port Hills to link Christchurch with the port of Lyttelton – an ambitious project which was completed in 1867.

The Southland provincial government was another rail pioneer. It imported a locomotive from Australia in 1863 and the following year opened a 12-kilometre railway from Invercargill to Makarewa. To save money, this line was laid using thick wooden rails, which became unusable in wet weather. Dry weather wasn’t much better, as sparks from the locomotives sometimes set the track alight. An iron-railed line to Bluff, built to the (British) ‘standard’ 4-foot 8½-inch (1,435-millimetre) gauge, was completed in 1867, but the effort bankrupted Southland province.

By 1870 New Zealand had 74 kilometres of railway, all of it on the eastern and southern plains of the South Island. Emerging from the turmoil of the New Zealand wars, the North Island provinces looked to central government to deliver rail’s promise of progress and prosperity.

Push! Push!


Travelling on early colonial railways was often slow and uncomfortable. On one occasion Southland passengers were ‘politely requested by the guard to leave the carriage and help to push the carriage and engine to the summit of the bank. This we did with colonial cheerfulness, and on returning to our seats the guard promptly collected 2s. 6d. apiece from us as our fares!’1


Vogel’s railways

In 1870 Colonial Treasurer Julius Vogel announced an ambitious programme to build more than 1,600 kilometres of railways in nine years, financed by massive overseas borrowing. As well as driving economic development, Vogel’s railways were designed to spearhead a peaceful conquest of the North Island’s Māori heartland.

Narrow tracks

To speed up construction and reduce costs, the government adopted a narrow 3-foot 6-inch (1,067-millimetre) track gauge. (The broader Canterbury and Southland lines were converted to that gauge later that decade.) The gauge itself was not an obstacle to performance, but combined with the steep gradients, tight curves and narrow tunnels of the New Zealand network it would place major constraints on later rail development.

The Remutaka incline


The Remutaka incline railway, which connected Wellington’s Hutt Valley with the Wairarapa plains, was the most dramatic 1870s rail project. The steep eastern side of the Remutaka Range required special Fell locomotives, which used horizontal inner wheels to grip a raised centre rail. The incline was opened in 1878, and was used until an 8.8-kilometre tunnel was completed in 1955.


Completing the network

By 1880, after the completion of the Christchurch–Invercargill line, New Zealand Railways (NZR) was operating over 1,900 kilometres of track, and carrying almost 3 million passengers and 830,000 tonnes of freight a year.

The pace of building railways slowed during the economically depressed 1880s. Work on the central section of the North Island main trunk line (between Wellington and Auckland) began in 1885 but dragged on for decades. In the 1890s Auckland was connected with Rotorua and Thames, and Napier with Wellington and (via the Manawatū Gorge) Palmerston North. The main trunk line was finally completed in 1908.

The 1920s saw the completion of the long-planned Otago Central (1921), Midland (1923, across the central South Island), North Auckland (1925) and Bay of Plenty (1928) lines. The economic depression of the early 1930s prompted the first significant branch-line closures, reducing the overall length of the network for the first time. Construction resumed in the late 1930s and 1940s, with new lines completed between Napier and Gisborne (1943), and Christchurch and Picton (1945).

Rail network peak

The total length of the national rail network peaked at 5,689 kilometres in 1953. Despite the construction of several new forestry lines in the Bay of Plenty in the 1950s (and numerous deviations and improvements elsewhere), New Zealand’s great rail-building days were over. Waves of branch-line closures, beginning in the late 1950s, reduced the national network to 3,898 kilometres in the early 2000s.

    • Quoted in T. A. McGavin, ed., New Zealand railways to 1900: being an adaptation of three articles contributed to the Railway magazine (England) in December 1899 and January and February 1900. Auckland: New Zealand Railway and Locomotive Society, 1985, p. 8. Back

Main trunk lines

South Island main trunk

The South Island’s main trunk line was completed in the late 1870s. Christchurch was connected to Timaru in 1876 and to Dunedin two years later, cutting travel time between Christchurch and Dunedin to around 11 hours. The final section between Dunedin and Invercargill was opened, amid much fanfare, in January 1879. More than six decades later, in 1945, the main trunk line was extended north to Picton.

North Island main trunk

The central North Island posed greater challenges to rail-builders than the South Island’s eastern plains. A main trunk railway between Auckland and Wellington was discussed from the 1860s, but progress was slow. By 1880 Auckland’s southern line reached Te Awamutu, and there were isolated sections of line between Wellington and Wairarapa, and in Taranaki, Manawatū and Hawke’s Bay. Further progress was blocked by rugged mountains, dense forests and the Māori stronghold of Te Rohe Pōtae (the King Country).

Despite these challenges, exploratory survey work began in 1882. Two years later a Parliamentary committee opted for a central route rather than western or eastern alternatives. The government also reached a crucial agreement with Ngāti Maniapoto leaders to open up the King Country to the railway.

On 15 April 1885 politicians and Māori leaders ceremonially ‘turned the first sod’ of the central section by the Pūniu River, near Te Awamutu. It would take 23 years to complete the 680-kilometre North Island main trunk (NIMT). Progress was slow in the 1890s, but work intensified after 1900.

Working on the line


Life was hard for the men who built the North Island main trunk line. The work was dangerous and their makeshift shantytowns offered few comforts. G. G. Stewart, then a railways cadet but later the publicity manager, visited Raurimu in the winter of 1908 and found that ‘[c]ontinuous heavy rain, with occasional hail, sleet and snow, much fog, miry clay, and a tangled bed of wild undergrowth knitting together the forest giants, made a tough job for the workers’.1


The Raurimu spiral and viaducts

By 1904 the northern and southern sections had reached Taumarunui and Taihape. South of Taumarunui, the steep climb up to the Waimarino plateau was accomplished via the famous Raurimu spiral, which featured two tunnels, three horseshoe curves and a complete circle. Towering steel viaducts bridged deep ravines at Makatote, Hāpuawhenua, Mangaweka, Makōhine and elsewhere.

Closing the gap

By May 1908 only the 24-kilometre gap between Makatote and Ohakune remained. The Public Works Department rushed to complete the line by August so a Parliament Special train could carry MPs to Auckland to greet the US Navy’s visiting Great White Fleet – a journey of more than 20 hours.

The opening of the NIMT

The NIMT was formally opened on 6 November 1908, when Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward drove home the final spike at Manganuioteao. In December the government took control of the private Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company, whose line then became part of the NIMT.

From February 1909 regular express trains linked Auckland and Wellington in 18 hours.

The NIMT’s importance

The completion of the NIMT was a major landmark in New Zealand’s history. It fostered economic and population growth in the North Island, opening up Pākehā access to the Māori-dominated interior, and accelerating the destruction of the great forests that once covered much of the island. For most New Zealanders, the NIMT was a proud symbol of progress, ushering in a golden age of rail transport in the first half of the 20th century.

NIMT electrification

The NIMT was a steam railway until the 1950s (apart from the Wellington–Paekākāriki section, which was electrified in 1940). The electrification of the whole NIMT was proposed in the late 1940s, in response to post-war coal shortages, but the government opted instead for diesel propulsion. The idea was revived during the oil shocks of the 1970s, and electrification of the central section between Hamilton and Palmerston North was approved in 1980.

This project involved the erection of more than 10,000 concrete poles. Many tunnels had to be ‘daylighted’ or opened up by having the covering earth removed. Others needed their floors lowered to accommodate overhead wires. The electrification was completed in 1988, at a cost of around $250 million. Diesel trains continue to operate on the Auckland–Hamilton and Palmerston North–Wellington sections.

  1. G. G. Stewart, The romance of New Zealand railways. Wellington: A. H. & A. W. Reed, 1951, p. 38. Back

Private rail lines

Economic depression in the 1880s forced a rethink of Julius Vogel’s bold rail-building programme. For John Hall’s new conservative government, the answer was private enterprise. The Railways Construction and Land Act 1881, based on American models, offered generous land grants to private rail companies. The main beneficiary was the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company (WMR), established by local investors that year.

The Manawatū line

The WMR built its railway through Wellington’s rugged north-western hills (following the present-day Johnsonville suburban line) and across the swampy plains of Horowhenua and Manawatū. In 1886 it joined up with the government line at Longburn, south of Palmerston North, connecting the capital with Whanganui and New Plymouth. Until the completion of the North Island main trunk line in 1908, this public–private rail route – and coordinated steamer services from New Plymouth to Onehunga – provided the main link between Auckland and Wellington.

The WMR had a strong American influence, and its powerful Baldwin locomotives, modern passenger carriages and stylish dining cars often outclassed their government counterparts. The company operated successfully until 1908, when it was bought by the government and absorbed into the state-owned New Zealand Railways (NZR).

Big day out


On 3 November 1886 over 1,000 spectators, including 700 who arrived by special train from Wellington, gathered at Ōtaihanga, near Waikanae, to watch the governor, Sir William Jervois, drive home the last spike of the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company line. The Governor missed with the first two blows of his hammer, finally hitting the mark with his third.


The Midland line

Other private rail ventures were less successful. In 1889 the Kaihu Valley Railway Company built a short kauri-milling line from Dargaville, but financial troubles soon led to an NZR takeover. The biggest failure was the New Zealand Midland Railway Company, formed in London in 1886 with a hugely ambitious plan to link Canterbury with the West Coast and Nelson. In 1894, 120 kilometres had been completed at a cost of £1.3 million. The following year the government took over the struggling project, prompting legal disputes and further delays.

The West Coast section reached Ōtira in 1900, but it took another 14 years for the Canterbury section to reach Arthur’s Pass. The Midland line was finally completed in 1923, with the opening of the 8.5-kilometre Ōtira tunnel – at the time the longest in the world outside the Alps. Work on the route between Īnangahua and Nelson was eventually abandoned in 1931, condemning the Nelson region to isolation from New Zealand’s rail network.

Little railways

Many coal mines, forestry companies, harbour boards and other industrial enterprises built and operated their own railways, tramways or ropeways. The most extensive of these were bush tramways, some of which were as long and busy as NZR’s rural branch lines.

At one time the state network also had hundreds of sidings serving single users such as freezing works, dairy factories, fertiliser works, motor-assembly plants, gasworks and even racecourses. Most of these lines and sidings have now disappeared, as industries have closed or switched to road transport.

Steam locomotives

The steam age

New Zealand’s railways were predominantly steam-powered until the 1950s. Most 19th-century locomotives were small British-built tank engines (which carried their fuel and water supplies in tanks on the machine, rather than in a trailing tender). Best known was the outstanding F class; 88 were imported between 1872 and 1888. Several remained in service until the 1960s.

The first tender locomotive was the English-built 2-6-0 J class of 1874. American imports began with the dashing 2-4-2 Rogers K (1878), followed by the excellent T, N and O classes built by Baldwin of Philadelphia. While American locomotives were well suited to local conditions, they were not always popular with the pro-British public and politicians. Meanwhile, domestic production began in the 1880s. Locomotives were manufactured in workshops in the Christchurch suburb of Addington from 1889.

New Zealand style

Over the following decades, New Zealand Railways (NZR) designers blended the latest American, British and European features to create a family of distinctive – and in most cases highly successful – New Zealand locomotives.

NZR’s Q class (1901), designed in New Zealand and built by Baldwin in the United States, is widely regarded as the first of the 4-6-2 ‘Pacifics’, which became one of the world’s most popular types of locomotive in the early 20th century.

This was followed by the Pacific A class (1906) and the massive 4-8-2 X class (1908), specially designed for the central section of the North Island main trunk (NIMT) – the world’s first ‘mountain’ type.

The Pacific AB of 1915 was arguably the most successful and versatile locomotive ever to run on New Zealand railways. Over the next decade 141 of these machines were built at Addington, at A. & G. Price in Thames and the North British works in Glasgow. Before the arrival of the Ks and Js, the AB was NZR’s standard mainline passenger and freight locomotive. A tank version, the 4-6-4 WAB, was widely used on Auckland and Wellington suburban routes.

The end of steam

New Zealand’s last scheduled steam service, a JA-hauled Christchurch–Dunedin overnight express, ran on 25 October 1971. In fact, steam only lasted that long in the South Island because of the need to provide steam-heating for carriages during winter.

The final flourish

NZR steam power reached its peak with the giant Hutt-built 4-8-4 K class (1932) and its KA and KB variants (1939), which became the undisputed kings of the NIMT and Midland lines. These were followed by the 4-8-2 J (1939) and JA (1946), produced by North British and NZR’s Hillside (Dunedin) workshops respectively. At the end of the Second World War, a time of coal shortages, a number of Ks and Js were converted to oil-burners.

The transition from steam to diesel took from 1949 to 1971. In 1954 NZR had 647 steam locomotives, compared to 71 diesel and electric machines. In 1965 there were still 317 steam locomotives, but more than 350 diesels (including 159 mainline diesel-electrics), 50 railcars and 28 electrics. Six years later, the steam age was over.

Diesel and electric trains

In 1949 New Zealand Railways (NZR) brought its first diesel-mechanical shunting engines into service. As with steam, early machines were British imports. The first mainline diesel-electrics, English Electric DEs, were introduced in 1950, followed by more powerful DFs and DGs.

With the introduction of the US-built General Motors DA class in 1955, diesel traction became a regular feature on the North Island main trunk (NIMT). Described as the ‘diesel equivalent of the “Ab” in versatility, the “Da” literally dragged the NZR into the diesel age’.1 The DA fleet, built in the US, Canada and Australia, eventually numbered 146. The North Island was a diesel domain by the late 1960s, but it wasn’t until 1971 (following the arrival of 64 Mitsubishi DJs) that the conversion to diesel on South Island lines was complete.

Next came the powerful General Electric DX, 49 of which were imported between 1972 and 1975. A few years later, 85 DAs were rebuilt as the DC class. In 2008 the DCs and DXs, together with 30 General Motors DFTs, provide the bulk of New Zealand’s mainline locomotive power (outside of the electrified NIMT).

Electric trains

New Zealand’s first electric railway opened in 1923, but until the 1980s electrification was confined to two South Island tunnels and Wellington’s commuter lines. The latter were progressively electrified from 1938, starting with the Johnsonville line. By 1940 the NIMT out of Wellington had been electrified as far north as Paekākāriki. English Electric ED locomotives, most of them built at NZR workshops, and British-built EWs hauled trains over this section until the late 1960s, when diesels took over.

Early electrics


Electric propulsion was seen as ideal for use in tunnels, to avoid the smoke caused by steam locomotives. New Zealand’s first electrified railway, opened in 1923, was a 14-kilometre section through the Ōtira tunnel on the Midland line. In 1929 electric locomotives were introduced on the Christchurch–Lyttelton line, which included the Lyttelton tunnel. Both sections subsequently switched to diesel traction – the Lyttelton line in 1970 and Ōtira in 1997.


Commuter trains on the Hutt Valley and Kāpiti lines were served by a mixture of electric-hauled trains and English Electric DM multiple units until the early 1980s, when Hungarian-built Ganz-Mavag EM units were introduced.

After decades of debate, the central section of the NIMT between Hamilton and Palmerston North was electrified in the 1980s. Unlike the Wellington suburban lines, which use a 1.5 kV DC system, the NIMT uses 25 kV AC. This section is served by 22 EF-class locomotives built by Brush Electrical Machines in Britain.

In 2007 the government announced another major electrification project. The conversion of the Auckland suburban network (then served by diesel-hauled trains and diesel multiple units) was completed by 2015.


Railcars are railway vehicles that carry passengers and have the engine incorporated. New Zealand’s first regular railcar services began in 1936, when seven 49-seat Wairarapa-class ‘tin hares’ began running over the Remutaka incline. These were followed by six Hutt-built Standard diesel express railcars, seating 52, and nine British-made 48-seat Vulcans.

The late 1950s saw the arrival of 35 British-built (but Fiat-engined) 88-seat articulated railcars. By the mid-1960s railcars were handling all NZR’s long-distance passenger services other than those on the North and South Island main trunk lines. But as passenger traffic fell away later that decade many services closed. When railcars were withdrawn from the Midland line in 1978, the Japanese-built 96-seat Silver Fern twin-sets were the only railcars left in New Zealand. These ran on the North Island main trunk line from 1972 to 1991, and then between Auckland, Rotorua and Bay of Plenty until 2001.

    • D. B. Leitch, Railways of New Zealand. Auckland: L. Fullerton, 1972, p. 189. Back

Freight transport

In contrast to the more passenger-oriented rail networks of Europe, New Zealand’s system has always been primarily a freight railway. For almost a century, the state used New Zealand Railways (NZR) as a developmental agency to foster domestic agriculture, mining, forestry and manufacturing. Mining and timber companies were major rail users from the 1870s, and NZR itself was a voracious consumer of coal and timber until well after the Second World War.

Mail by rail

Letters and parcels were carried on trains from the earliest days. In 1878 NZR introduced the first Railway Travelling Post Office (RTPO) between Christchurch and Dunedin. They were soon attached to most express trains, the mail sorters working to the train’s rocking, swaying motion. People could post letters through slots on the side, and guards’ vans also routinely carried mail. Road and air competition undermined rail’s mail business from the 1930s, and the last RTPO was withdrawn in 1971.

Farm freight

Farmers were important rail customers until the 1960s. Canterbury’s extensive network facilitated that region’s grain boom in the late 19th century, and from the 1880s railways played a vital role in the development of the lucrative export trade in refrigerated meat. Livestock transport was the lifeblood of many rural branch lines in the first half of the 20th century. Successive governments bowed to pressure from the farming lobby by cutting rail-freight rates on butter, cheese, wool, fruit and other products, delivering lime for free, and subsidising transport to and from A & P (agricultural and pastoral) shows.

Transport licensing

From the 1920s cars and buses eroded rail passenger numbers, but freight tonnages continued to rise, reaching 7.8 million tonnes in 1929–30. There were 30,000 trucks on the roads by 1930 and in the next few years they captured much of rail’s short-haul goods and parcels business.

In 1931 the government introduced strict transport licensing regulations to protect railways. In 1936 the first Labour government went further, imposing a 30-mile (48-kilometre) limit on most trucking operators.

Circus trains

Railways carried every kind of cargo, but perhaps the best-known ‘special trains’ were those that ferried circuses from town to town. From the 1890s to the 1970s famous circuses like Wirth’s, Ridgway’s and Barton Brothers regularly toured New Zealand by train. The unloading of the animals could be as exciting as the show, especially as elephants were often used to shunt wagons.


Restrictions on livestock trucking were eased in 1961, and this business eventually shifted almost entirely onto the roads. The abolition of remaining road transport restrictions in the 1980s, new freight-handling practices, and the massive increase in the size and capability of trucks had an even greater impact.

In the early 1950s more than 1,000 railway stations handled general freight throughout the country. The main line between Christchurch and Dunedin, for example, had 74 stations, as well as nine rural branch lines serving inland districts. By 2004 New Zealand’s entire rail network had 18 freight centres, including four between Christchurch and Dunedin, and all nine branch lines had closed.

Record freight traffic

Despite the closures, in the 2000s New Zealand’s rail system carried more tonnes of freight than at any other time in its history. Many products and freight-handling practices had changed; most rail freight was carried in bulk or in containers, over longer distances and in fewer but far bigger trains, with minimal wagon shunting en route. While coal and timber products remained important, new customers like the major dairy company Fonterra had become increasingly valuable.

Passenger travel

High passenger numbers

New Zealanders were quick to climb aboard the railway bandwagon. Annual passenger journeys on New Zealand Railways (NZR) increased tenfold between 1878 and 1921 (more than three times faster than the population grew), and doubled in the first decade of the 20th century.

In the early 1920s, when New Zealand’s population was only just over 1 million, NZR was carrying 28 million passengers a year. After a downturn during the 1930s economic depression, passenger traffic reached an all-time high in 1943–44, when troop transportation and petrol rationing combined to push annual journeys to 38.6 million.

Rail revelry


In rail’s heyday, holiday times were hectic. On Christmas Eve in 1938, 16 express trains (including eight bound for Auckland) swept more than 11,000 travellers out of Wellington in a single day.


Rail travel’s heyday

The first half of the 20th century is often celebrated as rail’s heyday or golden age. Most people travelling between major centres went by rail. Trains ferried children to school, suburban commuters to factories and offices, and day-trippers and sports fans to beaches, parks and racecourses.

Passenger trains

The fastest and most comfortable passenger trains were mainline expresses, which limited their stops and often included sleeping and dining cars. The most famous was the ‘Night Limited’ express, which ran on the North Island main trunk line (NIMT) from 1924, cutting travel time between Auckland and Wellington to just over 14 hours. Much later, from 1971 to 1979, the luxurious all-sleeper Silver Star briefly revolutionised passenger travel on the NIMT.

The South Island main line had expresses from 1879, a 15-hour Christchurch–Invercargill through-train from 1904 and an 11-hour Limited from 1949. Auckland’s Rotorua Express (briefly the Rotorua Limited) was another prestigious passenger train. From the late 1930s diesel railcars, similar to buses on rails, also provided a quick and comfortable service on a number of mainline and secondary routes.

Royal trains


Probably the most famous passengers to travel on New Zealand’s railways were touring members of the British royal family. The Duke of Edinburgh rode on the Lyttelton line as early as 1869, and the Duke of Cornwall (1901), Prince of Wales (1920) and Duke of York (1927) all travelled extensively in their own luxurious royal trains. Queen Elizabeth II used rail rather less during her 1953–54 tour, though, and trains rarely featured in later visits.


At the other end of the spectrum were the humble ‘mixed’ (combined freight/passenger) train and the even more prosaic ‘goods with car’ (a freight train with one or two carriages tacked on), which provided the bulk of passenger services on rural branch lines until the 1950s.

Commuter trains

Since the Second World War the great majority of rail travellers in New Zealand have been suburban commuters in Auckland and – especially – Wellington. Limited suburban services also operated in Invercargill (until 1967), Christchurch (until 1972) and Dunedin (until 1982).

Wellington has always been the rail-commuter capital. In 1938, after the completion of the Tawa Flat NIMT deviation, the old Johnsonville route out of the city was converted into an electrified suburban line, served by New Zealand’s first English Electric multiple units. By 1940 the NIMT route was electrified as far north as Paekākāriki (extended to Paraparaumu in the 1980s). In the 1950s electric multiple units were introduced on the increasingly busy Hutt Valley lines.

Rail’s decline

Between 1950 and 1993, as road and air competition intensified, annual rail passenger journeys slumped from 26 million to 10 million. For long-distance traffic the fall was even steeper, from 6.5 million to 391,000. A number of passenger services were withdrawn in the 1970s and 1980s. More recent casualties have included the Southerner (which ran from Christchurch to Invercargill) in 2002 and the NIMT’s overnight Northerner in 2004. In 2020, only three long-distance services remained: the daytime Northern Explorer on the NIMT, the Coastal Pacific between Picton and Christchurch, and the TranzAlpine between Christchurch and Greymouth.

Rail’s revival

Overall passenger numbers have rallied since the low point of the 1990s. Fluctuating petrol prices, traffic congestion and concern over climate change have contributed to a commuter rail boom. Wellington’s passenger journeys topped 12 million in 2014/15, while Auckland’s reached 13.9 million, up from 3.2 million in 2002/3. In the second decade of the 21st century, more New Zealanders take the train than at any time since the early 1960s.

Although in per capita terms only about half as many New Zealanders travel by train today as in the 1950s, and only a third as many as in the 1920s, the proportion has almost doubled since the 1990s.

Stations and refreshment rooms

At its peak in the early 1950s, New Zealand’s rail system had more than 1,350 railway stations, ranging from grand urban monuments to simple country sheds. The station was a place of welcome and farewell, anticipation and sorrow. Politicians and government officials, businessmen and commercial travellers, sports teams, circuses and entertainers, soldiers bound for or returning from war, local holidaymakers and overseas visitors (including British royalty) all passed from station to station.

Trains offloaded mail, newspapers and magazines, movie reels for the local cinema, and parcels and products of every kind. The station was a vital commercial hub; local business activities often revolved around the train timetable. Many larger stations also had railway refreshment rooms, where crisply uniformed female staff served pies, sandwiches, cakes and steaming hot tea in the famously sturdy railways cups.

It’s like a railway station!

Stations in the main centres and important rail junctions like Frankton (Hamilton), Palmerston North and Marton hummed with constant activity. In the 1930s the writer Robin Hyde joked that Marton Junction contained ‘at a rough guess, more newsboys, cups of tea and large ham sandwiches to the square inch than any place else in the world’.1

Station styles

Early railway stations, like most colonial buildings, were usually made of timber. From the 1870s staffed stations were built according to standard plans, ranging from the small Class 5 to the top-ranking Class 1 stations. Most common of all, though, was the unstaffed ‘flag’ station, a weatherboard shed similar to a bus shelter. From the turn of the 20th century more impressive stations were erected in many provincial centres. Most have since been demolished, but fine examples survive at Blenheim and Ōamaru.

Big-city stations were symbols of civic pride. The George Troup-designed Dunedin station (completed in 1906), with its soaring tower, stained-glass windows and mosaic floor tiles, remains New Zealand’s finest. In the 1930s large new stations were built in Auckland and Wellington.

Stations close – and open

The closure of branch lines and passenger services from the 1950s had a dramatic impact on the rail infrastructure. In the early 2000s New Zealand had fewer than 100 railway stations. New ones continued to be built, though, most notably downtown Auckland’s Britomart Transport Centre, which opened in 2003.

The ‘refresh’

New Zealand Railways (NZR) ran dining cars on its main express trains from 1899 until 1917, when they were removed as a wartime cost-cutting measure. Over the next half century, the brief dash from the waiting train into the refreshment room (or ‘refresh’) for a ‘cuppa and pie’ became part of New Zealand folklore.

The ‘unseemly scramble’ for food and drink was often compared to a battlefield or a rugby scrum. Refreshment rooms have been celebrated in poems like A. R. D. Fairburn’s ‘Note on N.Z.R.’ and Hone Tuwhare’s ‘Steam loco on siding’, and in Peter Cape’s famous song ‘Taumarunui (on the main trunk line)’:

You got cinders in your whiskers and a cinder in your eye
So you hop off to Refreshments for a cupper tea and pie
Taumarunui, Taumarunui
Taumarunui on the Main Trunk Line.2

By 1935 NZR was running 30 counter refreshment rooms, plus four sit-down dining rooms and 18 station bookstalls. With 11 small refreshment rooms in private hands, New Zealand had one refreshment room for every 130 kilometres of railway. Customer numbers peaked during the busy Second World War years, when annual patronage topped 8.5 million.

After the war, with reduced passenger services and trains making fewer stops, many refreshment rooms were closed – Marton in 1954, the iconic Frankton and Taumarunui rooms in 1975, and Ōamaru in 1980. The last rooms disappeared in the late 1980s. It was the end of one of New Zealand's most distinctive dining experiences.

  1. New Zealand Railways Magazine 10, no. 10 (January 1936), p. 35. Back
  2. Quoted in Neill Atkinson, Trainland: how railways made New Zealand. Auckland: Random House, 2007, pp. 171–2. Back

Housing the workers

In the early 20th century the Railways Department became one of New Zealand’s largest house-builders and landlords. The department had purchased or built houses for stationmasters and other staff since the late 1870s. By the 1900s it faced a serious accommodation shortage, especially in the North Island.

The Frankton factory

After the First World War the department decided to establish a modern sawmill and kitset house factory at Frankton Junction, using rimu and mataī timber from its own central North Island forests. The factory eventually employed more than 60 workers and even had its own plumbing department to produce baths, sinks, pipes and spouting.

From 1923 to 1929, when it closed, the factory produced almost 1,400 prefabricated houses, as well as pre-cut timber for wagons, signals, office furniture, stockyards, sheds, huts and other buildings. Railway houses were identical apart from their dimensions, which differed according to employees’ rank, and some variations in their front porches and roofs.

Parks and parties


Gordon Coates, who was railways minister from 1923 to 1928, wanted to ‘see every railway settlement a garden suburb’,1 so each had its own roads, drainage systems, parks and recreation facilities. The largest, Frankton, had 160 houses and its own Railway Institute Hall, which was packed every Tuesday and Saturday night with workers and partners dancing to the tunes of the Railway Orchestra.


Rail settlements

Whole settlements housing railway workers were built along the North Island main trunk line, at Frankton, Taumarunui, Te Kūiti, Ohakune, Taihape, Marton Junction and elsewhere, and at Kaiwharawhara, Ngaio and Petone in Wellington. Houses and single men’s huts also appeared in remote locations like Summit and Cross Creek in the Remutaka Range, and along the isolated Stratford–Ōkahukura and Gisborne–Moutohorā lines. In many towns the Railways Department was the biggest employer and landlord, and railway kids filled the rolls of local schools.

The department’s housing stock peaked at over 6,000 in the 1950s. The reduction in the rail workforce, centralisation of functions and other changes in the 1980s led to the demise of the distinctive railway communities. Thousands of houses were sold to private buyers, moved or converted to other uses. The Wellington City Council and Ruapehu District Council have recently sought to preserve surviving railway precincts like Ngaio’s fashionable Tarikaka Street settlement, Ohakune’s ‘Railway Row’ and Taumarunui’s ‘Sunshine Settlement’.

    • Railways statement, Appendices to the Journals of the House of Representatives, 1923, D-2, p. v. Back


New Zealand’s early locomotives, carriages and wagons were imported, mostly from Britain. Even so, workshops were needed to carry out maintenance and produce fittings and spare parts. Although they were always called ‘shops’, these facilities developed into heavy industrial complexes, capable of building sophisticated machines like locomotives.

First railway workshops

The Canterbury provincial railway built New Zealand’s first workshop in Christchurch in 1863. In the early 1870s shops opened at Britomart (Auckland) and Port Chalmers, soon followed by Hillside (Dunedin), Newmarket (Auckland), Petone (Wellington), Addington (Christchurch) and East Town (Whanganui). Smaller shops also operated at New Plymouth, Napier, Nelson, Greymouth, Westport and Invercargill.


The workshops started building wagons in the 1870s. With the development of the refrigerated meat industry in the 1880s, more specialised rolling stock was required. Domestic locomotive production began later that decade. Scott Brothers of Christchurch initially led the way, but the government workshops soon dominated production. From the early 20th century, the Thames firm A. & G. Price was the only significant private locomotive manufacturer.

The Addington workshops began building locomotives in 1889 (initially W-class tank engines, followed in 1894 by U-class tender locomotives), and Hillside began in 1897. Over the following decades, Railways Department designers blended the latest American, British and European features to create a family of distinctive New Zealand-made locomotives, including the ‘Pacific’ A (1906), the celebrated AB (1915) and the giant K (1932).

Shop culture

By 1900 the workshops were among New Zealand’s largest industrial enterprises, employing more than 1,700 staff – engineers, foremen, blacksmiths, boilermakers, carpenters, coppersmiths, moulders, fettlers, patternmakers, furnacemen, rivet boys and others. Heavily unionised, they were sites of ongoing struggle between an inherited British ‘shop culture’, new American-style management practices and New Zealand’s own labour traditions.

Overhauling the shops

Following the recommendations of a 1924–25 railways commission, all of the workshops were overhauled or replaced. New facilities were built at Ōtāhuhu in Auckland and Woburn in Lower Hutt. Locomotive manufacturing was concentrated at Hillside and Hutt. In the late 1930s the Hutt workshop produced the Wairarapa-class and Standard express railcars. East Town specialised in points, crossings and tarpaulins.

Further rationalisations followed in the 1980s and 1990s, with East Town closing in 1986, Addington in 1990 and Ōtāhuhu in 1992. In 2008 two workshops survived, both owned by KiwiRail, in Woburn, Lower Hutt, and the Hillside Engineering Group in Dunedin. Hillside closed in 2013, with the exception of its heavy lifting facility.

Rail transformed

By the 1950s rail’s golden age was coming to an end. Over the next half-century most long-haul passenger services were withdrawn. Numerous branch lines, stations, workshops and other facilities were closed, and often demolished. Despite the best efforts of an enthusiastic rail heritage movement, much of the physical fabric of New Zealand’s rail system vanished.

Sell-offs and buy-backs

The management of railways has been through radical changes since 1982, when the 102-year-old Railways Department became the New Zealand Railways Corporation, an early kind of state-owned enterprise (SOE). In 1990 the corporation’s core business was transferred to a new limited-liability company, New Zealand Rail, in preparation for its sale.

In 1993 New Zealand’s rail system (including the track network) and inter-island ferries were sold for $328 million to a private consortium made up of US investment group Berkshire Partners, US rail company Wisconsin Central, and merchant bankers Fay, Richwhite and Company. Renamed Tranz Rail, the organisation performed poorly, and in 2003 was bought out by the Melbourne-based Toll Holdings.

In 2004 the Labour-led government (which had already bought Auckland’s suburban rail system in 2001) repurchased the rail infrastructure and vested it in a new SOE, Ontrack. On 1 July 2008 the government bought Toll’s rail and ferry operations for $665 million, renaming the company KiwiRail.

The railway people

The transformation of the rail system since the 1950s has had a huge impact on the rail workforce. With almost 20,000 employees in 1930 and 27,000 in 1950, the Railways Department was for many years New Zealand’s largest employer. The ‘railway people’ had a strong sense of identity and their own distinctive culture, reinforced by family and social networks, departmental housing, trade unions, bands, clubs, sports teams and picnics.

As recently as 1982 railways employed nearly 22,000 workers, a significant proportion of them Māori. Beginning in 1984, 10,000 jobs were cut in five years, with distressing consequences in many communities. By 2001, after two decades of rationalisation, mechanisation and centralisation, and the closure or contracting-out of many services, Tranz Rail employed just over 4,000 people.

A rail renaissance

In the 2000s, New Zealand’s rail story is far from over. Railways have moved record freight tonnages in recent years. Commuter traffic has surged in Wellington and especially Auckland (where a major upgrade programme was undertaken in the 2010s, with the suburban network electrified by 2015). The TranzAlpine service and Otago’s Taieri Gorge Railway have continued to thrive, while steam heritage excursions and rail museums remain popular.

The transport sector is a highly competitive and customer-driven business, but rail’s advantages over road transport in terms of fuel efficiency and environmental impact suggest that it will figure prominently in New Zealand’s future transport plans.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Neill Atkinson, 'Railways', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

Story by Neill Atkinson, published 11 March 2010, reviewed & revised 11 March 2016