Story: Railways

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.

Story by Neill Atkinson
Main image: J-class locomotive

Story summary

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Building the railways

Most of New Zealand’s early European settlements were on the coast. Inland travel was difficult because of the mountains, forests and swamps, so most people used sea and river transport, or walked.

The first railway lines were built in the South Island in the 1860s. From 1870, the government worked to develop railways. They wanted railways to carry products from farms, forests and mines to markets and ports, and to provide access to land bought or confiscated from Māori, so Pākehā could settle it.

Main trunk lines

The South Island’s main trunk line, from Christchurch to Invercargill, was completed in 1879. It took 23 years to build the North Island main trunk line, which went through dense forests, mountains, and the Māori area of the King Country. Finished in 1908, it allowed people to travel between Auckland and Wellington in 18 hours.

Steam, diesel and electric trains

The railways were mostly steam-powered until the 1950s. The last scheduled steam service was in 1971. Today, people enjoy special outings on old-fashioned steam trains.

There were some electric-powered trains from the 1920s and 1930s, and from 1949 there were diesel engines.


New Zealand’s railways have always been used mainly for carrying freight, including coal, timber, farm animals and produce. Until the 1980s, laws protected the railways against competition from trucks.


In the first half of the 20th century, rail travel was hugely popular. Trains took children to school, workers to factories and offices, and day-trippers to beaches, parks and racecourses. Later, private cars became common, and air travel got cheaper. Fewer people used trains. Many services were cut back, and some lines closed.

Railway stations

By the early 1950s, there were more than 1,350 railway stations in New Zealand. Stations were busy places with people and goods on the move. Big cities built large, impressive stations. Many stations had refreshment rooms. Travellers would run in for a cup of tea and a pie while their train waited.

Railway housing

The Railways Department was one of New Zealand’s biggest employers. It built many houses for its staff, creating whole settlements in some places, such as Taumarunui, Taihape and Te Kūiti.


Early trains and engines were imported. Workshops were set up to fix them and make spare parts. The workshops later built engines and wagons.

Decline and growth

From the 1950s the railways declined. Many branch lines and stations closed, and people lost their jobs. In 1993 the railway system was sold to a private buyer – but in the 2000s the government bought the railways back. There is renewed interest in using rail to transport goods and people.

How to cite this page:

Neill Atkinson, 'Railways', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 22 June 2024)

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