Story: Rural services

Page 3. Railways

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From the early 1860s, railways promised a quick, cost-effective way of transporting people and goods. They could carry large quantities of produce, and take perishable goods such as fruit to distant markets.

Lobbying for a line

In 1875 people living south of the Rangitīkei River asked the superintendent of Wellington province to fund a railway between Sanson and Palmerston North. They pointed out that a railway would ‘open up to the Manawatu & Rangitikei farmers a reliable market for their produce which would give such an impetus to agricultural pursuits as would soon render this one of the most productive settlements in New Zealand’. 1

Railways spread

In the 1870s, more railways were built by the government as part of a major public works programme. They helped more people move into the backblocks. The first railway lines connected Christchurch with its farming hinterland. By 1880 they had spread throughout Canterbury and Otago. In the North Island they extended through Waikato, Taranaki, Whanganui, Manawatū, Hawke’s Bay and Wairarapa, linking farming regions with their nearest port.

By the 1890s connections had been made between some regional lines, and the North Island main trunk line was being built. Completed in 1908, it opened up the King Country and other inland regions to Pākehā settlement. Between the world wars, many key rail links were completed. In the South Island, Christchurch was connected with the West Coast and Picton. In the North Island, Auckland was linked with Northland, Taranaki and the Bay of Plenty. In the 1950s lines were built across the Volcanic Plateau.

Construction challenges

Railway construction had similar problems to road building. Tracks had to be built on gentle gradients, so tunnels were needed in hilly areas. Railways also needed permanent bridges, so often the first bridge across a river was for the railway. Combined road and rail bridges provided dual access for road traffic and trains.


The first trains were steam-powered. Although they were gradually replaced by diesel and electric trains, steam locomotives were in use until the early 1970s. In the mid-1890s insulated wagons were designed and built at the Addington railway workshops in Christchurch, to transport meat carcasses from freezing works to ports.

Benefits for farming

Railways provided country districts with more convenient transport for goods and passengers, including school children. They also made some types of farming economically viable. In drier areas, rail transport encouraged grain growing and mixed arable and pastoral farming. Land that was once suitable only for large stock or sheep runs could be divided into smaller holdings for raising fat lambs, and this type of farming increased once freezing works were built near railway lines. Where it was possible to get milk and cream to central dairy factories by rail, dairy farms spread. Railway networks helped dairying develop in the Waikato.

Trains were the main way of transporting livestock until the 1960s, when restrictions on trucking were lifted.


In the late 19th century, farmers lobbied for and obtained reduced charges for transporting farm produce and fertiliser. They also got special rates for taking stock, produce, machinery and other exhibits to and from A & P (agricultural and pastoral) shows, and for travelling to other rural events such as ploughing competitions.

The fall and rise of rail

Rail transport peaked in the early 1950s, and then declined – trucks were more flexible for transporting farm and other goods. Tracks needed to be upgraded for modern trains, and some branch lines closed – particularly from 1960 to the mid-1980s, as road freighting expanded. However, increased road user costs saw rail freight tonnages grow again in the 2000s.

  1. Quoted in James Watson, Links: a history of transport and New Zealand society. Wellington: Ministry of Transport, 1996, pp. vi–vii. › Back
How to cite this page:

Nancy Swarbrick, 'Rural services - Railways', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2017)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 24 Nov 2008