Story: Southland region

Page 7. Transport, power and other advances

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Early travel

The strong westerly winds made the Melbourne–Bluff route a favoured approach to New Zealand in sailing days – though sailing ships had to contend with contrary winds in Foveaux Strait. Land transport from Bluff to Invercargill had to take account of the tides at the narrow neck of the Bluff isthmus.

The railway arrives

The first railway in the south was built in 1864, of locally milled kahikatea (white pine). It ran between Invercargill and Makarewa, part of a scheme to improve access to the Wakatipu goldfield. When gold seekers moved on, the line was abandoned in 1866.

But railways had come to stay. A workshop opened in Invercargill in 1868. Through the 1870s, railways were built from Invercargill to Lumsden, Kingston, Ōtautau and Riverton, and between Lumsden and Gore. Dunedin and Invercargill were linked in January 1879. By 1911 branch lines were opened to Hedgehope, Mossburn, Nightcaps, Tūātapere, Glenham, Waikaia, Waikākā, Tokanui and Ōhai.


Rural Southland set up the country’s first electric power board, with a mandate to provide power to country areas as well as towns.

Southland built its own power station at Lake Monowai. By the time the station was operating in 1925, more than 5,300 kilometres of power lines had been set up – far more than in any other part of the country. By 1930 all settled parts of the province were reticulated.

But the scheme was overambitious, and in the 1930s depression, the board went bankrupt. The government took over, and Southland became the only part of New Zealand without a local electricity supplier.

Manapōuri power station

There was controversy over the building of Manapōuri power station, to supply electricity for an aluminium smelter at Tīwai Point, near Bluff. The work was done in a national park, and also projected a rise in the level of beautiful Lake Manapōuri.

Led by Southlanders, a massive protest campaign was mounted between 1969 and 1972. The scheme went ahead, but the lake’s level was not raised.

How green is brown coal?

Most of New Zealand’s 10–15 billion tonnes of lignite (brown coal) are in Southland. During the energy crisis of the 1970s and early 1980s, mining more lignite was considered, and interest has revived in the 2000s. However, transporting lignite any distance is not economic, and lignite-fuelled power stations usually have higher CO2 emissions than those fuelled by black coal.


Coal was first mined in western Southland in 1879 at Nightcaps. After those seams were exhausted, neighbouring Ōhai was mined. Nightcaps and Ōhai became mining towns, with strong labour traditions. From June 2009 the only operating mine in these areas will be an opencast one at Nightcaps.

In the eastern Southland lignite field the Mataura mine supplied the local paper mill from 1951, but it closed with the mill in 2000. In the early 2000s, two mines still operated at nearby New Vale and Goodwin.

Transport routes since the Second World War

In 1930, when railway traffic peaked in Southland, there were 586 kilometres of track. After this, improved roads and more modern trucks and buses tipped the balance from rail to road freight.

Between 1959 and 1971 more branch lines closed. The ‘Southerner’ passenger express train service from Christchurch to Invercargill, which began in 1948, last ran in 2002.

In the 2010s there were 219 kilometres of railway track in Southland – the South Island main trunk line; Invercargill to Bluff and from Invercargill to Ōhai to transport coal.

From Invercargill to the ice

From 1958 to 1968 the US navy flew regularly between Invercargill and McMurdo Sound. These Antarctic flights attracted large crowds to watch the spectacular night take-offs, which used flame-throwing bottles to get airborne. Some hoped that Invercargill would become the jumping-off point for tourists to Antarctica – but it never happened.

In 1888, Henry Homer had discovered a saddle leading from the Hollyford River to Milford Sound. Work on the Homer Tunnel, to provide a road route to Milford Sound, started in 1935 but was suspended during the Second World War. The tunnel opened for traffic in 1953.

The ‘Southern Scenic Highway’ runs from Balclutha in Otago to Te Anau, taking in the Catlins district, following the Southland coast, then taking the Waiau Valley north to Te Anau.

Air travel

Invercargill airport was built on land which had been reclaimed from the New River estuary between 1919 and 1940. Commercial flights began in 1948.

How to cite this page:

David Grant, 'Southland region - Transport, power and other advances', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 December 2019)

Story by David Grant, published 8 Sep 2008, updated 25 May 2015