Story: Transport – overview

Page 3. Steam transport

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Although horses, horse-drawn vehicles and sailing vessels remained important means of transport in the late 19th century, steam gradually became dominant.


By 1840 steamships were operating around the coast of Britain and across the Atlantic, although they still relied on sails most of the time. HMS Driver was the first such hybrid vessel to visit New Zealand, in 1845, and a locally built paddle steamer, Governor Wynyard, was launched in Auckland in 1851. In the later 1850s coastal and trans-Tasman services were established, heavily subsidised by central and provincial governments to provide reliable mail transport. In the 1860s small steamers began operating on sheltered coastal waters, up rivers and across lakes. The military used them as gunboats and to carry supplies in the New Zealand wars.

Catching the breeze

Long after steamships had replaced sail on the shorter, more popular migration routes from Europe to the Americas, migrants travelled on sailing ships to New Zealand from Europe on the Great Circle Route, catching the trade winds through the tropics before plunging south to pick up the fierce winds across the Southern Ocean.

The development of compound engines, which used the steam generated twice, and the move from paddles to screw propulsion, made the sea voyage from Europe to New Zealand cheaper. From the mid-1880s the triple-expansion engine, which used the steam three times, and the development of the frozen-meat trade with Britain, made voyages profitable without government subsidies.

Steam trains

Once central and provincial governments with the power to borrow had been established, railways were built. The first line using steam locomotives was opened between Christchurch and Ferrymead in 1863 by the Canterbury Provincial Council. However, it was not until the great surge in government borrowing promoted by Julius Vogel in the 1870s that substantial construction occurred. By 1880 there were almost 2,000 kilometres of line, and by 1920, 4,837 kilometres. There were also ‘bush tramways’, built and operated by timber companies to transport logs to sawmills. The longest bush tramway was the 82-kilometre line of the Taupo Totara Timber Company, between Mōkai and Putaruru.

Trams and cable cars

Trams were developed in many New Zealand towns from the 1870s, expanding the extent and patronage of public transport. There were also cable cars in the hilly cities of Dunedin and Wellington. The first trams were horse-drawn, but steam locomotives were occasionally used to haul trams, and the cableways were initially powered directly by steam. In the early 20th century steam power was used to produce electricity for tramways, and extensive new lines were laid for electric trams by municipalities and sometimes by private companies.

Steam road transport

The technology of road transport was not greatly changed by steam power. However, traction engines were widely used on highways in grain-growing areas such as Canterbury, Otago, Southland and Hawke’s Bay, where their ability to tow heavy loads was a useful sideline to their use in agriculture. A few steam-driven road vehicles also appeared.

Social and economic impacts

Steam transport connected New Zealand’s settlements more closely. It created wider, often national, markets for locally produced goods, and supported the development of national political parties, commercial organisations and sporting competitions. It promoted internal and international tourism.

Within towns it also fostered commercial and social links, making it easier to live in suburbs and commute to the centre. Steam transport, particularly trains, encouraged considerable development away from the existing coastal centres of population. Railway construction, maintenance and operation provided significant new employment.

Industrial development

Railways and steamships made the transport of heavy goods much more economic. Rail allowed timber-milling to spread, which helped farming to grow by giving settlers an initial source of income. The development of coal mining, usually in quite isolated areas, depended on the cheaper heavy cartage provided by steam transport. Mining was further boosted by the demand for coal to power steam trains.

Other industries developed along railways in order to reduce transport costs for fuel, raw materials and products. The most important was meat processing. Large freezing works developed on rail lines, typically close to ports. Animals were brought in by rail and carcasses sent out in refrigerated wagons. The first exports of frozen meat were on sailing ships, but steamers offered more predictable and quicker voyage times. Exports of dairy products benefited similarly, and milk was often collected by rail for processing in larger factories.

How to cite this page:

James Watson, 'Transport – overview - Steam transport', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 September 2021)

Story by James Watson, published 11 Mar 2010