Kōrero: Canterbury region

Whārangi 10. Transport

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

City and port

One of the disadvantages of Christchurch’s site was that the Port Hills separated the city from its port. The Sumner Road was completed in 1857, but most goods were still ferried across the Sumner bar to wharves on the Heathcote River. In 1863 the wharf at Ferrymead was linked to Christchurch by the first public steam railway in New Zealand. A year earlier, the first telegraph line in New Zealand linked Lyttelton and Christchurch.

The problem of port access was solved by the Lyttelton rail tunnel. The first in New Zealand, it was completed in 1867. A road tunnel opened in 1964.

Getting about Christchurch

Until about 1950, most people used trams or bicycles, or walked. Christchurch had New Zealand’s most extensive tram system (87 route-kilometres), but trams and trolleybuses were replaced by diesel buses in the mid-1950s.

Constant cycle

Cycling peaked in Christchurch in the early 1950s, when 80,000 bikes were in use. In 2006 Christchurch was said to still have one of the highest proportions of cyclists to car drivers in New Zealand.

A northern and southern motorway and a one-way inner-city system spared Christchurch from severe traffic congestion until the 2011 earthquake. This severely damaged the street network and congestion was common as streets were repaired. Under the government’s Christchurch Motorways scheme, $800 million was being spent on new arterial routes in the city’s north, west and south to improve access to the CBD, airport and Lyttelton. 


The main trunk railway south from Christchurch reached Ashburton in 1874 and Dunedin in 1878. The line north had reached Waipara by 1880, but did not extend to Parnassus until 1912, or to Marlborough until 1945.

The Canterbury provincial government began building railways out from Christchurch in the 1860s. Branch railways carried passengers and freight between rural districts and Christchurch or Ashburton. They were not displaced by road transport until the 1950s.

Connecting east and west

The westward railway finally reached Arthur’s Pass in 1914. The 8.5 kilometre Ōtira tunnel opened in 1923, forging an important link with the West Coast. Timber and coal came east. The Press newspaper went west. Trampers and mountaineers used trains to reach Arthur’s Pass. Today, West Coast coal comes to Lyttelton for export, and the Tranz Alpine Express is popular with tourists.

The far horizon

The single furrows which guided the earliest travellers across the plains were soon replaced by metalled roads. The long, straight, dusty road leading to the horizon became emblematic of Canterbury, as Robin Muir describes: ‘The road stretched ahead, straight and true, pointing at the wall of mountains; the telegraph posts like a lesson in perspective drawing’. 1

In 1864 gold was discovered on the West Coast. The first diggers used a rough track across Harper Pass. In 1865–66 a stock track was built over Browning Pass, but it was high and steep, and Arthur’s Pass was chosen for a new road that opened in March 1866. A track was made over the Lewis Pass in the 1890s and a road built by relief workers during the depression opened in 1937.

Bridging the rivers

Rivers were a major obstacle to roads and railways. Slowly, river ferries were replaced by bridges, many carrying both road and railway. Construction was often difficult because of extremely wide riverbeds with no bedrock near the surface. One bridge across the Rakaia River is still the longest in the South Island, at 1.75 kilometres.

Sea and air links

The overnight ferry service between Lyttelton and Wellington ceased in 1976. It was replaced by a ferry service between Picton and Wellington, and by air services.

In 1923, the Sockburn field of the Canterbury Aviation Company became Wigram Aerodrome, the birthplace of the New Zealand Air Force. An Air Force Museum, opened in 1987, remained after Wigram closed in 1995.

From 1930, Ashburton had the first airport in the South Island operated by a local body. The Christchurch’s municipal airport opened at Harewood in 1940. In 1950 it was designated New Zealand’s first international airport, and in 1956 it became a base for flights to Antarctica.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Quoted in Anna Rogers, Christchurch: the city in literature. Auckland: Exisle, 2003, p. 231. › Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

John Wilson, 'Canterbury region - Transport', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/canterbury-region/page-10 (accessed 23 June 2024)

He kōrero nā John Wilson, i tāngia i te 14 Sep 2006, reviewed & revised 6 Jul 2015