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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 2 (May 2, 1938.)

The Heyday Of Railway Construction In New Zealand

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The Heyday Of Railway Construction In New Zealand

With the revival of active railway construction in New Zealand it is of interest to recall that half New Zealand's total mileage of railways was built between the beginning of the ’seventies and the middle ’eighties. It is of interest, too, to look back to that period of intense activity in railway building, remembering that, per head of population, New Zealand had a greater mileage of railways in the ‘eighties than it has to-day.

Early Provincial Railways.

Railway construction was commenced as early as 1850 in both New South Wales and Victoria.

In New Zealand, a railway to connect Christchurch with Lyttelton was mooted as far back as 1851. A battle of routes, however, occurred; and, when that was settled at long last, the Provincial Government's legislation called for validating General Government legislation, and that in turn had to await the Royal Assent. With all these delays it was 1860 before the Railway was commenced. In the ensuing years the Canterbury Province enjoyed so great a secondary prosperity as a result of the Otago gold rushes—then at their height—that it was able to write £50,000 off the £300,000 loan while the works were still in progress. The first, section from Christchurch to Heathcote (constructed by plant brought up the Heathcote River) was opened on 1st December, 1863, and the final section (including the 129 chain Lyttelton Tunnel) exactly four years later. The Christchurch-Selwyn line (commenced in May 1865) was also completed in 1867.

Many of the other provinces had grandiose schemes for railway construction. As early as 1862 the General Government had found it necessary to point out to the Marlborough Provincial Government that an ordinary revenue of £1,700 and a precarious land revenue of about £28,000 annually, scarcely justified the raising of at least a £60,000 loan for the purpose of building a Picton-Blenheim railway. In 1865 an Act was passed authorising the construction of this railway by private enterprise, but that project lapsed.

Even in Nelson, where the Provincial Government deservedly enjoyed a reputation for caution, the Provincial Council, in 1863, requested the Superintendent to apply for permission to borrow £300,000 for a railway to the South. The Nelson and Cobden Railway Act was passed in 1868, but here, again, it was found impossible to satisfy English capitalists as to the agricultural potentialities of the districts through which the line would pass en route from Nelson to Grey mouth.

In 1863 the necessities of the Maori wars (and in particular the need for prompt access to the Waikato River) led to the projection by the Auckland Provincial Government of the Auckland-Drury Railway (22 miles) with a branch to Onehunga.

As early as 1863 Southland, too, had sanctioned a quarter of a million loan for jetties, a Bluff-Invercargill Railway and an Invercargill-Winton “tramway” (i.e., a railway with wooden rails). After a temporary suspension of construction in 1864 owing to a shortage of funds, the Bluff line was completed on the 5th February, 1867, and the Winton project four years later.

By the end of 1863 provincial debentures had become unsaleable, except at a heavy premium as compared with General Government debentures. The Central Ministry recognised something would have to be done, and announced that any province wishing to borrow for railways and other purposes should first set aside portion of its waste lands sufficient for the ultimate paying off of the loan.

(Photo., W. W. Stewart collection). The old station at Auckland. (From a photograph about 1894.

(Photo., W. W. Stewart collection). The old station at Auckland. (From a photograph about 1894.

Eventually the Consolidated Loan Act, 1867, was passed; which required all future loans for provincial purposes to be raised through the General Government and charged on the Consolidated Fund. As far as possible General Government loans were to be substituted for existing provincial loans; and in the future no loans at all were to be raised by Provincial Governments.

General Government action was certainly called for, as the organisation of the provinces was showing itself incapable of dealing with the railway construction problem. The failure of Otago to secure the co-operation of Canterbury in constructing a road bridge over the Waitaki River showed how difficult it was to carry out necessary work when more than one province was affected. There was also no comprehensive plan for the whole Colony on major issues; and Canterbury had adopted a 5 ft. 3 ins. gauge for its railway, while Auckland, Nelson and Otago were working on a 4 ft. 81/2 ins. gauge.

The Vogel Public Works Policy.

In 1870 New Zealand had a European population of just under 250,000, and there were only 46 miles of railway operating in the Colony. Then, on the 28th June, Mr. (later Sir) Julius Vogel proposed (and the House later embodied in the Public Works Act of that year) the construction over a period of about ten years of some 1,500 or 1,600 miles of railway at a cost of not more than £7,500,000, plus grants page 21 of land amounting to not more than 2,500,000 acres. Legislation of 1870 and 1871 provided—following the recommendation of the London engineering firm of Sir Charles Fox and Sons—that all railways were in future to be on a 3 ft. 6 ins. gauge (with the proviso that Canterbury was permitted to retain her existing gauge, where it desired, along with the other; which it did till 1877). Thus New Zealand, by resolutely facing the gauge problem at the outset, spared herself the difficulties that confront the Australian States, each of which has its own separate gauge, so that, in general, interstate traffic is impossible without transhipment.

Old Lambton Station, Wellington (From a photograph in the ‘eighties.)

Old Lambton Station, Wellington (From a photograph in the ‘eighties.)

Mr. Vogel suggested that a “betterment tax” should be levied on private properties benefitting by railway construction; but this idea, though it was revived from time to time, has always proved too unconventional for the Governments of the day. He also suggested—with almost equal lack of success—that the Crown Lands should be so administered (by lease or sale) as to pay a large part of the cost of the roads and railways.

The earlier railway authorisation Acts fixed a maximum cost per mile for most of the projected lines. The figure of £3,500 to £4,000 per mile (including rolling stock) appears to have been based on an estimate made for the New Zealand Government in 1870 by the London engineering firm of Sir Charles Fox & Sons; this covering the use of native materials for sleepers, bridges and buildings, 30-lb. per lineal yard iron rails, 350 ft. radius curves, 1 in 40 grades, six-wheeled locomotives with not more than six ton axle loads, 31 ft. long six-wheeled passenger carriages 8 ft. wide, four-wheeled 15 ft. long goods wagons 8 ft. wide, and a service speed of some 15 m.p.h. Actually, four-wheeled carriages 7 ft. wide, however, were constructed at first, and the first trucks were only 61/2 ft. wide.

The wisdom of this provision of a maximum cost per mile is highly debatable. Certainly on some routes it encouraged the engineers to find the most economical alignment. In other cases, however, it brought down the initial cost at some prejudice to subsequent quick and economical working: and on many routes carrying heavy traffic the capital sunk in these “surface” lines has had to be almost completely scrapped. The one in forty grades and the five chain radius curves due to the fewness of cuttings and embankments on the Auckland-Mercer line were levying so heavy a toll in operating costs that some of these curves had to be straightened and grades eased as early as 1885, while the question of improving the alignment and easing the grades throughout the whole of this route had to be faced up to in 1911. Similarly, the one in fifty grades on the Dunedin-Mosgiel portion of the Dunedin-Clutha Railway had, in the interests of quick and economical working, to be eased before 1914; and the narrow Otepopo tunnel, south of Oamaru, limits the width of rolling stock on the South Island Main Trunk Railway to this day. Official reports of 1871 and 1873 show that a governing gradient of one in forty— instead of one in fifteen (with operation by expensive Fell equipment) actually adopted—could have been used for the Wellington-Wairarapa line if it had not been necessary to keep down the cost within the limits set by the Act. Finally, an easing of the grades on the Auckland-Kaipara line (1 in 33) was undertaken in 1885, and a more complete easing in 1937, while a commencement of grade easements between Wanganui and Marton was made in 1936.

A Train Scene at Timaru, about 1885.

A Train Scene at Timaru, about 1885.

Under the Railways Act of 1870, the cost of the Auckland-Tuakau Railway (36 miles)—with a ruling gradient of one in forty—was fixed at £4,000 per mile; that of the Dunedin-Clutha Railway (52 miles)—with a ruling gradient of one in fifty, but with two lengthy tunnels—at £5,000 per mile; and that of the Picton-Blenheim Railway (19 miles)—also on severe grades —at £3,500 per mile. At the same time the almost flat lines in Canterbury were authorised on a total appropriation basis and not a maximum cost per mile: viz., Addington-Rangiora (18 miles—£92,000); Selwyn-Rakaia (13 miles—£48,000); Timaru-Temuka (11 miles—£67,000). It is by no means clear why rather higher rates per mile should have been allowed in the comparatively easy Canterbury country than in the more difficult country already mentioned.

The following authorisations were made by the First Schedule of the historic Railways Act, 1871:—

Railway Length in Miles Cost per Miles. £
Kaipara-Riverhead 221/2
or Kaipara-Auckland 37 3,000(I)
Auckland-Mercer 47 4,500(2)
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(Photo., W. W. Stewart collection). Broad gauge engine (No. 1) at Christchurch Station, about 1863.

(Photo., W. W. Stewart collection). Broad gauge engine (No. 1) at Christchurch Station, about 1863.

Napier-Pakipaki 57 3.000
Manawatu-Wanganui 68 2,000(3)
Wellington-Masterton 70 5,000
Nelson-Foxhill 201/2 3,800
Picton-Blenheim 20 4,000
Rangiora-Kowai 15 5,000
Rakaia-Ashburton 20 3,250
Moeraki-Waitaki 401/2 4,000
Invercargill-Gore 401/2 2,750
Winton-Kingston 70 2,750
Tokomairiro-Lawrence 20 5,000(4)
Ashburton-Temuka 32 2,280
Waitara-Wanganui 140 4,500
Kawakawa-Port 8 5,000(5)
Brunner-Grey 7 3,750
Mt. Rochfort-Westport 12 5,000

(1) Under Section 16 of the Railways Act, 1872, construction was not to be commenced on any new line until the Chief Engineer had reported that it was likely to pay working expenses from the date of completion. As the result of an adverse report under this section construction of the Auckland-Helensville line was discontinued from 1873 to 1876. The Helensville-River-head line—giving rail portage between the Kaipara and Waitemata Harbours— was completed in 1875, but the Helensville-Auckland line not till 1881, the Riverhead-Kumeu Section being closed in the same year.

(2) This had been substituted for the Auckland-Tuakau project of the previous year as giving better through transport to the Waikato—in its avoidance of certain navigation difficulties south of Tuakau and in providing a terminus at a point tapped by the main road.

(3) Originally a tramway with wooden rails was contemplated. The estimate allowed an insufficient amount for the crossing of the Oroua and Rangitikei Rivers—even with the wooden rails.

(4) High cost accounted for by heavy tunnelling in difficult country. The line was commenced just subsequent to the heyday of the Tuapeka gold rushes.

(5) Construction delayed till 1875. Additional lines commenced in 1871 under the authority of the Third Schedule of the 1871 Railways Act were:—

Rangiora and Kaiapoi to Oxford (31 miles)—to tap the only accessible timber in Canterbury.

Rolleston to Malvern (35 miles). Waimate Branch (4 miles). Racecourse-Southbridge (19 miles).

Under Section 11 of the Railway Act, 1872, the purchase of the Dunedin and Port Chalmers Railway from the Otago Provincial Government was authorised. This was carried out in 1873 at a price of £210,000 for eight miles of line. The line (which had originally been built by private enterprise) was then already in operation.

In the 1873 Railway Act there were authorised in addition to the lines already mentioned, the Mercer-Newcastle and southwards line; the Waitaki-Timaru line (42 miles) (£220,000); the Gore-Clutha (48 miles) (£260,000); and the Dunedin-Moeraki line (55 miles) (£430,000). Construction of the last mentioned line was held up till 1874 on account of the difficulty of finding, a suitable route out of Dunedin. At length a practicable route (with 71/2 chain curves as against 9 chains between Palmerston and Oamaru, and mostly 15 chains between Dunedin and Clinton) was found involving a 1,400 yard long tunnel at Mihiwaka, not to mention several other tunnels, one in fifty grades, and a difficult piece of sea-cliff excavation.

The North Express at Oamaru, 15th May, 1882.

The North Express at Oamaru, 15th May, 1882.

The policy of fixing a maximum cost per mile also encouraged the use of very light rails (mostly 40 lbs. to the yard), very light bridges, four-wheeled trucks and carriages, and very light locomotives (mostly with an axle load of six tons or less—or only about two-fifths the present-day main line standar—with correspondingly low speeds.

The Railway Acts of the early ‘seventies also contained power for the letting of contracts for the construction and/or operation of Marlborough, Auckland and Otago provincial railways (with an interest guarantee of 51/2 per cent, per annum).

The Railway Act of 1871 (with its 1873 amendment) charged the costs of railway construction against the Provincial Lands Funds. In 1876 (when there were 718 miles open for traffic) the abolition of the provinces placed all the earlier constructed railways in the hands of the General Government

(To be continued.)

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New Zealand's Wonderland At Orakei-Korako(Rly. Publicity phots.) The illustrations show some of the notable sights at Orakei-Korako. (1) The Atiamuri Bridge across the Walkato River. (2) The Aniwhaniwha Falls, Waikato River. (3) The approach to the sights by pontoon. (4) and (5) Two views of Inspiration Point. (6) A Boiling Pool. (See article on p. 32.)

New Zealand's Wonderland At Orakei-Korako
(Rly. Publicity phots.)
The illustrations show some of the notable sights at Orakei-Korako. (1) The Atiamuri Bridge across the Walkato River. (2) The Aniwhaniwha Falls, Waikato River. (3) The approach to the sights by pontoon. (4) and (5) Two views of Inspiration Point. (6) A Boiling Pool. (See article on p. 32.)

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