The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 13, Issue 3 (June 1, 1938.)
The Heyday Of Railway Construction In New Zealand
Capital Costs Per Mile.
Although the early Railway Acts contemplated in no case a cost of more than £5,000. per mile, at the end of the first decade the cost of open lines had risen to approximately £7,000. This discrepancy was due to a number of factors:
(1) In response to pressure, politicians had caused too many stations to be constructed.
(2) The stations and sidings that were provided on the main lines nearly all proved inadequate for the traffic; and as early as 1878 new stations were being planned at Lyttelton, Christ-church, Timaru, Oamaru, Dunedin and Bluff, as well as at other less important places. The Auckland-Drury line cost 6 per cent. in excess of the estimate—solely on account of the traffic offering requiring an amount of rolling stock greatly above the estimate; and a new station in Auckland was found essential as early as 1883.
(3) The original 40 lb. rails proved too light for the traffic, and had to be replaced in the very early ‘eighties by at least 53 lb. rails on the main lines. Now 70 lb. rails are in general use on main lines.
(4) Certain materials and labour rose in cost.
(5) Contrary to original anticipations, many lines had to be fenced and tunnels lined.
(6) There was much faulty selection of materials—in some cases as a result of political interference with the engineer's recommendations. Thus many lines had to be reballasted because of the use of unsuitable metal. Rimu soon proved itself an undesirable material for bridges, and various local timbers used for sleepers had, as early as 1882, to be replaced by jarrah.
(7) There was failure to make sufficient allowance for flood conditions, with the result that many culverts had to be replaced by bridges, and many low-lying lines by embankments.
(8) Occasionally the engineers made bad mistakes; e.g., several furlongs of track near Moeraki had to be abandoned, both the Government and the contractors’ overseers being replaced.
(9) Owing to the bush-covered nature of much of the country (e.g., between Foxton and Wanganui) accurate estimates were difficult to make.
Operating costs were also unduly raised by the early skimping in capital costs:—
(1) The light equipment and track quickly wore out or required repairs—so that there were excessive maintenance charges.
(2) The engine power on some sections was so small that time-tables had to be slowed up as traffic increased; e.g., on the Auckland Section in 1883. This state of affairs was remedied by ordering six J locomotives in the following year, the most powerful engines previously operating on this section having been of the L and Fairlie types.
(3) Lack of adequate equipment (e.g., water tanks) led to excessive shunting.
The fatal accident wherein part of a train consisting of one H (Fell) engine, two four-wheeled cars, one ordinary van, one Fell van, and two loaded covered goods wagons was blown over a precipitous bank on the Rimutaka Incline (1 in 15 grade) on 13th September, 1880, was also partly due to the light construction of the vehicles and the absence of any provision of breakwinds—later provided—at points such as Horse Shoe Valley that were subject to exceptionally heavy gales.
On 24th October, 1884, the Minister of Public Works, the Hon. E. Richardson, was able to say:—
“By reason of … additions to the opened railways during the past few years we have now got 1,400 miles of railway complete and equipped—not of a description such as was proposed in 1870 when the Scheme of Public Works was inaugurated by my colleague, Sir Julius Vogel, but lines of a much higher class, and of such a nature that high speeds can be run and much greater traffic than was anticipated can be carried.”
Factors Militating Against More Rapid Construction.
Considering the numerous obstacles met with, the progress of railway construction was remarkably rapid right up till difficulties occurred in connection with raising loans on the onset of depression, following the continued drops in export prices that had begun in the late ‘seventies.
The chief of the obstacles militating against still more rapid construction was probably the fewness of competent surveyors and engineers. Thus, the first rough survey of a route from Canterbury to Westland was not made till 1874; it was not till 1883 that the Arthur's Pass route was decided on as the best, and not till 1900 that the length and gradient of the summit tunnel were closely determined. The first flying survey from Picton to Christchurch did not take place till 1875. A systematic survey south from the Waikato towards Wellington had to wait till 1885. Even then it was far from complete. It was 1877 before the various routes to Cromwell (Central Otago) were surveyed and a decision was arrived at in favour of the Taieri Gorge Route as giving reasonablepage 39
In certain cases difficulty in deciding the most practicable route held up construction progress. Few such problems were met with on the Canterbury Plains, the route being mainly determined by the most convenient places for crossing the numerous snow-fed rivers from the Southern Alps—usually the place where the river was narrowest near the mouth. As already mentioned, however, difficulties in the way of discovering a good route out of Dunedin to the North held up construction there till 1874, and similar delays occurred in connection with the Wellington-Wairarapa Railway. As early as the beginning of 1879 the railway between Christchurch and Bluff was, however, open, the last two sections to be completed being from Wai-Kouaiti to Palmerston South (September, 1878) and from Balclutha to Clinton (January, 1879).
The appointment, in 1878, of two separate engineers in charge for each Island in place of one Engineer-in-Chief, no doubt helped the situation as regards the overworking of the engineering staff, as did also the separation in the same year of the construction of railways from the management of working railways.
Shortages of labour had also militated against more rapid construction of new railways. Maoris were proved inefficient as early as 1871, and the importation of Chinese was canvassed as early as 1872, but frowned upon by the authorities. This problem was gradually overcome by the introduction of large numbers of immigrants from Britain and North-Western Europe.
In many districts the rate of progress was considered by the inhabitants to be far too slow, and companies were formed to build railways. The Dunedin, Peninsula, and Ocean Beach Railway Company was incorporated in 1875; and, having received provincial blessing, at once proceeded to construct tracks and then to ask the Government to sell or lend it rails for its lines out of the Government surplus stocks—only to be informed by the Government that incorporation was not enough, there was no common law right to run so potentially dangerous a thing as a railway, or to assume that the Otago Harbour Board and the Government would permit the company at one point to cross the foreshore below high-water line, or to use the Government railway tracks—all of which were contemplated.
Recriminations ensued, and when the correspondence was published the veracity of at least one leading local politician was gravely impugned. This matter was eventually adjusted only by the passing of the Railway Companies Act, 1875 (replaced in 1877 by the District Railways Act). All private railway projects had to receive prior Government approval, and only a 3 ft. 6 in. gauge was to be allowed. Under the 1877 Act interest for fifteen years up to 7 per cent. per annum from the date of completion was to be guaranteed, 2 per cent. by the Consolidated Fund and the balance by local authority rating. Other private railways of this period — some of them constructed under special Acts—were:—
Waimate Gorge Railway (started 1879; opened 1883; bought out by Government, 1885).
Rakaia and Ashburton Forks Railway (opened 1880; bought out by Government, 1885).
Waimea Plains Railway (Gore Lumsden) (commenced 1878; completed 1880; bought out by Government, 1886).
Thames Valley - Rotorua Railway (bought out by the Government in 1885 on the eve of completion from Morrins-ville to Putaruru and Lichfield in the following year).
Kaitangata Railway (special Private Act, 1875).
Duntroon and Hakataramea Railway (commenced 1879; opened 1881; bought out by Government, 1885).
Other railways in this category were the Wanganui Heads Railway; the Nightcaps Railway (Southland); and the Fernhill Railway (near Dunedin).
An Act to facilitate the reclamation of Lakes Forsyth and Ellesmere and the construction of a railway from Christchurch to Akaroa was passed in 1876; but to this day all that has been done is for the Government to construct a railway to Little River.
(Cont. on page 41.)page 40
He Heyday of Railway Progress in N.Z.—
(continued from page 39 ).
Under the provisions of the District Railways Act, 1882 direct powers to levy rates had been granted these railways and these powers were actually exercised by a number of them (e.g., Waimea Plains).
The Royal Commission of 1879–1880.
The end of the year 1879 rather marks a milestone in the history of railway construction in New Zealand; for, with the onset of depression consequent on progressive falls in the prices realised by New Zealand's staple exports abroad, lines were on the average earning only 2 1/4 per cent. per annum on capital and costing over 5 per cent. A situation had arisen both as regards the lines in operation and those not completed which seemed to warrant the appointment of a Royal Commission of five leading men drawn from throughout New Zealand.
At this date the following lines or portions of lines were open, dates of completion of the last section being given in brackets in each case:—
|N.I.M.T. to Ohaupo||(1878)|
|Kai Iwi-Palmerston North||(1879)|
|Shag Point Branch||(1879)|
|Port Chalmers Branch||(1872)|
*Napier. The Commission's main findings were:—
(1) A number of stations then manned should be reduced to flag station status.
(2) The number of trains run should be reduced.
(3) Wages should be reduced.
(4) A number of charges should be reduced and rigid uniformity of tariff throughout the Colony should be departed from.
(5) There had been too much political pressure on the departmental heads and an independent Board should be substituted (e.g., pressure from sectional interests was impairing the efficiency of the system by leading to the provision of unnecessary stops for long distance trains; so that, although 10 hours 55 minutes had been allowed in 1878 for the Express between Christchurch and Dunedin, this had to be raised to 12 hours 40 minutes in 1880, and in 1882 it was still 11 hours 30 minutes).
(6) Many railways had been constructed too far in advance of settlement.
The Vogel plan of railway construction had been a comprehensive one, involving the completion and extension of lines already begun by the Provinces, so as to make ultimately two main trunk lines running the length of both islands, with feeders into the interior wherever a profitable traffic could be developed. But the pressure of local influence had proved so great as to compel many deviations from the original plan. In some districts railways had been built far in advance of requirements, while in others people had waited long for lines that might have been immediately profitable. Railway construction activities were also too diffused to give the economies of concentrated expenditure, and capital was. in consequence locked up for too long a period in incomplete lines.
As regards the uncompleted lines, they were arranged by the Commission in four classes. A number were recommended for completion to points where their earnings might be expected to be substantial; while others were recommended for prosecution when conditions proved more favourable. Certain others were wholly condemned; while still others were regarded as possibilities for the future. Amongst the lines adversely reported on were: from Wellington to the lower reaches of the Manawatu River, the Akaroa Line beyond Lake Ellesmere, the Otago Central line, and all save the Oxford-Sheffield section of the 85-mile long “Canterbury Interior Line”—to run from Oxford through Wad-dington or Sheffield, Methven, Spring-burn, and Geraldine to Temuka; which had been originally proposed in 1878, on the ground that short branch lines from such towns to the main line would all require separate services very costly to work. Actually the only portion of this line ever constructed (Oxford - Sheffield—completed 1884) carried much less traffic than the short spurs to the main line. For most of its life it called for only two trains per week and then did not pay; it was finally closed to traffic in March, 1933.
A successful trial run of the first power coach and trailer of the multiple-unit electric trains for the Wellington-Johnsonville service was made on 1st May, 1938. The picture shows the train at Khandallah station, with the Minister of Railways, the Hon. D. G. Sullivan, standing between the Minister of Labour, the Hon. H. T. Armstrong (left) and the General Manager of Railways, Mr. G. H. Mackley (right).
Joint Stock Enterprise.
Naturally these findings were not favourably received in many parts of the Colony, and considerable impetus was given to the construction of private railways—either under special legislation or under the Railways Construction and Land Act, 1881; which provided for the construction of railways and/or the working thereof by joint stock companies; grants of Crown Land to such companies being author- page 42 page 43 ised, as being conducive “to the more speedy settlement of the Colony.” Contracts betwen Companies and the Crown under this Act had to be ratified by the General Assembly. There was power under the Act for the companies to receive (under certain circumstances) rating powers over the areas benefited; and to have grants of alternate sections of Crown Lands in designated areas set aside for that purpose (usually within 15 miles of the railway). At any time ten years or more from the opening there was power for the Crown to purchase the railway at a price to be determined by arbitration.
The most important railway constructed under this Act was that of the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company Limited. This Company was formed as a result of a public meeting held in Wellington on 30th September, 1880, when it had become known that the Commissioners had reported against the line from Wellington to the Manawatu River. The Company was registered in 1881 and commenced construction in 1882, the last spike-being driven at Waikanae in 1886. Its line, 84 miles long, ran from Wellington to Longburn on the Manawatu River, there connecting with the Government line from Palmerston North to Foxton. The rails were mostly 53 Ib. to the lineal yard, but 65 Ib. rails were laid on most of the steeper gradients; of which one was as severe as 1 in 36. The land allotted this Company under the Act was some 215,000 acres. In 1900, the share capital was £170,000 and there were 51/2% debentures outstanding to the value of £680,000. The Company had paid £31/2% in 1891, and thereafter dividends of 5%, 6% and then 7% per annum were the order of the day till the Company was bought out by the Government for £933,759, on the completion of the North Island Main Trunk Railway in 1908.
This illustration depicts the Dunedin Railway Station from the Rattray Street crossing in the late ‘nineties. The time is 10.50 a.m., and the morning train from Clinton is pulling in at the west platform. At another platform the Mosgiel train is about to depart, and the general air of animation remits from the fact that the Christchurch express (not visible) was due to depart from the north dock at 11 a.m.
The next most important company formed under this Act was the New Zealand Midland Railway Company Limited (formed to link Belgrove in Nelson with Springfield in Canterbury through Westland). This Railway was taken over by the Government in 1895 after 75 miles had been constructed at a cost of about £1,300,000, litigation on the matter dragging on till the end of the Century.
Not all private railways authorised under the 1881 Act have seen the light of day (e.g., the Tauranga, East Coast, and Hot Lake District Railway).
On 30th October, 1884, a resolution was passed by the House of Representatives in favour of purchasing most of the smaller of these railways. The majority of the negotiations were completed in 1885, though it was 1886 before the negotiations with the Waimea Plains Railway Company Limited were completed. The Kaihu Valley Railway-another private railway in North Auckland-was not taken over till 1893, it having defaulted on its debenture some time previously.
(To be continued.)