Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.

A Slow and Costly Undertaking

A Slow and Costly Undertaking

The first report on a route to link Gisborne with the main system of railways was made by C. B. Knorff (an inspecting engineer) in 1886. He sketched a line starting at Napier and proceeding, via Mohaka (but avoiding Wairoa), to Opoiti, and thence through Mangapoike and Te Arai to Matawhero and on to Te Karaka, where one branch was planned to proceed to Te Araroa, via Waingaromia, and another to Opotiki, via Poututu and Whitikau. The cost was estimated at £11,000 per mile. David Whyte, of Tiniroto (“The Father of the East Coast Railway”), considered the route “most impracticable,” and declared that “a more diabolical outrage on the district could not have been perpetrated.” To his way of thinking, the estimate of the cost was ridiculously high. [The Napier-Gisborne line cost £45,000 per mile.]

A “Battle of the Railway Routes”—a struggle which lasted for many years—now began. Further exploratory surveys followed the establishment of the East Coast Railway League in April, 1897. J. Stewart, of Auckland, mapped out two routes between Gisborne and Rotorua—one, via the Urewera Country, and the other, via Opotiki. Recommending the latter, he held that it presented “no engineering difficulties whatever.” When discontent arose in 1899 because only £2,000 had been voted by the Government for the section between Gisborne and Motu, the Hon. J. Carroll pointed out that what was much more important than the amount of the initial vote was that the line had been authorised.

On 14 January, 1900—a red-letter day for Poverty Bay—the first sod was turned by the Hon. J. G. (later Sir Joseph) Ward. With much satisfaction the residents learned that Mr. Seddon (the Premier) had wired: “Now the work has begun, the grass will not be allowed to grow on the line.” On 26 June, 1902, the day chosen for the opening of the first section to Ormond, celebrations were also to have been held in honour of the coronation of King Edward VII. Although the loyal section of the rejoicings had to be postponed on account of His Majesty's illness, those in connection with the opening of the railway were proceeded with, the Hon. J. Carroll performing the ceremony. During the day about 4,000 residents—including many who had never before ridden in a train—were conveyed to and from the Park, where an alfresco picnic was held.

The line was completed as far as Motuhora (49 miles) in November, 1917, and, then, work was discontinued. In 1938 there seemed every prospect that steps would be taken at once to rail the gap between Motuhora and Taneatua. It was announced by the Hon. R. Semple (Minister for Public Works) that the route would be via Waimana Gorge. However, in 1939 he explained that the work had been held up on account of lack of plant and materials. The outbreak of World War No. 2 led to an page 383 indefinite postponement. In August, 1946, it was officially estimated that it would cost £6,000,000 to rail the gap; it had been found that a spiral, similar to that at Raurimu, would be required. It was added that consideration was being given to an alternative plan—an improved highway, along which diesel-powered transporters would be able to haul trains of highway vehicles “either between the railheads or between Gisborne and Taneatua.” The alternative plan was abandoned in 1949.

In April, 1911, work was begun at the Gisborne end of what became known as the “inland” line to link up at Wairoa with a line that was about to be built from Napier. By the close of 1914 the rails had been laid to Ngatapa, and, in 1915, the Waipaoa River was bridged. Work was suspended in 1918 to enable the route to be “laid off for a long distance ahead.” A restart was made on the Waikura section (which followed the Ngatapa section); the Frasertown section was put in hand; and the Wairoa-Waikokopu line (officially described as a branch) was begun. The Waikura section was found to be unstable, and work was stopped at both ends of the line in 1920.

On behalf of the Massey Government, Mr. Coates (Minister for Public Works) then announced that, as it would be many years before Gisborne and Napier could be linked by rail, it had been decided to effect substantial road improvements “to provide at least one sure avenue of communication between Poverty Bay and Hawke's Bay.” During 1920–21 £44,000 was expended on the Gisborne-Napier, via Morere, road, special attention being paid to the Wharerata section, and for 1921–22 the State vote was £60,000. In 1924 the inland railway route was declared “an economic impossibility.” Preliminary work on the “coastal” railway route from Gisborne to Waikokopu was begun by the Ward Government in March, 1929. [By 1924 the Waikokopu branch had been completed at a cost (including harbour improvements) of £600,000.]

A Railways Board, set up by the Forbes Government in 1930, decided that a line between Napier and Gisborne “would not pay for the axle grease,” and work was stopped on the Gisborne-Waikokopu section in January, 1931, and on the Napier-Wairoa section in October, 1931. Up till 31 March, 1931, £3,713,180 had been spent on construction work between Napier and Gisborne (inclusive of the Ngatapa and Waikokopu lines). When the “close down” order was issued a start was about to be made on the tunnels at the Gisborne end, and the only major work which required to be carried out south of Wairoa was the Mohaka viaduct, which had been scheduled to be completed in eight months.

Not until 1934 was an official hint given that the question whether work on the line should be resumed was about to be considered. [Since September, 1931, a Coalition Liberal-Reform Government had been in office, with Mr. Forbes as Prime Minister and Mr. Coates as Minister of Public Works.] On the eve of the General Election in 1935 the Labour Party promised that, if it gained the Treasury Benches, work on the line (and on two in the South Island which had also been halted in 1931) would be restarted. Labour came into power; the Railways Board was abolished; work was resumed on the Napier-Gisborne line in May, 1936; and, within 12 months, it was affording employment for 1,300 men, of whom 900 were engaged on the Gisborne-Waikokopu section.

By June, 1937, the Mohaka viaduct (908 feet long and standing 312 feet above the creek bed) was finished, and, two months later, the line between Napier and Wairoa was ready for use by a goods-train service. A cloudburst on 19–20 February, 1938, led to the deaths, by drowning, of a score of workers at Kopuawhara, and wrought grave damage both at the Gisborne end and the Napier end of the line. Further damage was inflicted by floods in April and May. The line from Napier to Waikokopu page 384 was handed over to the Railways Department in July, 1939, and, in spite of wartime shortages of manpower and materials, the whole line became available for traffic in September, 1942. Amid cheers given by 10,000 onlookers, the first passenger train left Gisborne for Napier on 7 September.

How timely the completion of the line proved was indicated by the Hon. R. Semple (Minister for Public Works), who performed the opening ceremony. On account of Malaya having become overrun by the Japanese, the rubber shortage had, he said, become so acute that, if the line had not been completed, overland transport by the southern route would have collapsed within a few months. He also mentioned that the Napier-Waikokopu section had cost £3,286,858 and the Waikokopu-Gisborne section (including the Waikokopu breakwater and wharf) £2,761,653, or a total of £6,048,511.


The major works between Gisborne and Waikokopu included three long tunnels—Waiau-Tikiwhata (3,278 yards), Coast (1,016 yards) and Waikoura (1,544 yards), and ten smaller tunnels, aggregating 1,015 yards. As the country to be pierced was of stable sandstone, it warranted the adoption of the “American,” or “arched,” system of timbering, which had not previously been used in New Zealand in the construction of single-track tunnels. Electrically-operated muck-scrapers loaded up to 95 per cent. of the spoil into trucks without manual effort. The concrete lining was placed in position by electrically-driven pumps.

The Waipaoa River bridge, which consists of six 30-feet and nine 60-feet steel spans, was the first in New Zealand to be provided with a tetrahedral apron of 32 ton blocks. It was required for the protection of the northern bank of the river, and is similar to those used in the Mississippi River protection works. Twenty-two bridges had to be erected between Waikokopu and Gisborne. One of the four structures over the Waiau Stream has the longest reinforced concrete arch-span (180 feet) in a railway bridge in the Dominion. The bed of the stream had to be lowered and widened, involving the removal of 75,000 cubic yards of papa and boulders in water.