Monday, August 4, 2008

The North Island Main Trunk Line – 1908 – 2008 – Century of Service

The North Island Main Trunk Line (NIMT), the backbone of New Zealand Railways in the North Island turns 100 years old on August 7.

The 630 kilometre line connected Wellington, the capital, at the southern tip of the North Island, to Auckland in the north, providing a land link for the first time that could provide an alternative to unpredictable and sometimes dangerous sea passage between the two main centres.

On the evening of August 7, 1908, the “Parliament Special” left Wellington on the first tripAuckland to greet the “The Great White Fleet” of the US Navy on its around the world goodwill voyage. The journey took 20 ½ between the two cities. It carried politicians and other VIPs to hours, involving several changes of locomotive, and required travel along temporary track in the middle section of the line hastily put in place by the Public Works department.

Construction of the NIMT took more than 20 years. The first sod was turned in 1885 after the Government reached agreement with the Ngati Maniapoto iwi on a right of way through the King Country, an area of the western Central North Island that had remained effectively in Maori hands after the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s.

Massive engineering challenges had to be overcome and much of the work was completed by the manual labour of gangs of workers who lived in work camps under harsh conditions.

The Waimarino plateau between Taumarunui and Taihape presented a particular challenge to engineers as the gradient exceeded the capacity of then existing locomotives to pull a train up the plateau. The solution was a masterful example of engineering design by R W Holmes in the form of the Raurimu spiral, involving three horseshoe curves, two tunnels, and a complete spiral.

Deep ravines also had to be bridged by steel viaducts at Makatote, Hapuawhenua, Mangaweka, and Makohine.

Pakeha New Zealanders were justifiably proud of the engineering feats of the NIMT and their ability to rapidly develop a railroad network in a young country incorporating the newest technology. Postcards of the type shown here were mailed in their thousands back to “Home”, Mother England, bearing messages extolling the achievements of the NIMT, the proof being displayed in the pictures.

The NIMT was officially opened in February 1909 and regular passenger service quickly grew with the time being reduced down to 14 hours for the trip. After World War Two, passenger demand eroded as road transport then air travel outcompeted rail service. Rail freight remained an important traffic on the line. By 2006, passenger service appeared to be near its end but a vociferous public response prevented the daylight Overlander service from being canceled. With the return of the railway system back into government ownership in mid 2008 after an unsuccessful 15+ year period of privatization, passenger service appears likely to continue for awhile yet.

Waiouru Railway Station, NIMT, 1909,
Mt Ruapehu (left) and Mt Ngauruhoe (right) volcano in eruption.

This post is respectfully dedicated to the men and women who built the NIMT and who have kept the line open over the past century. Nation-builders, one and all.

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