Topic: Railfans reunion 1966

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Easter Railfans reunion covering all lines west of Rolleston.


This volume of "N.Z. RAILWAY LINES" covers the railway system that lies to the West of Rolleston Junction. West "Railwaywise" that is. It covers two distinct areas divided by the Otira Tunnel which pierces the Southern Alps the main divide of the South Island. From the Pacific Ocean at the Port of Lyttelton the line rises across the Canterbury plains and and then strikes boldly through gorges and over rivers and upland tussocks to the knife edge just beyond Arthurs Pass. From the summit at 2435ft above sea level the line falls sharply through the Otira tunnel and down to Jackson and then more gradually beside rivers and lakes and through second growth bush and coal mining areas and farmlands to the Tasman Sea at Greymouth, A distance of just over 151 miles.

On the "Coast" the lines fall into two types- those running along the narrow coastal strip between Ross and Seddonville and those running up the steep coastal mountainsides in search of coal. Amongst the latter is the Rewanui incline the steepest railwayline worked by the N.Z.G.R. today. With coal so cheap and plentiful it is here on the West Coast that the enthusiast today can find the best maintained and greatest variety of steam power in our country but within three years the "Dsc", "Dg" and "Di" diesel electric locomotives will have taken over even in this area and the only steam to be heard will be the sound of sawmill hooters.

The line from Christchurch to Rolleston was opened (as broad gauge)on 13th October 1866, a year before regular services used the Lytteiton tunnel. The gradients on page 12 shows ample evidence of the broad gauge origin. The line to the West was started in 1871 from Rolleston and was first conceived as the Malvern Hills Tramway and when opened to Sheffield in 1S7? and Springfield in January 1880 was known as the Malvern Branch. The idea of it being a through route to the West Coast was not then known. Efforts were being concentrated on a route from the Grey river area to Nelson. However as early as 1868 discovery of gold in Westland aroused interest in a coast to coast railway. In fact the Canterbury Provincial Goverment had a route surveyed from Hawarden up the Hurunui river, over Harpers Pass and down the Teremakau river to Kumara. The idea was dropped and today even the thought of a broad gauge line over this route is startling.

In 1870 Vogel's Public Works proposals included a line from Nelson to Hokitika via Buller Gorge with a branch to Picton but this lapsed after 1S76. In 1878 a Railway Construction Bill was actually passed for a line 110 miles long from Amberley to Brunnerton to cost £950,000. Goverments changed and this was put aside and in its place a Hurunui-Picton and Nelson-Greymouth system was proposed meeting at Howard 20miles South of Belgrove. But in 1881 the Land Grant system of railway construction was passed and both the Wellington and Manawatu and N.Z. Midland Railway Coy's came into being.

The Midland Railway Company (KRC later in this book) undertook to construct a railway from Springfield to Brunnerton and Brunnerton to Belgrove a distance of 235 miles  (Estimated costs were nearly £3 million). The MRC had running rights from Christchurch to Springfield and from Brunnerton to Greymouth over NZR lines already open. Operations began in 1888 along the route in use today. Over the Otira Pass a system of ropeways and hydraulic balanced inclines was proposed. Even the "Fell" and "Abtrack systems were mentioned. But by 1893 work was at a standstill with the MRC and Goverment at deadlock. On 25th May 1895 the Goverment took over the Company with it, 69 miles of opened railway, 21 stations, 80 bridges (some still in use today) the Kaimata, Brunner and Reefton tunnels and all the MRC locomotives and rolling stock. The MRC had built and opened the Brunnerton to Reefton railway, Stillwater-Jacksons and Springfied-Otarama sections. Messrs Andersons Ltd., of Christchurch, had built both Kowai bridges, the No 1 tunnel and part of Pattersons Creek viaduct.

The NZR now attacked the Midland line with vigour, they had operated to Otarama since 1892 and the difficult gorge section to Broken River was opened in October 1906. Cass was reached in December 1910 and Arthurs Pass in July 1914. The connecting coach route of course got shorter and shorter but at one stage coaches operated to Broken River ( the coach road can be seen even today) where today "Kb's thunder over massive viaducts with strong windbreaks as a safety feature against the gales that sweep down from the Snowy mountains.

The Otira tunnel is described on page 20- the contract was let in 1907 and again private enterprise gave way to Goverment the PWD taking over in 1912. The tunnellers holed through in July 1918 and on 1st September 192? regular services began.
The NZR opened the Otira -Jacksons section - a relatively easy section despite the rugged nature of the country- on 13th November 1900. With the  MRC Jacksons-Brunnerton section which had been open since March 13th 1894 this gave the link to the Coast. The NZR opened the Greymouth-Brunner section in April 1876. The MRC opened the line to Reefton on February 29th in 1892 this being one of the few sections opened on 29th February. Copies of early Greymouth papers still to be found show advertisements for both the Railway lines and also for the Greymouth-Kumara Horse Tramway.

In Westland at this time Hokitika the "gold" town was dominant. By 1866 at least 5 wooden railed horse trams operated out of here. There is a feast of material West of the Alps for rail and tramway historians and quite often formations of the long defunct lines are still visible. The Greymouth-Kumara tramway had reached the Teremakau river by 1867 and this line did not cease operations until the NZR opened the Greymouth-Hokitika railway in December 18931 The railway reached Ruatapu through swamps and virgin forest in 1906 and Ross in 1909. Near Hokitika is the longest combined bridge on the NZR, the timber truss structure over the Hokitika river. Along this easy to work and 56lb railed railway today moves a heavy traffic of timber and farm produce for until the opening of the Haast Pass in 1965 this was the outlet for the whole of South Westland. At the Grey river coalfield in May 1889 the Cobden Railway and Coal Coy. were authorised to build a line across the Grey river to Cobden and up Coal creek. Later that year the Point Elizabeth Railway and Coal Coy. joined forces with objectives - the Cobden mines at Tmile creek and Point Elisabeth mines at Ocean Beach(Rapahoe).Tenders were called in 1894 and by February 1899 the bridge over the Grey River was almost complete, however about this time the Point Elizabeth Company folded and the railways and mines were taken over by the Mines Dept who handed over the complete railway system to the NZR in 1964 . To reach new Mines a 3-mile extension including over 3 miles of 1 in 26 through a rugged and beautiful valley to Rewanui was opened in 1914. This is now the last Coalmines branch with passenger traffic in the South Island, the only incline with "Fell" type rail and brake vans for braking purposes and the steepest gradient operated by the N.Z.R.

Heading North from Stillwater and cutting across literally dozens of rivers is another railway. As far as Reef ton it is indelibly MRC. You will note in the photograph of Kokiri on the Jacksons line on page 8(facing this) how well they did their job even to the extent of gradient posts. They also build some big bridges notably the Big Grey and Teremakau the latter is now taking 108 ton "J" class.' But many bridges had Wrought Iron spans similar in strength to the ill fated Tay Bridge. These today are being replaced as fast as possible but they and the remaining weak timber trusses on this line restrict locomotives to Pacific size. Somewhere there must be a fund of history in the MRC photographic record for the two reproduced in this book are numbered above 700 and are as sharp and clear as one could wish.

The MRC station at Reefton (later Taipo-iti and now closed) was opened in 1892 however the NZR opened a new station at the present spacious site on 13th May 1907. Meanwhile back at Ngahere the Blackball Coal Company had been transporting coal by ropeway to the NZR. In May 1910 a branchline to Blackball was opened that included a long road/rail timber truss over the Big Grey River and a notable timber trestle in beautiful country at Soldier Creek. Some smaller bridges and rugged bushed country in the final mile made this line a scenic gem. Alas closed mines and finally a big flood which cut two spans of the Grey bridge closed the line in February 1966 isolating 15 NZR wagons at Blackball. The line was officially closed on 21st Feb 1966.

Northwards from Reefton the railway was envisaged as a through line to Nelson and for years Inangahua was known as a Junction (it is in fact a road and river junction). The line through the Buller gorge was authorised in 1904 as a branchline. By 1914 Reefton and Inangahua were connected by rail but not until April 24th 1942 did rails finally link Greymouth and Westport when after Wars, ecconomic upsets and stop-go Goverment policies the Cascade to Inangahua section was complete. As noted on pages 39 and 40 this final section now provides a remarkable survey of the changes in railway bridge building policy on the NZR. From the wrought iron and timber trusses through steel and concrete to the solid ferro-concrete bridges with track laid in ballast on a concrete decking. And now new bridges of pre-stressed concrete.

At Westport the first railways were little more than tramways on the South bank of the Buller river. The Cape Foulwind line being opened in 1866. In 1888 it was extended over the Buller river on a combined bridge (in the deck of which you can see rails even today) and the NZR operated the line from 1921-1929. The Marine Department used the line from 1932 to 1940 in connection with harbour improvements. The line was mainly used in the later years for stone filling etc. Had it lasted it would have served todays Cement Works at Cape Foulwind. A railway line from Westport to Mt Rochfort was authorised in 1870 and was opened to Waimangaroa in 1876 and reached Ngakawau next year. In 1878 the Westport Goal Company opened the Denniston Incline . With a grade of 1 in 2.25 and a length of about 120 chains this is worked by ropeway in two sections. Loaded wagons coming down pull up the empties. A branchline was built to Waimangaroa Junction by the Mine Company and operated by the NZR. In 1946 the Mines Department nationalised the Coal Company but not till 24th September 1958 did the NZR take over the line completely.

By 1893 the NZR line extended to Seddonville with traffic also being worked over the Mokihinui Coal Companies line to Mokihinui mine. This line existed before the NZR line and was used to take coal down to the Mokihinui river to be loaded in barges for what must have been an exciting journey down the coast to Westport. This line also became Mines Dept., property and has since about 1958 been an NZR railway.


This unlike other Canterbury branchlines was built for the coal traffic. It was opened throughout in November 1875 and finally closed in March 1962. At times the line carried heavy traffic and and during the Second World War "C" class 2-6-2 locos took out great loads of farm produce and coal. Pipe and brick works were also located on this branch. Later Ub 329 and finally "A" and "Ab" pacifies worked the line. A triangle at the White Cliffs terminus was opened in 1944. Coalgate was officered until July 1960.


The final section in this volume was owned throughout by Mining Companies and later the Mines Department. It was closed on July 25th 1960 due to the lack of buyers of coal from the Roa mines. Worked by "W" and "Wa" class locomotives from its opening in September 1909 until the end the line featured over lir miles of 1 in 25 gradient fitted with "Fell" centre rail for braking purposes and was at the time of closure the steepest NZR operated railway. Like the whole Blackball branch it was most photogenic but fortunately several enthusiast Rail Tours covered the Blackball line and one in 1957 made a memorable trip behind a "Wa" up to Roa at a "price per train" for the Blackball-Roa return of under £2. Those indeed were the days.

And so we have covered briefly the railway history of the area of the booklet. A land of contrast ranging from crops of grain, through high country woollies, mountain playground down past trout filled streams to a land full of coal and other minerals. A land with rugged beauty and placid dairyfarms side by side.  A land whose rivers can close our railways over night, yet the same rivers provide scenery and interest to every railway traveller. The beauty of the West Coast railwaylines is such that it is a little surprising a tourist group does not take advantage of it. For instance the short but thrilling trip to Rewanui and back is one no true tourist can afford to miss. It is hard to realise now that before Otira the West Coast was closely connected by business ties ( and transport links) to the Auckland area and even today many Auckland firms have branches here.

Source: Souviner booklet compiled by John L. Stichbury, 1966


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