This year sees the achievement of 150 years of powered railways in New Zealand.
In South Canterbury, Pleasant Point Railway will celebrate the anniversary at its event on the weekend of July 20 to 21. The railway's famous Ford Model T railcar and both of its steam locomotives will be running, in conjunction with the South Canterbury Traction Engine and Vintage Steam Club, and the South Canterbury Vintage Car Club, in an exciting weekend for young and old.
Later, at Labour Weekend, there will be another big celebration at Ferrymead Historic Park, Christchurch, in parallel with an exhibition organised by KiwiRail at Lyttelton.
On Monday, October 28, a steam train will come down from Christchurch to the Plains Railway at Ashburton. It may continue on to visit Timaru, although that is yet to be confirmed.
South Canterbury's first railway was from Timaru to Temuka, which opened on October 26, 1875. Planned and paid for by the Colonial Government under Sir Julius Vogel's famous immigration and public works policy, it was built by the Canterbury Provincial Government, which was based in Christchurch.
The first contract to build the line to Young's Creek was let to Messrs Alan and Stumbles on May 14, 1873. The first locomotive, Canterbury Railways' No 21, and four wagons, were brought from Wellington on the paddle steamer Luna, which arrived at Timaru on April 27, 1874. No 21 was assembled in June, but had to wait for wagons to be assembled before it could be used. The South Canterbury Times of July 31, 1874 was able to report:
"Yesterday afternoon a shrill whistle, different to what we have become accustomed to hear in Timaru, was heard. Mr Stumbles, one of the contractors for the line, invited several of his fellow townsmen to seats in the carriage [wagon]. Everything being ready for a start was effected, and the first train on the railway moved along, first at a slow, then an increasing pace ..."
In tandem with this work on what has become part of the South Island Main Trunk Railway, the Timaru and Gladstone Board of Works was building the branch railway from Washdyke Junction to Pleasant Point. Engine 21 was able to take the first inspection train to Pleasant Point on October 25, 1875.
At this time there was a major problem, for Timaru only had the one locomotive to work the two open lines. Construction was also under way on the lines to St Andrews and from Temuka to Ealing, across the Rangitata River bridges. Completion of these bridges was critical in bringing more locomotives, wagons and carriages to Timaru. The South Canterbury Times of December 21, 1875 reported: "... a special train will depart the Rolleston station for Timaru today following close on the 7.30am passenger train. It will consist of an engine, two carriages and twelve wagons for Timaru in connection with Point railway ..."
The official opening date of the Ealing-Temuka section was February 4, 1876.
These reports conceal a remarkable story, one hard to imagine today. Canterbury Provincial Government built its original railways to a much wider gauge than we use in New Zealand today. This broad gauge, 1600mm, is now only used in parts of Australia, Brazil, and in Ireland.
In the late 1850s the whole of Canterbury had a population of only about a third that of the present-day Timaru city. It also had an enormous handicap, that of getting goods to and from deepwater ships at Lyttelton. It could cost more to tranship freight from ocean-going ships to the young city of Christchurch than to bring that cargo from England. The newly established provincial government realised that a railway could solve the province's problem, but the Port Hills were an enormous barrier to a railway.
They obtained the advice of a nephew of the famous George Stephenson, who recommended the digging of a tunnel directly through the Port Hills to connect Christchurch and its port.
The courage of the Provincial Council in accepting and implementing that advice has to be respected.
Once the House of Representatives in Wellington passed the Lyttelton and Christchurch Railway Act 1860 the Provincial Council could get busy. The first sod was formally dug at Heathcote on July 17, 1861. Contracts to build the railway specified a gauge of 1675mm, as used in India (Canterbury had gained several notable citizens from India around the time of the Indian Mutiny uprisings of 1857). There was a desperate need for economy in making hard-to-obtain loans go as far as possible, so when the contractor, George Holmes, spotted a railway in near-bankruptcy in his home town of Melbourne, he bought a second-hand but unused locomotive from it. So the die was cast, Canterbury Railways would be built to 1600mm gauge to suit its first locomotive.
At this time there was no consideration of national needs - Canterbury Railways was a local solution to a local problem. Similar considerations prevailed in other provinces in the decade of the 1860s. Southland had a similar problem of transporting goods between Invercargill and its port of Bluff. Auckland needed to transport local coal, timber and Waikato produce brought down the Waikato River to the city across the Bombay Hills.
Both provinces set about building railways to the English gauge of 1435mm.
- The Timaru Herald