The South Island's Pacific Coastal Rail Link

Last Modified: 19-2-2019 12:51

Historic Awatere Road/Rail bridge
Historic Awatere Road/Rail bridge
© Christopher Cookson  License this image


Just south of Kaikoura the remaining gap in the 348 km Main North Line was finally completed in December, 1945. It had taken three quarters of a century to complete what was the longest railway construction project in the nation's history.

There were wide rivers to bridge, the rugged, cliffy Kaikoura coastline, disputes over which route to take, changes of government which went hot and cold on the issue, an economic slump in the 1880s and the World Depression of the early 1930s, not to mention an everlasting shortage of funding.

The original idea was to commence construction from either end and finish in the middle. Everyone believed that any railway would be the way to go in opening up backcountry in New Zealand for settlement, farming and other occupations.This had worked well in nearly all newly settled countries. So -Canterbury got busy in 1871 and found construction easy on the Plains between the expensive bridges.

At the Picton end the new Province of Marlborough had got underway in 1859 but was not financially well off. Nevertheless, construction began from Picton in 1872. The line reached Blenheim by late 1875. To begin with the Marlborough line boasted two steam engines, three 6-wheel carriages and 35 wagons - truly a humble start.

Progress southwards slowed down after 1875. It was a matter of money and  physical obstacles in the way. It took 27 years to reach Seddon in 1902, nine more years to reach Ward in 1911 and four more to reach the Kaikoura coast. Then all work ceased for 25 years!

In 1936 work began again, working south along the Kaikoura coast. Railway work  camps were set up every few kilometres and workers moved from camp to camp as the track slowly crept round bays and cut tunnels to pierce bluffs. The urgency of World War II defence matters jostled things along.

On the Canterbury side route disputes meant enormous wastage of funds. One route actually headed inland only to halt at Waiau. There was even an attempt  to link with the Upper Wairau Valley. Few in charge seemed to appreciate the massive ranges which stood in the way. It is so obvious to us now that the best way was the present route straight down the Kaikoura coast, despite its ruggedness.

Since the roll-on roll-off NZR Cook Strait ferries came into service in 1962, the line has carried much of the South Island's freight. Over the last decade the Coastal Pacific passenger train has gained in popularity along this scenic route.

In the first half of the 20th century there was talk of a rail link from Blenheim through to Nelson's isolated railway ending at the Buller River. All that happened  was that Nelson's railway closed down and the ranges east of Nelson knocked any idea on the head of a line heading through to Blenheim. 

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The South Island's Pacific Coastal Rail Link. (2019) Retrieved May, 29, 2024, from