Economic depression in the 1880s forced a rethink of Julius Vogel’s bold rail-building programme. For John Hall’s new conservative government, the answer was private enterprise. The Railways Construction and Land Act 1881, based on American models, offered generous land grants to private rail companies. The main beneficiary was the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company (WMR), established by local investors that year.
The Manawatū line
The WMR built its railway through Wellington’s rugged north-western hills (following the present-day Johnsonville suburban line) and across the swampy plains of Horowhenua and Manawatū. In 1886 it joined up with the government line at Longburn, south of Palmerston North, connecting the capital with Whanganui and New Plymouth. Until the completion of the North Island main trunk line in 1908, this public–private rail route – and coordinated steamer services from New Plymouth to Onehunga – provided the main link between Auckland and Wellington.
The WMR had a strong American influence, and its powerful Baldwin locomotives, modern passenger carriages and stylish dining cars often outclassed their government counterparts. The company operated successfully until 1908, when it was bought by the government and absorbed into the state-owned New Zealand Railways (NZR).
Big day out
On 3 November 1886 over 1,000 spectators, including 700 who arrived by special train from Wellington, gathered at Ōtaihanga, near Waikanae, to watch the governor, Sir William Jervois, drive home the last spike of the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company line. The Governor missed with the first two blows of his hammer, finally hitting the mark with his third.
The Midland line
Other private rail ventures were less successful. In 1889 the Kaihu Valley Railway Company built a short kauri-milling line from Dargaville, but financial troubles soon led to an NZR takeover. The biggest failure was the New Zealand Midland Railway Company, formed in London in 1886 with a hugely ambitious plan to link Canterbury with the West Coast and Nelson. In 1894, 120 kilometres had been completed at a cost of £1.3 million. The following year the government took over the struggling project, prompting legal disputes and further delays.
The West Coast section reached Ōtira in 1900, but it took another 14 years for the Canterbury section to reach Arthur’s Pass. The Midland line was finally completed in 1923, with the opening of the 8.5-kilometre Ōtira tunnel – at the time the longest in the world outside the Alps. Work on the route between Īnangahua and Nelson was eventually abandoned in 1931, condemning the Nelson region to isolation from New Zealand’s rail network.
Many coal mines, forestry companies, harbour boards and other industrial enterprises built and operated their own railways, tramways or ropeways. The most extensive of these were bush tramways, some of which were as long and busy as NZR’s rural branch lines.
At one time the state network also had hundreds of sidings serving single users such as freezing works, dairy factories, fertiliser works, motor-assembly plants, gasworks and even racecourses. Most of these lines and sidings have now disappeared, as industries have closed or switched to road transport.