As New Zealand’s railway network developed in the 1870s, it offered a new means of transporting stock. The emphasis was on building the main trunk lines in both islands, but branch lines stretched into farming areas. These allowed stock to be quickly moved to other farms, to saleyards, and, as the freezing industry developed, to the works. Between 1879 and 1884, the railways carried 686,287 animals.
Before trucks were introduced, stock travelled ‘on the hoof’ to the railway and were loaded by the drover. Rural communities soon demanded stockyards and loading ramps at railway stations. Sheep and pigs travelled in 15-foot (4.5-metre), double-deck wagons which held 60 sheep. Cattle wagons were 15-foot, single-decks which could carry eight cattle.
Newer versions of these, first built in the 1940s, were larger – 20 feet (6 metres) long, increasing carrying capacity by over 30%. Later even larger wagons were introduced, which carried 120 sheep or 16 cattle. Horses travelled in horseboxes, in wagons with a carrying capacity of two animals, which later increased to four. Rail sidings at freezing works and ports enabled the quick handling of stock on arrival.
Southland’s Wild West
Mossburn was at the western end of the Southland rail network. Writer Grace Richards remembered it as a quiet place, a ‘two-men-and-a-dog kind of place’. 1 But once a year, when Davey Gunn drove his wild cattle down from the Hollyford Valley to take them by rail to the saleyards at Lorneville, Mossburn was like the Wild West. No one dared get into the yards with Gunn’s cattle; it took men on horseback with stock whips and a lot of bellowing, determination and sweat to load them into the carriages.
The demise of rail
The 1931 Transport Licensing Act and its later amendments established New Zealand Railways as the country’s primary carrier and undermined road transport’s ability to compete. However, this began to change in the early 1950s, when some branch lines were closed. In 1962 trucking regulations were freed up, and the number of animals moved by rail declined. By the early 1970s the railways carried very few livestock.
In 1994 Tranz Rail attempted to revive the railing of livestock when it experimented with carrying stock in crates. However, this experiment failed, as meat works had stripped the railway sidings from their sites.