South Island Main Trunk Railway

South Island Main Trunk Railway

The Main North Line between Picton and Christchurch and the Main South Line between Lyttelton and Invercargill, running down the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand, are sometimes together referred to as the South Island Main Trunk Railway (SIMT). Construction of a main line running the length of the east coast began in the 1860s, but trains could not operate all the way from Picton to Invercargill until 1945.


Main South Line

Construction of the Main South Line began in 1865 when the Canterbury Provincial Railways began work on a 1,600mm (5'3") broad gauge line south from Christchurch. It reached Rolleston on 13 October 1866 and Selwyn a year later. A number of routes south were considered, and the one chosen was a compromise between a proposal to build a coastal line through fertile territory and a proposal to build an inland line to achieve easier crossings of rivers such as the Rakaia. However, construction had to be postponed as the Canterbury Province government was low on funds, and it did not restart until Julius Vogel announced the central government's "Great Public Works Policy".

The "Great Public Works Policy" placed a high priority on the completion of the Main South Line. At this time, New Zealand accepted RailGauge|42 narrow gauge as its national rail gauge, but Canterbury was permitted to extent its broad gauge as far as Rakaia - although it did so on 2 June 1873, it converted its entire network to narrow gauge by 6 March 1876. Further south, the Dunedin and Port Chalmers Railway was opened on 1 January 1873 as the first railway in the country to adhere to the new national gauge. Although the final portion of this line became the Port Chalmers Branch, most of it was incorporated into the main line northwards and construction progressed through difficult terrain towards Oamaru. South of Dunedin, work was progressing on a link with Invercargill; a line between Invercargill and Gore was opened on 30 August 1875 and a line between Dunedin and Balclutha was opened two days later. Construction to link these sections faced more construction challenges than the earlier work had, and accordingly, the rate of progress slowed.

Over the next three years, the line between Dunedin and Christchurch was completed; Christchurch and Timaru were linked on 4 February 1876, followed by Oamaru on a year later, and the difficult section between Oamaru and Dunedin was finally completed on 7 September 1878. All that remained was the Balclutha-Gore link, which was opened on 22 January 1879, completing the Main South Line.

Main North Line

Construction of the Main North Line was one of the longest construction projects in New Zealand's history. Through the 1870s, work on a line from Christchurch to northern centres in Canterbury was undertaken, with a line through Kaiapoi, Rangiora, and Amberley reaching Waipara in 1880, and at the other end, a line linking Blenheim and Picton opened in 1875. From this point, however, construction became delayed by disputes over proposed routes. Regional actors sought to protect their interests, and some sought a coastal route via Parnassus and Kaikoura, others favoured an inland route to Blenheim with a branch from Tophouse to Nelson, and there was even a proposal to use this route as the trans-Alpine line (as the Midland Line's route was yet to be chosen), linking Waipara with Reefton and then connecting to Nelson and possibly Blenheim via a line up the Buller Gorge.

The people of Marlborough favoured a coastal route and began work south, while in Canterbury, work initially began on an inland route, with Waipara linked to Culverden in 1886. Although the line to Culverden was treated as the main line for decades, it eventually became part of the Waiau Branch. At the start of the 20th century, work began on a coastal route northwards from Waipara, with the line opened to Parnassus in 1912. Construction then proceeded up the Leader River valley as part of a somewhat inland route to Kaikoura via river valleys, but the start of World War I brought a halt to construction and the 3km of track laid beyond Parnassus was removed. The war also brought a halt to work at the northern end, with the coastal village of Wharanui established as the terminus of the line south from Blenheim.

The 1920s saw much indecisiveness and disputes over what route to take between Waipara and Wharanui. The Culverden line now ran all the way as Waiau and some work took place on a line to link Waiau with Kaikoura, but after a few kilometres of formation was made, work came to a halt. The coastal route was then chosen and work had only just restarted when the Great Depression began and brought about more severe delays. Fortunes improved in 1936 sufficiently to allow a resumption of progress, and a more coastal route out of Parnassus than the Leader Valley route was chosen. World War II brought even more delays, but this time, construction progressed through wartime and the Main North Line was finally completed when the northern and southern ends met in Kaikoura on 15 December 1945.


The South Island Main Trunk has been famous for its passenger services. In the days of steam locomotives, the South Island Limited expresses were particularly famous; drivers of J and JA class locomotives claimed to have broken the official New Zealand railway speed record on a section of track near Rakaia called the "racetrack". The Main South Line saw the last regularly steam-hauled expresses in New Zealand, with JA locomotives hauling the Friday and Sunday night expresses until 26 October 1971. All other steam-hauled expresses were replaced on 1 December 1970 by the Southerner, which was hauled by DJ class diesel-electric locomotives. This service was one of the most famous in New Zealand, but it ceased on 10 February 2002.

For many years, RM (Fiat) railcars ran services on the Main North Line, but they were withdrawn during the 1970s. On 25 September 1988, a tourist-focused express known as the Coastal Pacific began operating along the scenic route between Christchurch and Picton; it continues to operate today and is now known as the TranzCoastal. In the summer of 1994-95, this service was augmented by the Lynx Express, but it was unsuccessful and not repeated in later years. Commuter services used to operate around major centres along the South Island Main Trunk, and many rural services also operated when country branch lines were operational, but the branch lines progressively closed during the 20th century and commuter services in the South Island ceased in the 1980s. Nowadays, the only passenger services on the South Island Main Trunk are the TranzCoastal and the TranzAlpine, which uses the short portion of the Main South Line between Christchurch and Rolleston before running down the Midland Line to Greymouth.

Freight services on both lines operated for many years as feeder services from rural districts to nearby major centres and harbours, rather than utilising long-distance services between the important cities. The first through freight from Christchurch to Invercargill did not operate until December 1970. During the 1970s and 1980s, patterns of freight haulage changed dramatically, with the last of the branch lines closing and an emphasis placed upon long-distance haulage. The South Island Main Trunk is now used to carry significant quantities of long-distance freight, and it connects with the network in the North Island via roll-on roll-off ferries in Picton. These ferries have allowed freight trains to be operated from Auckland to Christchurch on a 30 hour schedule.


* Churchman, Geoffrey B., and Hurst, Tony; "The Railways of New Zealand: A Journey Through History", HarperCollins Publishers (New Zealand), 1991 reprint

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • South Island Main Trunk Railway — Rangierbahnhof in Dunedin auf der südlichen Teilstrecke. Auf dem Bild sieht man Lokomotiven der neuseeländischen Baureihen DC, DF und DSG Die Bahnstrecke South Island Main Trunk Railway ist die wichtigste Eisenbahnstrecke auf der Südinsel von… …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • North Island Main Trunk Railway — Infobox rail line logo = name = North Island Main Trunk image width = 300px caption = Map of the North Island Main Trunk Railway type = Main line system = New Zealand railway network status = Open locale = North Island, New Zealand start =… …   Wikipedia

  • North Island Main Trunk — Map of the North Island Main Trunk Railway Overview Type Heavy rail System New Ze …   Wikipedia

  • South Island — Infobox Islands name = South Island Māori: Te Wai Pounamu image caption = Satellite view of the South Island image size = locator Location map|New Zealand|lat= 43.983333|long=170.45|marksize=16 map custom = yes native name = native name link =… …   Wikipedia

  • Main North railway line, New South Wales — For other railways called Main North Line, see Main North Line. For other railways called Great Northern, see Great Northern Railway. [v · d · …   Wikipedia

  • Manchester, South Junction and Altrincham Railway — Route map of the Manchester South Junction Altrincham Railway, showing the layout of connecting lines in the Manchester area (click for full size view) The Manchester South Junction and Altrincham Railway (MSJ AR) was a suburban railway which… …   Wikipedia

  • Main North Line, New Zealand — Main North Line Start of the Main North Line, heading north under the old Blenheim Road overpass in the distance, and to the left under the new Blenheim Road overpass to Christchurch railway station. Overview Type …   Wikipedia

  • Main South Line — This article is about the railway in New Zealand. For the railway in NSW, Australia, see Main Southern railway line, New South Wales. Main South Line Main South Line and shunting yards at Dunedin. Ov …   Wikipedia

  • Railway Enthusiasts Society — The Railway Enthusiasts Society Incorporated is a New Zealand railway enthusiast society registered under the Incorporated Societies Act 1908 on 17 July 1958. ObjectivesThe RES objectives are as follows:* To foster an intelligent interest in… …   Wikipedia

  • South Shields — Coordinates: 54°59′31″N 1°25′44″W / 54.992°N 1.429°W / 54.992; 1.429 …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.