|Locale||Waikato and Bay of Plenty|
|Opening||24 November 1893|
|Closed||1989 (Rotorua city centre – Koutu)
7 October 2001 (entire line mothballed)
|Owner||KiwiRail — Leased to Rotorua – Ngongotaha Rail Trust|
|Line length||50.5 km (31.4 mi)|
|No. of tracks||Single|
|Track gauge||1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in)|
The Rotorua Branch is a railway line from Putaruru to Rotorua, in the Waikato and Bay of Plenty regions of the North Island of New Zealand. Construction of the line was commenced by the Thames Valley and Rotorua Railway Company and finished by the Public Works Department. The complete line, 50.5 kilometres (31.4 mi) in length, opened on 24 November 1893.
The line was partially constructed by the Thames Valley and Rotorua Railway Company. The company began planning of the line from 1877, following the passing of the District Railways Act 1877. Construction of the Rotorua line did not begin until after its survey, from 1881. The survey took 12 months to find a suitable route to Rotorua over the Mamaku Ranges.
The company only ever completed the section between Morrinsville and Tirau (called Oxford at that time), and this opened on 8 March 1886. The Government took over its operations in 1886. From this time onwards, the Public Works Department undertook construction of the line. The section to Lichfield on what is now the Kinleith Branch line was opened at the time of the Mount Tarawera eruption (21 June 1886). The line to Rotorua opened in 1893.
At the same time George Vesey Stewart proposed a railway route between Tauranga and Rotorua, but this did not eventuate.
The Rotorua line in its original form was a main line which ran from Morrinsville through to Rotorua. With the opening of the Kaimai Tunnel in 1978, the section of line between Morrinsville and Waharoa became part of the East Coast Main Trunk line between Hamilton and Kawerau, whilst the section of line between Waharoa and Kinleith became the Kinleith Branch line. The section of line between Putaruru and Rotorua becoming the Rotorua Branch line.
Two named passenger services operated on the line. The Rotorua Express was initiated in 1894 and in 1930 became the Rotorua Limited - the most prestigious train in New Zealand at that time. The service later reverted to the Rotorua Express with more stops; and in 1959 was replaced by 88-seater Fiat railcars, the NZR RM class. The Fiat railcar service ceased in 1968. In 1991 a new twice daily tourist-oriented service called the Geyserland Express was initiated, using Silver Fern railcars. This service lasted a decade and ceased in 2001.
Freight on the line previously comprised forestry and livestock products railed north from Rotorua. Train loads north were limited by the Tarukenga Bank west of Rotorua between Ngongotaha and Mamaku, with a steep ruling gradient of 1 in 35.
The forestry industry operated numerous sawmills on the branch line; the largest was at Mamaku, which had its own bush tramway connecting to the NZR line. For many years after World War II sheep and cattle from land developments south of Rotorua were railed by special stock trains to the large abattoirs or freezing works in the South Auckland suburbs of Westfield and Southdown. Now there are local freezing works served by road transport, and stock numbers (particularly sheep) have reduced.
Taupo extension proposals
Extension of the line to Taupo has been proposed from time to time, primarily to take advantage of forestry traffic from the region. One such proposal got as far as the construction phase in 1928, however, due to the onset of the Great Depression, work ceased a year later in 1929.
Rotorua station relocation
In 1989 the Rotorua central city station and rail yard was closed and, along with the last 2 km of the line, removed and relocated to a new site at Koutu.
The Geyserland Express railcar service initially terminated in the Koutu freight yard until a small temporary passenger station operated by the Second Chance Train Trust opened on the northern side of the Lake Road overbridge in 1995. The new passenger station at Koutu was intended as temporary measure until the line could be relaid to a proposed new passenger station in the central city on the corner of Ranolf and Amohau Streets, which was being pursued by the Second Chance Train Trust and the Rotorua District Council. The new station never eventuated.
During the late 1990s traffic on the line gradually declined with the twice daily Geyserland Express railcar service being reduced in 1995 to a daily service with twice daily services on Fridays and Sundays only, and in 1996 being reduced to a daily service on all days. The nightly Bay Raider freight service was cancelled in 2000 and the Geyserland Express was cancelled in 2001.
Since this time the line has fallen into disrepair, with slips, overgrown vegetation and sections of the line being stolen.
In 2012, the Rotorua District Council demolished the former Lake Road overbridge at Koutu to enable a new four lane road to be built across the railway line at this locality. The new four lane road involved the removal of the track on the northern and southern sides of the road, which now separates the former Koutu freight yard from the main line. KiwiRail still own the rail corridor across the road however.
On 13 January 2009, the Geyserland Express Trust announced that it had commissioned and received a report on the feasibility of reopening the line between Putaruru and Rotorua, which put the cost of doing so at $8.3 million. Work required included:
- Clearing vegetation
- Replacing missing sections of track
- Rehabilitation of some of the bridges
- Checking drains and culverts
- Establishing a new station at Rotorua
The interested parties planned to establish a working group to determine the level of demand and economic feasibility of services on the line.
In December 2009 KiwiRail leased the Rotorua Branch line (Putaruru - Koutu) to the Rotorua Ngongotaha Rail Trust, which intends to turn the unused corridor and track into a tourism venture. The trust is currently working to restore part of the line and is working with the Rotorua District Council to assist with its plans to continue the national cycleway system in the District. Once the track is repaired, the trust hopes that it will be possible for freight and passenger services to resume, with steam enthusiast operators from around New Zealand, able to bring their own excursion trains to Rotorua.
Mamaku-based adventure tourism company Rail Riders has been granted a rail operating license to run services on the Rotorua Branch. Working with KiwiRail and the Rotorua-Ngongotaha Rail Trust, the company operates its New Zealand-designed and built "rail cruisers" on a section of the branch line, initially between Mamaku and Tarukenga, but later extended to Rotorua-Mamaku. They have constructed a station at Mamaku and plan to build another in Rotorua when services are extended there.
- Churchman, Geoffrey B., and Hurst, Tony (1991 reprint). The Railways of New Zealand: A Journey Through History. HarperCollins Publishers (New Zealand). ISBN 0-908876-20-3.
- Rails in the Hinterland: New Zealand’s Vanishing Railway Landscape by Euan McQueen p38 (2005, Grantham House, Wellington) ISBN 1-86934-094-9
- "Down At The Station". The New Zealand Railway Observer (Wellington: New Zealand Railway and Locomotive Society) 65 (6): 232. February–March 2009. ISSN 0028-8624.
- "Rotorua Branch Railway Leased to RNRT". Better Transport. Retrieved 2009-12-24.
- mask= (4 August 2011), "Ground-breaking tourism venture gains approval to operate on Rotorua Branch Line", The Express (KiwiRail) (106): 6