Bluff Branch

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The Bluff Branch, officially the Bluff Line since 2011,[1] is a railway line in Southland, New Zealand that links Invercargill with the port of Bluff. One of the first railways in New Zealand, it opened in 1867 and is still operating. Presently, it essentially functions as an elongated industrial siding.

Bluff Branch route map
Wairio Branch
00Km Invercargill
LSTRql Main South Line
Bluff Branch start
Stead Street
ex Invercargill Wharf line
Ettrick Street
Crinan Street
original Estuary crossing
01.5Km Clyde Street
Bond Street
ex Seaward Bush/Tokanui branch
03.3Km Kew
Kingswell Creek
Lake Street
04.3Km Clifton freight terminal
05.5km Clifton original station
Waimatua Creek
Woodend Cutting
08.1Km Woodend
Mokotua Stream
Kekeno Road
9.8Km Wards Crossing
Phosphate Works
Colyers Road closed
12.7Km Awarua North
13.3Km Awarua
14Km Awarua Jnc
ex Mokomoko Branch
Bluff Road SH1
19.3Km Greenhills
Harbour Embankment
Tidal outflow
21.9km Green Point
Harbour Embankment
ex Ocean Beach Freezing Works spur
23km Ocean Beach
24.4Km Bluff West Jnc
Island Harbour line Port of Bluff
Shannon Street
Old Wharf rail access
25.6Km Bluff
Old Wharf rail access and Loco turning wye
Old Wharf Approach-Ferry Terminal Access
26km Southern tip of Kiwirail network


In the early days of New Zealand's colonisation, transport between Bluff and Invercargill was through sometimes impassable swampy terrain. Construction of a road to Bluff (called Campbelltown until March 1917) was approved in 1859, but the swamp defeated the builders and by 1861, a railway was being considered as an alternative. On 8 August 1863 "Lady Barkly", arguably the first locomotive to steam in New Zealand, ran on a small section of track on Invercargill Jetty, and the same year construction of a line to Bluff began.

In 1863 the failure of the wooden rails used on the Invercargill-Makarewa section of what became the Kingston Branch became apparent, and the decision was made to use iron rails to Bluff. Originally thought to be of reasonable cost to construct, the line soon proved otherwise.

Well built but costly and troublesome[edit]

Built to the international standard gauge of 1,435 mm (4 ft 8.5 in), the railway followed standard British method of keeping the line on a level grade as much as possible. Construction from the Invercargill Harbour and Wharf area soon became troublesome with the direct route across the New River estuary proving difficult due to the deep swampy mud needing to be piled up with rocks and hardwood poles.

The line made it to Clifton and easier ground as the raised formation skirted the banks of the east arm of the estuary passing over the Waimatua Creek. At start of the Awarua plains, yet again swampy ground caused delays as large embankments and a sizable bridge were needed to cross the tidal Mokotua Stream at Wards Crossing. Spoil taken from a large cutting at Woodend, to keep the line level, assisted in creating the embankments. After Awarua the line had it easy going until the upper reaches of Bluff Harbour where costly large stone causeways were constructed to take the line around the Ocean Beach neck and onto the Bluff peninsular. A quarry nearby was used for material needed. Helping with the construction, a small branch line was laid to the Mokomoko inlet jetty with coastal shipping off-loading supplies. (see below)

Controversial opening[edit]

The line opened on 5 February 1867 after delay caused by the Southland Provincial Council going bankrupt due to the high cost of building the line.

During the last phases of building, the line was blocked at Greenhills by angry contractors who were still to be paid for work done on the large causeways that carried the line down the upper Bluff harbour. The local Sheriff seized all assets on the line, a form of receivership enacted, allowing the finishing off work to continue. The situation was resolved when the Otago Provincial as well as Central Government absorbed the debts which amounted to approximately $120 million in 2010 currency.

Kew diversion[edit]

The formation and bridges that crossed the upper New River estuary continued to cause trouble with the line formation sinking and making the journey uncomfortable for travelers. It was decided to divert the line around the estuary foreshore from what is today the Crinnan St level crossing, paralleling the Bluff Highway around past the Kew Bush area and meeting up with the line at Clifton. This was completed 1872. This route would later be of benefit to the future Seaward Bush/Tokanui branch line that had its Invercargill junction points south of Clyde St station. Little remains of the harbour crossing and Invercargill Wharf due to draining and substantial land reclamation over 100 years, some bridge piles are still visible.


After the abolition of provincial government by New Zealand central government in 1870, to unify all rail systems operating in the colony, and to ease cost of construction, the national rail gauge was set at a narrow gauge of 1,067 mm (3 ft 6.0 in). The Bluff Branch was converted to this gauge in a single day, 18 December 1875. The original standard gauge locomotives retreating to the Bluff wharf and then loaded onto ships and sent to New South Wales. The rolling stock was converted for use on the new gauge.

Mokomoko Harbour Branch[edit]

During the construction phase of the Bluff Branch, contractors found that landing urgent supplies at the Invercargill wharf could prove difficult due to the worsening danger of the New River estuary silting up dangerous sand bars. Contractors were having a difficult time building over and around the upper reaches of the estuary and getting equipment into the area proved troublesome. At the mouth of the estuary was the moderately deep and weather sheltered entry to the Mokomoko inlet. A Jetty already existed at the eastern side of the inlet entrance for the local settlers and at one point was promoted as an alternative to both Campbelltown and Invercargill's port ambitions. It was decided to lay a spur line off the still incomplete Bluff mainline to the jetty which consisted of a large curve that required deep drains on each side. The junction points faced Awarua with a small flag station controlling the points.

The branch was only ever useful as a supply line and few passengers were carried, mainly from the small coastal steamers that would land at the jetty instead of risking the voyage up to Invercargill. When the new wharf at Bluff Harbour opened, the Mokomoko jetty fell into disuse. The railway remained until change of gauge day on 18 December 1875 when it was decided to close the line instead of re-gauging it. The rails were taken up and used elsewhere.

Thanks to the well built drain canals on each side of the formation, the original route is still visible and easily traced on Google Earth as a large curve leading to the old jetty, in which piles still remain.


Bluff established itself as the port of Southland and the line has always been busy with both inbound and outbound freight. Major railway facilities were built around the original Town wharf site with most servicing equipment moving to the new and substantial Island Harbour port built in 1956. When containerisation was introduced and freight transportation trends changed, Bluff was not selected to be developed as a container port, but it and the railway have remained busy with traffic such as frozen meat, wool, and wood chips. In more recent years a degree of containerisation has taken place with the port investing in mobile crane and straddler facilities, rail playing a predominant role in moving containers from the large private container distribution centre located at Clifton. In 2016 a new port owned multimodal distribution centre was completed on an unused area of the Invercargill railway yards next to the Bluff Line entrance. The port company favouring rail as it's wharf to centre transportation solution.


As with all colonial transport facilities over time, Bluff station started with a rudimentary class 5 station until growing into an impressive two story Gordon Troup designed edifice befitting of the southernmost railway station in the British empire. For many years, passenger traffic on the line was heavy, with 12,000 fares travelling in a single day to a regatta in Bluff on 1 January 1900. However, the development of modern road networks and private cars caused passenger numbers to decline. The 1950 public timetable showed seven weekday services each way, with an eighth on Fridays; five on Saturdays; and one on Sundays. This declined starkly over the following years, and by 1964, only one passenger train ran each way on weekdays and none at weekends. The remaining service was operated for school children, running from Bluff to Invercargill in the morning and returning in the late afternoon. In 1967, all services were cancelled. The impressive station was rundown and used as surplus storage until a fire damaged it in 1970, promptly demolished after. Passenger trains briefly returned when the Kingston Flyer operated some services to Bluff between 1979 and 1982.


Steam Locomotives used on the line were mainly restricted to the lightweight U and Q class along with smaller tank locomotives such as Wa, Wf, F and D classes. The reason being the only turning facilities at Bluff was the "Wye" layout that was part of the wharf's lighter rail access bridges. Only the tank locomotives could use the wharf trackage and they were assisted by a capstan winch system that could pull wagons into position under ship's cranes, Bluff town wharf never having cranes. The small shunters would also assist with handling rakes of wagons to and from the Ocean Beach freezing works.

Locomotives were serviced at a modest two road depot located at the northern end of the station yard although, apart from the wharf shunters, only one mainline locomotive remained overnight to head the first early 5 am mixed train to Invercargill.

Island Harbour[edit]

In the early 1950s, New Zealand was basking in a large economic boom period and modernization around the country was taking place. Southland was at the forefront of a major agricultural export boom and the now aging town wharf simply couldn't cope with the heavy demands of rail traffic and busy shipping causing it.

The Harbour Board decided to build and island harbour facility that could handle the then latest bulk meat loading methods. This new island construction was begun in 1955. The island would have a substantial rail network built on it.

Station and working yards[edit]

After the construction of the Island Harbour in 1957, the larger Ab, J and Ja mainline locomotives were used as the new facility was solid ground. The junction points to the new port facility faced Invercargill to allow direct access for mainline train movements. A small signal box controlled the junction handling trains from the original town station. A new Bluff Station crew and loco depot with a turning Wye was built (instead of a turntable) on the island. This also housed the diesel powered Hunslett DSA class shunters, which also shunted the town side railyards and what was now called the Town Wharf. Mainline locomotives returned to Invercargill with the last train everyday.

The huge Ocean Beach freezing works was also shunted by the Bluff-based shunters. Frozen meat from other works around the region were also handled through the port, creating substantial rail traffic for the branch. A then unique all-weather meat loading facility allowed for trains to be shunted directly into a large five-bay shed with overhead conveyor loaders carrying frozen carcasses out of wagons and directly into the ship's hold.


When The Ocean Beach freezing works closed in 1989 and bulk shipping of frozen meat methods changed to containerization in the 1990s, most of the town side rail yards and sidings, including the old wharf rails were lifted. The last of many level crossings into wharehouse along Gore Street, Bluff's main street, were removed in 1990.

A substantial drop in rail traffic has resulted as Southland moved from sheep meat based farming to Dairy. While shipping patterns also changed with bulk commodities shipping taking over.

Minimal trackage on the town's station site remains to serve the substantial cool stores located along Gore Street. This also includes the southern tip of the KiwiRail network. Beautification work along the old railway yards has created a park like setting. The only substantial structures being the station goods shed and a re positioned wagon turntable to represent the numerous former level crossings on Gore street for lines that served shipping company warehouses still standing. Some have rails in situ at old entrances.

The Island Harbour's loco depot was closed in 1999, with all shunting and train handling controlled from Invercargill. The locomotive turning wye was taken out of use shortly after. Rail facilities were rationalized to suit log, and container handling after the all-weather meat loading facilities were decommissioned in 2000. All pier-side rail activity was ended in 2010 due to new government safety laws.

Rail access to the old Ocean Beach freezing works were pulled up in 2016 removing the level crossing over State Highway 1.

Modern locomotive power[edit]

Mainline Diesel power arrived on the Bluff branch in the mid-1960s sharing the line with steam power until 1970, when steam working ended. After a trial with the heavy DG class diesel locomotives, services were operated by DJ class locomotives after their introduction in 1968 on account of their lower axle-load due to that locomotive class's Bo-Bo-Bo wheel arrangement. The DE class heavy shunting locomotive also worked the line on lighter transfer work. Following the withdrawal of the DJ class in the late 1980s and after structural strengthening of bridges, both DBR and DC class locomotives were used. The DF and DX classes were occasional visitors with larger trains. Shunting power remained the preserve of the DSA class until the larger, twin engine, DSC class shunters arrived in 1988. In recent years the predominant motive power has been the Invercargill-based high powered DSG class shunters which also serve the large Balance Agri-Nutri phosphate works at Awarua's Wards Crossing.


In 2000 the line was downgraded to industrial shunt status to save day to day operating administration costs. One train at a time only operations are the norm south of Clifton, although the crossing loop at Wards Crossing allows for two train operation on Traffic Warrant Control.

The level crossing into the Phosphate Works at Wards Crossing is still active with regular shunting services. It is the southernmost level crossing on State Highway 1. The new inland South Port multimodal container terminal located on a portion of the Invercargill railway yard has returned considerable tonnage to the line. Regular maintenance of the line including sleeper replacement has allowed for heavier tare weight wagons to now operate over it.

Passenger excursions still are a regular feature on the line, although passenger handling facilities are non-existent and tender forward operations are necessary for steam locomotives as they are unable to be turned.

Apart from wayside stations closing, the line has needed no major reconstruction work due mainly to the legacy of its excellent, if somewhat costly, 19th century British railway construction methods.


  1. ^ "Bluff Line". Land Information New Zealand. Retrieved October 2014.  Check date values in: |access-date= (help)
  • New Zealand Railfan Magazine, Volume 1, Number 3, June 1995 ISSN 1173-2229. Howell, Chris.
  • New Zealand Railfan Magazine, Volume 18, Number 4, September 2012 ISSN 1173-2229. Morris, Karl., McNaught, Reid.
  • Churchman, Geoffrey B., and Hurst, Tony; The Railways Of New Zealand: A Journey Through History, HarperCollins Publishers (New Zealand), 1991 reprint

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]