Main North Line, New Zealand

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Main North Line
Main North Line 01.JPG
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
Type regional rail
System KiwiRail
Status Operational
Locale South Island, New Zealand
Termini Addington, Christchurch
Picton, Marlborough
Stations 65 (total)
18 (operational)
Opened 1872-04-29
Operator(s) KiwiRail
Character Main Line
Line length 348.04 km
Number of tracks Single
Track gauge 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm)
Route map
Interisland Ferry
Picton Wharf
347.98 Picton
129 m Waitohi Viaduct16 m high
344.87 Elevation
341.85 Mount Pleasant
338.66 Koromiko
336.18 Para
No. 24 Tunneldaylighted
328.57 Tuamarina
293 m Wairau River
New bridge1974
325.41 Spring CreekBlenheim Freight Centre
322.83 Grovetown(Grove Town)
319.50 Blenheim
Vernon loop
50 m No. 23 Tunneldaylighted 1979
70 m No. 22 Tunneldaylighted 1981
298.00 Dashwood
Awatere River
294.40 Seddon
287.94 Blind River
284.21 Lake Grassmere(Kaparu)
281.00 Hauwai
276.82 Taimate
270.95 Ward
263.39 Mirza
164 m No. 21 Tunnel(Tar Barrel)
Waima River
256.17 Wharanui
246.92 Kekerengu
236.82 Parikawa
226.34 Clarence
Papatea loop
130 m No. 20 Tunnel
642 m No. 19 Tunnel
209 m No. 18 Tunnel
209.61 Rakautara(Aniseed)
187 m No. 17 Tunnel
123 m No. 16 Tunnel
217 m No. 15 Tunnel
201.02 Hapuku
Hapuku River
191.12 Kaikoura
Kowhai River
184.18 Kowhai
180.67 Puketa
Kahutara River
452 m No. 14 Tunnel(Rileys Hill)
116 m No. 13 Tunnel
897 m No. 12 Tunnel(Parititahi)
313 m No. 11 Tunnel(Kowhai)
100 m No. 10 Tunnel
253 m No. 9 Tunnel
154 m No. 8 Tunnel
114 m No. 7 Tunnel(Raramai Road)
126 m No. 6 Tunnel
172.28 Goose Bay
208 m No. 5 Tunnel
168.35 Oaro
188 m No. 4 Tunneldeviated
975 m No. 3 Tunnel(Amuri Bluff)
Okarahia Viaduct21 m high
51 m No. 2 Tunnel
76 m No. 1 Tunnel
157.98 Claverley
152.27 Hundalee
Conway River
143.48 Ferniehurst
Mendip Sectionformation only
133.19 Parnassus
Waiau River
129.18 Spotswood
125.92 Phoebe
119.57 Mina
113.54 Domett
105.43 Tormore
100.02 Ethelton
Hurunui River
93.15 Greta
86.09 Scargill
76.98 Spye
72.32 Omihi
Waiau BranchWeka Pass Railway
62.88 Waipara
Waipara River
58.25 Glasnevin
55.91 Greneys Road(Greeneys Road)
51.57 Amberley
49.92 Grays Road
Kowhai River
44.90 Balcairn
39.53 Sefton
32.87 Ashley
Ashley River
30.11 Rangiora
Oxford Branch
27.15 Southbrook
23.29 Flaxton
Eyreton Branch
18.93 Kaiapoi
Waimakariri River
15.22 Kainga(Stewarts Gully)
12.41 Chaneys
11.32 Belfast
8.58 Styx
5.33 Papanui
3.79 Bryndwr(Bryndwyr)
2.03 Riccarton
Addington saleyards
0.51 Christchurch (Addington)
Main South Line
Distances from Addington.

The Main North Line, sometimes referred to as part of the South Island Main Trunk Railway, is a railway line that runs north from Christchurch in New Zealand up the east coast of the South Island through Kaikoura and Blenheim to Picton. It is a major link in New Zealand's national rail network and offers a connection with roll-on roll-off ferries from Picton to Wellington. It was also the longest railway construction project in New Zealand's history, with the first stages built in the 1870s and not completed until 1945.


The first proposal for a line resembling the present day Main North Line was made in 1861. A proposal for a line linking Christchurch and Blenheim was put before the Marlborough Provincial Council in April 1861. Later that year, the national government passed the Picton Railway Act in October, approving a line from Picton to the Wairau River under the auspices of the Marlborough Provincial Council.[1] However, the political authorisation did not translate into actual construction and no work on building the line was undertaken in the 1860s. In the 1870s the Canterbury Provincial Railways began to extend their 1,600 mm (5 ft 3 in) broad gauge network north from Christchurch through Kaiapoi and Rangiora, reaching Amberley in 1876 and Waipara in 1880 - by this stage, the Canterbury network had been re-gauged to the national gauge of 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) narrow gauge and acquired by the central government. At the other end of the line, progress had been made in Marlborough, with a line opened between Blenheim and Picton. Nelson also sought a connection to the national network, possibly via an extension of the east coast main line or a branch line from it, and the first portion of the Nelson Section railway had opened in 1877.

In the 1880s, work ground to a halt as debate raged over what route to construct. An 1880 Royal Commission on the state of New Zealand's railways felt that an east coast main line would be premature, but possibly necessary in the future. Contrarily, regional actors in Canterbury, Marlborough, Nelson, and the West Coast argued passionately in favour of the proposals that best suited their interests. Canterbury slowly progressed its "Great Northern Railway" and pursued an inland route from Waipara, reaching Waikari in 1882, Medbury in 1884, and Culverden in 1886. Also in 1882, the Middle Island Railway Extension Commission ('Middle Island' then being the name for the South Island) was established to study proposals for a line northwards, including the following routes:

The Awatere River double-decker bridge, located near Seddon. The upper deck carries the railway and the lower deck carried State Highway 1 until October 2007.

Interests in Marlborough favoured the coastal proposal and began work on extending their railway south from Blenheim. Canterbury appeared indecisive on a route north; once Culverden was reached in 1886, it was treated as the terminus of the east coast main line, then after roughly 15 years of inactivity, work began on a coastal "branch" north from Waipara at the start of the 20th century. This reached Scargill in 1902, Ethelton in 1905, Domett in 1907, Cheviot in 1910 (the station was in nearby Mina), and in 1912 the line crossed the Waiau River with a 706-metre-long (2,316 ft) bridge and was opened to Parnassus. Over the next two years, work progressed from Parnassus up the Leader River valley, with roughly three kilometres of track laid, a few more kilometres of formation made, preliminary activity undertaken for a diversion of the Hookhamsnyvy Creek, and work commenced on a bridge across the Leader River. The line was envisaged to then follow a series of inland valleys (such as those of the Conway and Charwell Rivers) to Kaikoura. The outbreak of World War I led to a halt on construction and the track beyond Parnassus was removed. At the Marlborough end, the line was extended southward from Blenheim to reach Seddon in 1902 and Ward in 1911. The line reached Wharanui, 13 km (8.1 mi) south of Ward, before the onset of World War I saw construction halted.

Not all work was postponed by the war. A campaign to extend the line from Culverden to Waiau was successful and construction continued through the war, with the line opened to Waiau on 15 December 1919. This boosted the hopes of those seeking an inland route, and more work was undertaken, with 3 km of formation built for a line from Waiau to Kaikoura, but ultimately nothing came of this proposal and the terminus remained in Waiau. The 1920s saw little progress made on the Main North Line as various interest groups, governments, and expert reports contested to achieve their respective desired outcomes. At this stage, both the Leader Valley and Tophouse routes were still possibilities, but it was around this time that proposals of a route out of Parnassus in a more easterly direction than the Leader Valley began to be formulated. This became the present-day route.

In the late 1920s, construction finally recommenced on the coastal line south of Wharanui, but this soon stopped again when the Great Depression's effects began to be severely felt. Public pressure for a resumption of work was strong, and as the economy was starting to improve in 1936 the government issued orders for completion in four years. In 1939, the line beyond Parnassus was opened to Hundalee, but the outbreak of World War II created more delays and the goal of completion in four years was not achieved. Construction continued through the war, and not long after the resumption of peace the northern and southern railheads met in Kaikoura. The Main North Line from Christchurch to Picton was completed and officially opened on 15 December 1945.


A Picton-bound TranzCoastal service departing Christchurch station

For a number of decades before the connection of the northern and southern ends, the Canterbury section was operated with its terminus in Culverden, even when the coastal route reached Parnassus. The most important passenger train was the Culverden Express, with carriages for Parnassus detached at Waipara. The express was supplemented by slower mixed trains. When the Waiau Branch reached Waiau in 1919 one goods train per day between Christchurch and Culverden was added to the schedule and the passenger train operated twice daily; these services continued to Waiau thrice weekly. The section of the Main North Line between Christchurch and Rangiora also saw commuter services and trains from the Oxford Branch and Eyreton Branch.

In the mid-1920s Parnassus became the primary terminus and the carriages detached in Waipara were conveyed to Culverden. During this period the train was used for trials of the 'Midland Red' paint scheme that came to be used nationwide for passenger carriages until the 1990s.

In 1930 a Royal Commission on New Zealand's railways suggested all passenger services on the southern and northern sections be replaced by mixed trains, but this was not positively received by the public. However, on 29 January 1939 the passenger services on the Waiau line were cancelled.

When the line was completed, the Picton Express began operating between Christchurch and Picton. A decade after it commenced, the RM class 88 seater railcars were introduced to New Zealand and they were placed in service between Christchurch and Picton.

The scenic value of the route, especially through the Kaikoura area, led to the creation of the tourist-focused Coastal Pacific, an express passenger train that ran between Christchurch and Picton in 5 hours and 20 minutes. It began on 25 September 1988 and was later renamed as the TranzCoastal. In the summer of 1994/1995 this service was supplemented by the Lynx Express which ran to a faster timetable and was designed to connect with the Lynx fast ferry service in Picton. It was unsuccessful and did not operate in subsequent summers.

The TranzCoastal was suspended as a result of the major Christchurch earthquake in February 2011 and did not resume until August that year, returning to the original Coastal Pacific name. The line was closed by major slips as a result of the 2016 Kaikoura earthquake with a freight train being left stranded north of Kaikoura. The line between Picton and Spring Creek yard remained open to allow rail wagon hreight from the Interislander ferries to be transshipped to road and vice versa. The section of line from Spring Creek south to Lake Grassmere reopened on 16 January 2017.[2] Works to restore the line were completed on 8 August 2017, and limited freight services were restored on 15 September 2017. [3][4].

Branch lines[edit]

Addington Junction, the point at which the Main North Line meets the Main South Line

The Main North Line parts from the Main South Line in Christchurch. Unlike the Main South Line, few branch lines diverged from the Main North Line. The three that did were:

In 1960 work commenced on a line to link Nelson and Blenheim (see Nelson railway proposals), but a change of government led to a change in policy and this project was halted. Presently, no lines branch from the Main North Line, though the first 13 km of the Waiau Branch has been restored as the Weka Pass Railway and it retains a connection to the Main North Line in Waipara.


  1. ^ General Assembly of New Zealand, "The Picton Railway Act, 1861", Nelson Examiner and New Zealand Chronicle 20 (23 October 1861), 4.
  2. ^ "First train south to Lake Grassmere a 'milestone' for Main North Line repairs". 16 January 2017. Retrieved 16 June 2017. 
  3. ^
  4. ^ "Picton to Christchurch rail line welded together". 8 August 2017. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Churchman, Geoffrey B.: On the TranzCoastal Route: Christchurch-Picton-Wellington, Transpress NZ, 2005
  • Churchman, Geoffrey B., and Hurst, Tony; The Railways of New Zealand: A Journey Through History, HarperCollins Publishers (New Zealand), 1991 reprint
  • Leitch, David, and Scott, Brian; Exploring New Zealand's Ghost Railways, Grantham House, 1998 revised edition

External links[edit]