Palmerston North–Gisborne Line

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Palmerston North–
Gisborne Line
Port of Gisborne
Stanley Road
Beach Loop
Tikiwhata tunnel
Kopuawhara Viaduct
162m ×
40m high
277m ×
97m high
Ahuriri Branch
(Port of Napier)
Te Aute
280m ×
39m high
PPCS freezing works
Woodville balloon loop
Tunnel 2
Tunnel 1
Manawatu River
Palmerston North

The Palmerston North–Gisborne Line (PNGL) is a secondary main line railway in the North Island of New Zealand. It branches from the North Island Main Trunk Railway in Palmerston North and runs east through the Manawatu Gorge to Woodville, where it meets the Wairarapa Line, and then proceeds to Hastings and Napier in Hawke's Bay before following the coast north to Gisborne. Construction began in 1872, but the entire line was not completed until 1942.

In conjunction with the Moutohora Branch that ran north from Gisborne between 1900 and 1959, the line was originally intended to connect to the East Coast Main Trunk Railway, but the difficult inland section between the Taneatua Branch in the Bay of Plenty and the Moutohora Branch was never completed.

The line has been freight only since October 2001, when the Bay Express passenger train was cancelled. The northern portion of the line from Napier to Gisborne was reviewed as part of KiwiRail's turnaround plan, and was effectively mothballed north of Wairoa in early 2012 due to four significant washouts during a storm in March 2012. In October 2012 KiwiRail announced the line from Napier to Gisborne would be officially mothballed (but not closed).[1]

In October 2016 KiwiRail and the Port of Napier announced an intention to reopen the section of line between Wairoa and the port from late 2017 due to a surge in forestry log traffic.[2] In February 2018 the section was still mothballed and Minister for Regional Economic Development Shane Jones announced the allocation of $5 million from the Provincial Development Fund to reopen it for forestry trains.[3] The first train on the Napier-Wairoa line for six years ran from Napier to Eskdale on 6 June 2018 to make a ballast drop. The section was expected to reopen for log trains by December 2018, with completion taking two years.[4]


The PNGL was constructed in two distinct phases. The southern portion between Napier and Palmerston North was built between 1872 and 1891, while the northern portion from Napier to Gisborne followed at a much later date, 1912 to 1942.

Palmerston North - Napier section[edit]

Tahoraiti railway station in 1912, south of Dannevirke.
Westbound train in Manawatu Gorge, viewed from White Horse Rapids lookout, Manawatu Gorge Track

Hawke's Bay featured in Julius Vogel's "Great Public Works" scheme of 1870 to create a cohesive national transport network, and in 1871, a line south from Napier was officially authorised. Construction commenced in 1872 and the first section opened to Hastings on 13 October 1874; from Napier's railway station, it followed a coastal shingle ridge to Clive, and then turned inland. From Hastings, the line proceeded inland through the country that was initially easy but became steadily more difficult. It was thickly wooded at the time and the upper reaches and tributaries of the Manawatu River provided engineering difficulties.[5] Nonetheless, construction proceeded apace; the line was opened to Pakipaki on 1 January 1875; Te Aute on 17 February 1876; Waipawa on 28 August 1876; and the township of Waipukurau just three days after Waipawa on 1 September 1876. Takapau followed on 12 March 1877, then Kopua on 25 January 1878 for a total of 103km of railway built in six years.[6]

However, construction slowed from this stage due both to the terrain and the beginning of the Long Depression. The next section, from Kopua to Makotuku, featured two viaducts, including the 280 m long, 39 m high Ormondville viaduct, and was opened on 9 August 1880. It was nearly four years until the next section, 7km to Matamau, opened on 23 June 1884. On 1 December 1884, the major centre of Dannevirke was reached. Beyond Dannevirke, the terrain became somewhat easier and the line reached Woodville at the eastern end of the Manawatu Gorge on 22 March 1887. However, work from the Palmerston North end had not begun until 1886, and due to significant engineering troubles associated with the Manawatu Gorge, the line was not completed until 9 March 1891. Upon completion, a direct route between Napier and Wellington was established but required a change of trains in Longburn with the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company.[7] On 11 December 1897, the Wairarapa Line was completed through to Woodville and this provided a through NZR connection from Wellington to Hawke's Bay, albeit via the torturous Rimutaka Incline.[8]

Napier - Gisborne section[edit]

Due to the isolation of Gisborne, a railway link to other centres was not initially given serious consideration. However, by 1900, a Railway League had been formed to pressure the government into building two lines, one via Rotorua to Auckland and another to Napier and thus Wellington. Gisborne's first railway, the initial portion of what became the Moutohora Branch, opened to the north in 1902, but it wasn't until 1911 that a route south was approved. This was proposed to follow an inland route to the Wairoa River, which would then be followed to the town of Wairoa before proceeding along the coastline to Napier. Work began in April 1911, and the first 18 km to Ngatapa was essentially complete by December 1914. The economic impacts of World War I led to the suspension of construction beyond Ngatapa towards Waikura, and it did not recommence until 1920 after further surveying was undertaken. This work may have included some tunnelling but no trace of this exists today.[9][10]

In 1920, work began on a short isolated branch from Wairoa to the port of Waikokopu; it was completed in 1923 and was built initially to ship meat from a freezing works in Wairoa. In 1924, an engineer's report recommended this branch be incorporated as the southernmost portion of a new coastal route from Wairoa to Gisborne. The Public Works Department (PWD) accordingly abandoned the inland Ngatapa route and began work on the coastal route.[11] At this time, the route from Napier to Wairoa was also under construction. The first sod had been turned in Napier in 1912, but delays meant the line was not opened to Eskdale by the PWD until December 1922 and handed over to the New Zealand Railways Department (NZR) on 23 July 1923. The next section, to Putorino, was handed over to NZR on 6 October 1930.

At this point, construction of the line was plagued by natural disasters and a lack of government will to complete the project. The 1931 Hawke's Bay earthquake resulted in the closure of the Napier - Putorino section. Work initially continued after the earthquake, and by September, all that was required to complete the Napier to Wairoa section was one tunnel, one viaduct, and 13 km of track. Due to the toll of the earthquake and the Great Depression, the government recommended that work cease and the line be abandoned. In 1935, a new government was elected, and in early 1936, it ordered the recommencement of work. This led to the Napier - Putorino section being reopened on 17 October 1936. On 1 July 1937, the 275 m long Mohaka Viaduct was completed; at 97 m high, it is New Zealand's highest viaduct.[12] The full line from Napier to Wairoa and Waikokopu opened on 23 August 1937. Severe flooding in February 1938 forced the closure of the entire line beyond Putorino and killed 21 construction workers on the final stage between Waikokopu and Gisborne in the Kopuawhara disaster. The line was restored to operational standards by December 1938 and transferred from the PWD to NZR on 1 July 1939.[13] Work persisted through World War II and the final stage was completed in 1942. The PWD was able to operate freight trains through to Gisborne from 3 August 1942, passengers were carried from 7 September 1942, and the complete PNGL passed into NZR ownership on 1 February 1943.


Passenger services[edit]

See also: Napier Express, Endeavour (train), and Bay Express.
Napier-Wairoa Souvenir Timetable 1939

Until the completion of the line from Napier to Palmerston North, passengers were catered for solely by slow mixed trains that also conveyed goods. However, once the link with the WMR was established, the earliest incarnation of the Napier Express began operating. It first required a change of trains at Longburn, then, when the Wairarapa Line opened, it operated directly through to Wellington. However, the difficulties associated with the Rimutaka Incline meant the journey via the Wairarapa actually took over an hour longer than the west coast route of the WMR, and once the WMR's route was incorporated into the NZR network, the Napier Express was re-routed to the west coast, with the Wairarapa Mail providing a connection from Woodville with towns in the Wairarapa.[7] While the Express ran through the Wairarapa, WA class locomotives hauled a feeder service between Palmerston North and Woodville.

On 3 July 1939, NZR RM class Standard railcars began operating a service between Napier and Wairoa, and when the line to Gisborne was completed, the Gisborne Express was introduced on 7 September 1942, running from Wellington through to Gisborne.[12] This service typically operated twice-weekly except for holiday periods when it was more frequent, but it ceased to operate in 1955 and was replaced by more efficient railcars except for occasional reinstatement during holiday periods to cater for heavy loads.[14] By this time, railcars had already replaced the Napier Express; in 1954, the daily express was replaced by twice daily services run initially by Standard railcars and then by 88 seaters. This markedly quickened the journey from Napier to Wellington from 7 hours to 5.5 hours. The railcars entered into service to Gisborne on 1 August 1955 and also ran twice daily; one return service terminated in Napier while one went through to Wellington.

In 1968 and 1971, cuts were made to the services as the railcars wore out, and on 6 November 1972, they were cancelled entirely on the Wellington to Napier run and replaced by the Endeavour, which was modelled on the successful Southerner. Railcars survived on the run through to Gisborne until 30 May 1976, when they were replaced by an extension of the Endeavour. It ran once daily in each direction, but its quality gradually declined during the 1980s as rolling stock was reallocated to other trains; this included the removal of a buffet car, necessitating lengthy refreshment stops in Napier and Palmerston North. On 8 March 1988, Cyclone Bola significantly damaged the line between Napier and Gisborne, resulting in the truncation of the Endeavour to Napier. Passenger services never ran beyond Napier in regular service again.[7][12]

On 11 December 1989, the Endeavour was replaced by the Bay Express. This train restored the standards of the original 1972 Endeavour, and it operated throughout the 1990s. However, declining patronage and an unwillingness on the part of Tranz Scenic to replace the decades-old rolling stock meant that the Bay Express was cancelled from 7 October 2001. Since this time, the PNGL has been entirely freight only. To augment the expresses and railcars, numerous other mixed trains and local passenger services also once operated on the PNGL between various destinations, including intermediate termini such as Waipukurau, but these had all ceased by the 1960s.[15]


DC4398 shunts milk tanks from Palmerston North at Oringi, 2008.

In the earliest years of the line, the emphasis was on local freight, primarily agricultural products. As land was cleared for farming, timber also constituted a significant commodity. By the late 20th century, the emphasis had dramatically changed to long-distance bulk freight. This includes frozen meat, canned foods, Fonterra products from their Oringi plant, and fertiliser traffic from near Gisborne. Freight is also conveyed to the Port of Napier; it is located near the PNGL and accessed via the short Ahuriri Branch.[16] Presently, two trains each way operate weekdays between Palmerston North and Napier, with a third service one or both ways operating if required. A service previously existed direct between Wellington and Napier using the Wairarapa line from Woodville, but this has been discontinued.

The line also sees services between Oringi and Palmerston North hauling milk wagons that then form part of the consists to Fonterra's Whareroa plant near Hawera on the MNPL. The number of services depends on the time of year, but at peak is usually two each way per day. The Palmerston North to Woodville section of the PNGL is also utilised for two daily trains between Palmerston North and Pahiatua in the northern Wairarapa, and two shunts operate between Napier and Hastings, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

Tunnels Nos. 3,4,5 near Woodville at the east end of the Manawatu Gorge were "daylighted" or opened out in May–November 2008 to allow the use of "hi-cube" containers on the line. The work was carried out by HRS, a subsidiary of Downers.[17]

Motive power[edit]

Steam locomotives operated most trains on the PNGL until the 1960s, when all passenger duties were taken by railcars and remaining trains were dieselised. The earliest motive power was provided by F class tank locomotives. J class tender locomotives were introduced for the Napier Express upon its commencement and were later augmented by N class locomotives. The Ns sometimes worked in conjunction with members of the M class, and after the acquisition of the WMR, the UD class also saw some use on the PNGL, especially on the Napier Express. The use of A class locomotives allowed timetables to be quickened in 1914; this again occurred with the introduction of the AB class in 1925 and the K and JA classes after World War II. BB class locomotives were employed on the Manawatu Gorge stretch during the 1930s.[18] On the line to Gisborne, locomotives of the AA, JB, and X classes were also employed.

Steam was fully replaced by diesel motive power in 1966, with DA class locomotives predominant. By the 1980s, the DF class had been introduced, the use of the underpowered DBR class had caused some tardy operation of the Endeavour, and the DA class was withdrawn by the latter years of the decade. DX and DC class locomotives are also regularly used on the PNGL; the damage caused by Cyclone Bola meant that when repair work was undertaken, clearances were improved and the DX class were authorised to operate to Gisborne from September 1988.[7][12]


  1. ^ "KiwiRail to mothball Napier-Gisborne Line". KiwiRail. 2 October 2012.
  2. ^ Sharpe, Marty (6 October 2016). "Napier to Wairoa rail line shaking off the mothballs to reopen next year". Stuff. Retrieved 21 November 2016.
  3. ^ "Shane Jones doles out millions to Northland Hawkes Bay and rail regeneration". Stuff (Fairfax). 23 February 2018.
  4. ^ "First train marks return of mothballed Napier to Wairoa rail line". Stuff (Fairfax). 6 June 2018.
  5. ^ Churchman & Hurst 2001, p. 143.
  6. ^ John Yonge (editor), New Zealand Railway and Tramway Atlas, 4th edition (Exeter: Quail Map Company, 1993), 13.
  7. ^ a b c d Churchman & Hurst 2001, p. 144.
  8. ^ Churchman & Hurst 2001, p. 160.
  9. ^ David Leitch and Brian Scott, Exploring New Zealand's Ghost Railways, revised edition (Wellington: Grantham House, 1998 [1995]), 23.
  10. ^ The Ngatapa Branch Tunnels Mystery
  11. ^ Churchman & Hurst 2001, p. 146.
  12. ^ a b c d Churchman & Hurst 2001, p. 147.
  13. ^ Yonge, New Zealand Railway and Tramway Atlas, 13.
  14. ^ J. D. Mahoney, Kings of the Iron Road: Steam Passenger Trains of New Zealand, 63-65.
  15. ^ Mahoney, Kings of the Iron Road, 51-2.
  16. ^ Churchman & Hurst 2001, p. 145.
  17. ^ New Zealand Local Government April 2009 pages 10-11
  18. ^ Mahoney, Kings of the Iron Road, 52, 55.

Further reading[edit]

  • Churchman, Geoffrey B; Hurst, Tony (2001) [1990, 1991]. The Railways of New Zealand: A Journey through History (Second ed.). Transpress New Zealand. ISBN 0-908876-20-3.

External links[edit]