Rail transport in New Zealand

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Rail transport in New Zealand
DL 9020 on MP4.jpg
KiwiRail DL 9020 on MetroPort train MP4 at Papakura, Auckland on 29 August 2011.
National railway KiwiRail
Infrastructure company New Zealand Railways Corporation (land)
KiwiRail (track)
Dunedin Railways
Various heritage operators
Major operators KiwiRail Scenic Journeys
Tranz Metro (part of KiwiRail)
Transdev Auckland
Dunedin Railways
Ridership 26.36m passengers per annum
13.92m Auckland commuter[1]
12.13m Wellington commuter[1]
0.31m KiwiRail Scenic[2]
Freight 17.2m tonnes (2013–12)[2]
4.49m net tonne kilometres (2012–13)[2]
System length
Total 4,128 km (2,565 mi)
Double track 252 km (157 mi)[citation needed]
Electrified 589 km (366 mi)
Freight only 2,328 km (1,447 mi)
Track gauge
Main 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in)
1067 mm 4,128 km (2,565 mi)
Main 25kV AC
25kV AC 488 km (303 mi)
1500V DC 101 km (63 mi)
No. tunnels 150
Tunnel length 80 km (50 mi)
Longest tunnel Freight Kaimai tunnel
8,879 m (29,131 ft)
Passenger Rimutaka tunnel 8,798 m (28,865 ft)
No. bridges 1787
Longest bridge Freight Rakaia river bridge 1,743 m (5,719 ft)
Passenger Waiau river bridge 700 m (2,300 ft)
Highest elevation 832 m (2,730 ft)
 at Pokaka, North Island Main Trunk
JA1271 Opapa 16Feb2003 JChristianson.jpg
New Zealand


Rail transport in New Zealand consists of a network of 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in) narrow gauge railway lines in both the North and South Islands. Rail services are focused primarily on freight, particularly bulk freight, with limited passenger services on some lines. Only Auckland and Wellington have urban rail systems, both of which are being upgraded and expanded.


The railway network was initially constructed by the provincial governments of New Zealand from 1863 onwards. New Zealand's first public railway was opened in that year at Ferrymead by the Canterbury Province. The first steam-powered railway operated between Christchurch and Ferrymead.[3]

Provincial period[edit]

The Canterbury Provincial Railways were built to the broad gauge of 1,600 mm (5 ft 3 in). On 5 February 1867, Southland Province opened a branch from Invercargill to Bluff to the international standard gauge of 1,435 mm (4 ft 8 12 in). From 1870, the central government of Sir Julius Vogel proposed infrastructure including railway development, to be funded by overseas loans of £10 million. The central government also adopted a national gauge of 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in). The first narrow-gauge line was opened on 1 January 1873 in the Otago Province, the Port Chalmers Branch under the auspices of the Dunedin and Port Chalmers Railway Company Limited. Auckland's first railway, between Auckland and Onehunga, opened in 1873. Vogel also arranged for Brogdens of England to undertake several rail construction contracts, to be built by "Brogden's Navvies" recruited in England.

Central Government control[edit]

Following the abolition of the provinces in 1876, railway lines were controlled by the central government, originally under the Public Works Department, and from 1880 under the New Zealand Railways Department. A Minister of Railways was responsible for the department, and was a member of the New Zealand Cabinet.

A few private companies built railways in New Zealand – the New Zealand Midland Railway Company, Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company, Waimea Plains Railway, and Thames Valley and Rotorua Railway Company. Only the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company, nationalised in 1908, achieved any measure of success, with the rest being purchased by the Government before completion of their intended railway lines.

The first major route was completed between Christchurch and Dunedin in 1878, later extended to Invercargill the following year. The North Island Main Trunk, linking capital city Wellington with largest city Auckland, opened in 1908 after 23 years of construction. At the network's peak in 1952, about 100 branch lines were operating. Large-scale closures of branch railway lines began in the 1960s and 1970s. The network was initially protected from road transport competition under the Transport Licensing Act 1931, but this protection was gradually eased until its total abolition in 1983, along with the deregulation of the land transport industry.

The networks of the North and South Islands were independent of one another until the introduction of the inter-island roll-on roll-off rail ferry service in 1962 by the Railways Department, now branded The Interislander.

Corporatised and private ownership[edit]

In 1982, the Railways Department was corporatised into a new entity at the same time land transport was deregulated. The Railways Department became the New Zealand Railways Corporation. The Corporation embarked on a major restructuring, laying off thousands of staff and cutting unprofitable services. In 1987 the Railways Corporation became a state-owned enterprise, required to make a profit. In 1990, the core rail operations of the Corporation were transferred to New Zealand Rail Limited, a state owned enterprise, with the Corporation retaining non-core assets which were gradually disposed of, apart from a significant land portfolio (due to Treaty of Waitangi claims) which it continued to manage. New Zealand Rail Limited was privatised in 1993, with the new owners adopting the name Tranz Rail in 1995.

During the period of private ownership of the network, Tranz Rail was widely accused of diverting rail freight to its trucks and forcing other freight off the rails. Rail freight volumes increased between 1993 and 2000 from 8.5m tonnes to 14.99m tonnes carried annually, and then gradually fell until 2003 to 13.7m tonnes.[4]

Tranz Rail was also accused of deliberately running down some lines through lack of maintenance. The Midland Line, which mostly carries coal from the West Coast to Lyttelton, was assessed to be in a safe but poor state by the LTSA government safety body in 2003, and has needed major repairs.[5]

One of the reasons often cited for these policies was the cost of using road transport to Tranz Rail was less than that of using rail, because the road infrastructure is provided as a public good, whereas the rail network was a private good.[6]

The government purchased the Auckland metropolitan rail network from Tranz Rail for $81 million in 2002. Tranz Rail retained time slots for freight trains, and the Auckland Regional Council was granted slots for it to tender the operation of suburban passenger trains. Auckland railway stations not already local council owned were transferred to Auckland Regional Transport Network Limited (ARTNL), owned by the Auckland territorial authorities, which was merged with the Auckland Regional Transport Authority (ARTA), a subsidiary of the Auckland Regional Council (ARC).

Toll and ONTRACK[edit]

Main article: Toll NZ

In 2003 shares in Tranz Rail dropped to a record low price on the New Zealand sharemarket as a result of its poor financial state. The government then considered various schemes for bailing it out in return for regaining control of the rail infrastructure. Cited reasons included a "level playing field" for freight movements on road and rail, and ensuring access to the tracks for all interested parties.[6]

Toll Holdings of Australia made a successful takeover bid for Tranz Rail, subject to an agreement to sell back the infrastructure to the government for $1. This transaction took place in July 2004, and Tranz Rail was renamed Toll NZ. The government committed $200 million of taxpayer funding on deferred maintenance and capital improvements via a new subsidiary of the New Zealand Railways Corporation, ONTRACK. ONTRACK was then to negotiate rail access fees with Toll NZ, but these negotiations eventually fell into arbitration at the start of 2008.


Main article: KiwiRail

In May 2008 the government successfully concluded negotiations for the purchase from Toll NZ of its rail and ferry assets, for $690 million from 1 July 2008.[7] The name of the new organisation created to operate services on the rail network was revealed to be KiwiRail at a handover ceremony on that day.[8]

The company has since published a 10-year turnaround plan for the rail industry, and two of KiwiRail's major customers, Mainfreight and Fonterra, are also investing heavily in rail-related infrastructure. Mainfreight has allocated $60 million for investment in new railhead depots, while Fonterra has invested $130m new rail hub complex in Hamilton and another planned for Mosgiel.[9]


New Zealand's most serious rail disaster occurred on Christmas Eve 1953, during the visit of Queen Elizabeth II, when a lahar washed away the bridge at Tangiwai. 151 lives were lost when the bridge collapsed as a Wellington-Auckland express passenger train was crossing it.


Network ownership[edit]

Ownership of the national rail network is vested in KiwiRail Holdings Limited, with rail land owned by the New Zealand Railways Corporation. KiwiRail Network, formerly ONTRACK, is a division of KiwiRail that maintains and upgrades the rail infrastructure, and is responsible for the control of the network (i.e. train control and signalling).

The primary operator is KiwiRail. KiwiRail operates freight services (KiwiRail Freight), long distance passenger services (KiwiRail Scenic Journeys), and suburban services in Wellington (under the subsidiary Tranz Metro). Other rail operating companies include Transdev Auckland, who operate suburban services in Auckland, and Taieri Gorge Railway, who operate tourist trains out of Dunedin.


The New Zealand rail network has around 4,128 kilometres (2,565 miles) of line,[10] of which about 506 kilometres (314 miles) is electrified. At the network's peak in 1953, some 5,689 kilometres (3,535 miles) of line was open.[11] There are currently 1787 bridges and 150 tunnels (totalling 80 km in length) on the rail network.

The entire network is built to the 1,067 mm (3 ft 6 in), chosen due to the need to cross mountainous terrain in the country's interior and the lower cost of construction.[12][13] Difficult terrain meant that some lines took years to complete, and has necessitated a number of complicated engineering feats, notably the Raurimu Spiral and Rimutaka Incline (the latter no longer in use).

The network has been the subject of major upgrading works on a number of occasions. The most major of these were the Tawa Flat deviation in Wellington, opened 19 June 1937; the Rimutaka deviation to the Wairarapa, 3 November 1955; and the Kaimai deviation in the Bay of Plenty, 12 September 1978. All of these involved major tunnelling works, of close to 9 kilometres (5.6 miles) each in the two latter cases. Significant infrastructure improvements were also carried out on the North Island Main Trunk in the mid-1980s, some as part of the electrification scheme.

Recent major projects include electrification of the Auckland suburban network, the City Rail Link also in Auckland, and a proposed rail link to a deep sea port at Marsden Point. As part of a major capital injection announced in 2010, a number of regional lines are under threat of closure:[14]

As part of KiwiRail's 10-year long-term plan, most new capital will be spent on locomotives, wagons and the Auckland – Wellington – Christchurch freight corridor. Decisions on regional lines will be made in 2012.[16]

Six signalling systems are used in New Zealand: automatic signalling rules (ASR), double line automatic (DLA), single line automatic (SLA), centralised traffic control (CTC), track warrant control (TWC), and station limits. Signals are of the colour light type and operate on speed signalling principals, i.e. signals tell the driver what speed they should proceed, but not necessarily the route they will take.[17] The Auckland suburban network is also equipped with European Train Control System (ETCS) Level 1 signalling and train protection.[18]

Motive power[edit]

From its inception until the 1950s, steam locomotives were the main motive power on New Zealand's railways. Two short sections of line were electrified at 1500 V DC – Arthur's Pass to Otira (electrified 1923), Christchurch to Lyttelton (1929), both which have since been decommissioned. Electrification of the Wellington suburban network at 1500 V DC began on 2 July 1938 with the Johnsonville Line, followed by the North Island Main Trunk to Paekakariki in 1940, and the Hutt Valley lines in 1953–55. The NIMT electrification was extended to Paraparaumu in 1983 and to Waikanae in 2011.

Dieselisation began in the late 1940s with shunting engines. The first mainline locomotives, the English Electric DF class, was introduced in 1954, but it wasn't until the introduction of the DA class the following year that steam began to be seriously displaced. The last steam locomotive to be built by NZR, JA 1274, was turned out in December 1956, and by 1967, steam had all but disappeared from the North Island. Steam remained in the South Island until 16 November 1971, when the last seven JA locomotives that worked the Main South Line were withdrawn from revenue service.

In 1988 25 kV AC electrification of the North Island Main Trunk (NIMT) between Palmerston North and Hamilton was commissioned. Electrification of Auckland's rail network at 25 kV AC between Swanson and Papakura began in 2010, with the first electric revenue service running between Onehunga and Britomart on 28 April 2014. By July 2015, electrification of all four lines of the Auckland suburban network between Britomart and Onehunga, Manukau, Papakura, and Swanson was completed. Since 1983 a small number of privately owned steam and diesel locomotives have been permitted to operate special trains.

The Norwegian coupling was the standard coupler used in New Zealand for non-passenger rolling stock and locomotives until recently. Alliance couplers have been progressively introduced, especially with newer rolling stock and rebuilt locomotives. Auckland's AM class and Wellington's FP/FT class "Matangi" electric multiple units use the Scharfenberg coupling.



The freight marshaling yard in Dunedin
An EF class locomotive in the Tranz Rail "bumble-bee" livery hauling container wagons on the North Island Main Trunk
DXB 5143 at Wellington Railway Station on 1 July 2008 at the launch of KiwiRail.
The Coastal Pacific service arriving at Picton.
A Veolia-operated ADL class DMU at Britomart Transport Centre, Auckland.
A Tranz Metro FP/FT class EMU at Wellington Railway Station, 9 September 2010.
A JA class locomotive on an excursion. Photo by Joseph Christianson

Freight provides the overwhelming majority of revenue traffic, largely bulk traffic, with general freight being largely restricted to containerised and palletised products. Major bulk freight includes coal, lime, steel, wood and wood products, paper pulp, milk, cars, fertiliser, grain and shipping containers.[13] Freight operations are carried out by KiwiRail.

Most freight services are geared towards export industries, with most services emphasising capacity. For example, coal services on the Midland line, headed by two DX class locomotives, generally consist of 30 coal hopper wagons with a total capacity of 1,600 tonnes. In the 2006 – 2007 financial year, 2.9 million tonnes of coal were carried by rail.[19] In the ten months to May 2009, KiwiRail moved 729 million litres of milk by rail from Oringi in the southern Hawke's Bay through Palmerston North for processing at Fonterra's Whareroa plant near Hawera, south Taranaki.[20]

The previous record for milk volumes was set in the 2000 – 2001 season when 700 million litres were moved. In 2008, 625 million litres were carried along the same route.[20]

The former rail operator Tranz Rail was accused of forcing freight onto the roads. In 2002, Tranz Rail introduced a controversial containerisation scheme that assumed that most freight would be carried in containers on unit trains made up of fixed consists of flat deck wagons. Container loading depots were constructed at the major freight terminals. As a result, the government required minimum level of freight tonnages for Toll to keep its monopoly freight rights on most lines.

Freight levels have returned to the level that they were at when the railway had a virtual monopoly, prior to 1983. In 1980 11.8 million tonnes of freight was moved by rail, in 1994 this had decreased to 9.4 million tonnes. By 1999 tonnes carried had increased to 12.9 million tonnes, slightly more than the 1975 peak.[21] In the 2006 – 2007 financial year, 13.7 million tonnes of freight were carried.[19] This equated to 3.96 million net tonne kilometres (or the amount of tonnes of traffic gained in 2008 – 2009 compared to the amount of traffic hauled in the 2006 – 2007 year) in the 2008 – 2009 financial year, about 15% of the total freight market.[22]

After the 1983 land transport deregulation there was substantial rationalisation of freight facilities; many stations and smaller yards were closed and freight train services were sped up, increased in length and made heavier, with the removal of guard's vans in 1987 and the gradual elimination of older rolling stock, particularly four-wheeled wagons.

In recent years the amount of freight moved by rail has increased substantially, and started to gain market share in non-bulk areas as well. Freight on the North Island Main Trunk line between Auckland and Palmerston North saw an increase of 39% in freight volumes between 2006 and 2007. The five daily trains on the 667 km line reduced truck volumes on the route by around 120 per day.[23] In 2008, the government proposed to spend $150m to enlarge tunnels for the bigger ISO containers now operating.[24]

A 2008 study by the Ministry of Transport predicted that by 2031 rail freight volumes would increase to 23 million tonnes per annum, or 70% on the 2006 – 2007 financial year.[19]

Long-distance passenger services[edit]

In the heyday of long-distance passenger rail in the 1950s and 1960s most provincial routes had railcar and locomotive-hauled passenger services. In 1965, 25 million passengers travelled by rail, by 1998 this had decreased to 11.7 million.[21] A number of services came to an end in the early 2000s: the Waikato Connection between Hamilton and Auckland, the Kaimai Express between Auckland and Tauranga, the Geyserland Express between Auckland and Rotorua, and the Bay Express between Wellington and Napier all ceased in 2001; the Southerner between Christchurch and Invercargill in 2002, and the Northerner night service between Auckland and Wellington in 2004.

As of 2013 there are only four long-distance routes: the Northern Explorer between Auckland and Wellington, the Capital Connection between Wellington and Palmerston North, the Coastal Pacific between Picton and Christchurch, and the TranzAlpine between Christchurch and Greymouth.

Long-distance passenger services are operated by KiwiRail Scenic Journeys, a division of KiwiRail.

Suburban passenger services[edit]

Both Auckland and Wellington have suburban passenger services. Christchurch and Dunedin formerly had suburban services, but they were withdrawn due to a lack of patronage. In both cities the respective local governments own the suburban passenger rolling stock, and contract the operation of services to private companies.

The Wellington suburban network has five lines: the Johnsonville Line, Kapiti Line, Melling Line, Hutt Valley Line and Wairarapa Line. From July 2016, Wellington's commuter rail services have been operated by Transdev Wellington.[25] Prior to Transdev, KiwiRail's Tranz Metro division had the contract.

Wellington's suburban rolling stock consists of electric multiple units, with diesel locomotive-hauled carriage trains used on the Wairarapa service as the line is not electrified beyond Upper Hutt. All of the rolling stock (except the diesel locomotives) is owned by Greater Wellington Rail Limited, a subsidiary of Greater Wellington Regional Council. Transdev Wellington contracts KiwiRail to provide and operate the required diesel locomotives.

In 1938, Wellington became the second city (after Christchurch) to have electric suburban trains, and from 1970 to 2014 was the only city with them. Despite the Wellington region having only 10.8% of the country's population,[26] 52.4% of all New Zealand passenger rail trips in 2011 were made on the Wellington commuter network.[1]

For nine years Tranz Metro also operated the suburban passenger services in Auckland - the largest city in New Zealand. However, in mid-2004 Connex (later Veolia, now Transdev) won the contract to run them – Tranz Metro did not tender. In 2013 KiwiRail's outgoing CEO Jim Quinn said KiwiRail would join the tender for the Auckland Transport suburban rail service contract when it comes up for renewal in 2016.[27]

Auckland's network consists of four lines: the Southern Line, Eastern Line, Western Line and Onehunga Line. Most trains electric multiple unit trains which began servicing the Onehunga Line on 28 April 2014 as part of the electrification of Auckland's rail network, with electric trains introduced on other lines by the end of 2015.[28]

In recent years there has been a program to build new lines (Manukau Branch line, opened April 2012), reopen old lines (Onehunga Branch, reopened September 2010) and the current project to electrify existing lines to improve the quality and frequency of services.[29] Most Auckland rolling stock is owned by Auckland Transport (AT) who fund all services.

Heritage passenger services[edit]

Four heritage rail operators - the Railway Enthusiasts Society, Steam Incorporated, Mainline Steam Trust and the Otago Excursion Train Trust, own and operate their own carriage and mainline-certified steam or diesel locomotive fleets. These groups have operated special excursion trains on the national network since 1978, and have been allowed to use suitable locomotives to haul these trains since 1983. A small number of other groups have overhauled their own locomotives for main-line use with either heritage or KiwiRail passenger carriages.[citation needed]


The New Zealand Railways Department had major workshops at Addington (Christchurch), Easttown (Wanganui), Hillside (Dunedin), Petone (Lower Hutt, near Wellington) then Hutt (Lower Hutt, near Wellington) and Newmarket then Otahuhu, (Auckland). Only Hutt and Hillside are still operating.

Heritage and museum railways[edit]

About 60 groups operate rail heritage lines or museums. Almost all are members of the Federation of Rail Organisations of New Zealand, and they include street tramways and bush tramways as well as railways. Large-scale rail preservation in New Zealand got underway in the 1960s when many steam locomotives were withdrawn and branch lines closed.

Rail museums in New Zealand usually focus on storage and displays of rolling stock with a short line of around 1 km in length on which trains are operated. This covers most of the historic rail groups in New Zealand. A smaller number of lines are operated as heritage railways, usually on a closed section of a former national network branch line. Typically these lines are longer, usually 5 km or more, and most of their activities are focused on train operations with less emphasis on display and storage.

Current operations of the heritage railway type include the Kingston Flyer, Glenbrook Vintage Railway, Bush Tramway Club, Waitara Railway Preservation Society, Weka Pass Railway, and Dunedin Railways. The Dunedin Railways, which is a Local Authority Trading Enterprise (LATE) of the Dunedin City Council, runs the Taieri Gorge Limited is 60 km in length, making it the most ambitious project of its type to date. All other lines are operated by voluntary societies. The Weka Pass Railway at 13 km is the most lengthy of these. The Bay of Islands Vintage Railway is 11 km in length, but is in poor condition; having operated its first trains through Kawakawa since operations ceased in 2000 for two weeks from 3 July 2007, the Society is now working on rehabilitating the track between Kawakawa and Opua.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c "Transport volume : Public transport volumes". New Zealand Ministry of Transport. Retrieved 10 March 2016. 
  2. ^ a b c "KiwiRail Annual Report 2014" (PDF). KiwiRail. Retrieved 7 November 2014. 
  3. ^ Stewart, W. W. (1974). When Steam was King. A. H. & A. W. Reed Ltd. p. 13. ISBN 0-589-00382-8. 
  4. ^ "New Zealand Freight Study" (PDF). Ministry of Transport. September 2008. Retrieved 10 January 2012. 
  5. ^ Land Transport Safety Authority (24 June 2004). "Rail safety report on South Island Coal Route". scoop.co.nz. Retrieved 23 January 2012. 
  6. ^ a b Sharechat.co.nz (24 April 2003). "Tranz Rail a case for public private partnership". Retrieved 6 March 2012. 
  7. ^ "Process for agreeing the purchase price for the Toll businesses" (PDF). 9 September 2008. Retrieved 9 January 2009. 
  8. ^ "Back to the future with Jim's KiwiRail". The Press. Fairfax New Zealand. 1 July 2008. Retrieved 1 July 2008. 
  9. ^ "KiwiRail survival plan is on track". The Dominion Post. 25 September 2010. Retrieved 25 September 2010. 
  10. ^ "CIA – The World Factbook – New Zealand". Retrieved 18 September 2009. 
  11. ^ "ONTRACK – Golden Age of Rail". 
  12. ^ "Our Railway Gauge", The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 2 (1 June 1928)
  13. ^ a b Churchman, Geoffrey B. & Hurst, Tony (1991). The Railways of New Zealand: A Journey Through History (reprint ed.). HarperCollins Publishers (New Zealand). 
  14. ^ Tracy Watkins (18 May 2010). "KiwiRail gets $250m initial boost". The Dominion Post. 
  15. ^ "KiwiRail to mothball Napier-Gisborne Line". KiwiRail. 2 October 2012. 
  16. ^ NZPA (23 May 2010). "Mixed reaction to KiwiRail spend". 
  17. ^ "New Zealand Signalling Overview". Hutt Valley Signals. 9 November 2013. Retrieved 6 November 2014. 
  18. ^ Dearnaley, Mathew (24 June 2014). "New trains made tardy by controls". The New Zealand Herald. Retrieved 6 November 2014. 
  19. ^ a b c "National Freight Demands Study". July 2011. Retrieved 18 July 2011. 
  20. ^ a b "Record Milk Volumes A Sign of Rail's Potential". 20 June 2009. 
  21. ^ a b "Statistics New Zealand - Long term data series - J Transport - J2 Rail - J2.1 Passengers and freight carried by rail.xls" (Excel). Retrieved 20 October 2009. 
  22. ^ "KiwiRail Express, October 2009 – Financial Report 2008 – 2009" (PDF). 
  23. ^ "Rail freight figures up". The New Zealand Herald. 17 August 2007. 
  24. ^ [1]
  25. ^ "Wellingtons trains to be run by French company Transdev after KiwiRail loses contract". The Dominion Post. 17 December 2015. Retrieved 21 January 2016. 
  26. ^ "Subnational Population Estimates: At 30 June 2016 (provisional)". Statistics New Zealand. 21 October 2016. Retrieved 21 October 2016.  For urban areas, "Subnational population estimates (UA, AU), by age and sex, at 30 June 1996, 2001, 2006-16 (2017 boundary)". Statistics New Zealand. 21 October 2016. Retrieved 21 October 2016. 
  27. ^ Mathew Dearnaley (31 August 2013). "KiwiRail on track after hard year". 
  28. ^ "'Stunning' electric trains launched - but soon face delays". New Zealand Herald. 28 April 2014. 
  29. ^ "KiwiRail awards Auckland rail electrification contract". Radio New Zealand. 14 January 2010. Retrieved 14 January 2010. 

External links[edit]