Rail transport in Christchurch

Rail transport in Christchurch, the largest city in the Canterbury region of New Zealand's South Island, consists of two main trunk railway lines intersecting in the suburb of Addington, carrying mainly long-haul freight traffic but also a couple of long distance tourist-oriented passenger services. These two lines are the Main North Line and Main South Line, collectively known as the South Island Main Trunk Railway. There is also a heritage line at the Ferrymead Historic Park that is operated with steam, electric, and diesel motive power hauling tourist-oriented services.

The port at Lyttelton is a significant destination for rail freight traffic, particularly for coal from the west coast transported over the Midland Line. Much of the freight transported by rail through Christchurch is not actually ultimately destined for Christchurch.


For the first century of its existence, the role of the railways in Christchurch was to connect the port at Lyttelton to the productive areas around Christchurch on the Canterbury Plains. A network of branch lines connected these areas to the Main South Line and Main North Line which provided access to the port via the Lyttelton rail tunnel, enabling farm supplies to be delivered and food crops, wool, meat, and livestock to be shipped to market. From the 1930s, rail faced increasing competition from road transport, leading to the piecemeal closure of the branch line network up to the 1960s.

Notable People

William Sefton Moorhouse (1825-1881)

William Sefton Moorhouse, Superintendent of the Canterbury Province during 1857-63 and 1866-68, was a significant advocate for the development of the railways in Christchurch. He was involved in several relevant and notable events, including the opening of both the Ferrymead Railway and the Lyttelton rail tunnel, as well as the development of the Canterbury Great Southern Railway (now the Main South Line).

Edward Dobson (1816-1908)

Edward Dobson, Provincial Engineer for the Canterbury Province during 1854-68, was responsible for designing and overseeing the construction of many important public works. He designed a system of railways for the province, and by the time he retired, the Canterbury Great Southern Railway had reached Lyttelton and advanced as far south as the Selwyn River.


Railway lines in Christchurch were at first constructed by the Canterbury Provincial Council to a gauge of RailGauge|63 due to the availability of rolling stock and motive power from Australia using this gauge, with these lines reaching as far south as Rakaia (in June 1873) and as far north as Amberley (in February 1876).

Control over the railways passed to the Colonial Government following abolition of the provinces on 1 November 1876, and all lines were subsequently re-gauged to the new national standard of RailGauge|42.

Eyreton Branch

The Eyreton Branch line was constructed at the behest of parochial interests in the town of Kaiapoi, and connected the town to farming districts to the west. In an attempt to make it profitable, considering its proximity to the Oxford Branch, it was connected to the Oxford Branch and effectively served as a shortcut for local traffic between Oxford and Christchurch until the connection with the Oxford Branch was closed in 1931. It was closed beyond Wetheral in 1954 (where it served a flour mill) and closed completely in 1965.

Ferrymead Railway

The first railway to open in Christchurch was the Ferrymead railway, linking the province's main port at the small settlement of Ferrymead with Christchurch, over a distance of 7 km. With the opening of the Lyttelton rail tunnel in 1867 and subsequent rise of Lyttelton as the region's port, Ferrymead lost its importance and the railway was thus closed, having outlived its usefulness. The Ferrymead Railway holds the distinction of being the first public railway in New Zealand to both open and close.

Little River Branch

The Little River Branch, connecting with the Southbridge Branch at Lincoln Junction, was originally intended to reach Akaroa but only made it as far as Little River. It was built to access one of only two major stands of timber at the time.

Main North Line

The Main North Line was built to serve many purposes: to provide suburban passenger services to Christchurch; transport rural settlers and their produce from agricultural areas to the north of Christchurch; and eventually provide a link to the areas of Marlborough, Nelson and the West Coast. For many years debate raged as to the best route for the railway to connect with Marlborough, with two lines extending north from Waipara. Eventually the coastal route was chosen and the Cheviot Branch (which actually terminated in Parnassus) was extended north to meet the line from Picton at Kaikoura in 1945 while the Waiau Branch's importance declined.

Main South Line

The Main South Line was constructed to link the port at Lyttelton to Christchurch and to agricultural areas in the Selwyn District. Construction work ceased while work on the Lyttelton tunnel proceeded, and did not restart until the central government became involved. Once under central government control, the line was deemed a high-priority public work and construction re-commenced on extending the line south towards Dunedin.

Oxford Branch

The Oxford Branch line was constructed to connect the town of Rangiora to agricultural areas to the west. The line originally connected with the Midland Line at Sheffield (Malvern) and was intended to have been the northern section of a proposed Canterbury Interior Line. The section between Sheffield and Oxford closed in 1930, with the remainder closed in 1959.

Riccarton Racecourse Branch

This privately owned, 1.4 km long branch line left the Main South Line just west of Sockburn Railway Station by curving north, then near the racecourse curved to the west to terminate near the racecourse entrance. It was constructed by the Canterbury Jockey Club to boost attendance at their race meetings, and operated from 1877 to 1954.

Southbridge Branch

The Southbridge Branch was originally built to connect rich grain producing areas on the southern Canterbury Plains with Christchurch and connected with the Main South Line in Christchurch at Hornby. Now, only a small portion of the line remains to serve industrial interests in the Hornby / Sockburn area of Christchurch and is known as the Hornby Industrial Line.


Up to the 1950s, much of the freight traffic in Canterbury involved services between rural areas and the major centres and ports. Manufactured imports were distributed mainly from Christchurch and Dunedin, with agricultural produce exported from Port Chalmers, Oamaru, Timaru and Lyttelton. The South Island Main Trunk connected the major centres to the branch lines rather than handling long-haul traffic. Since the 1950s, with the decline in the branch line network, the role of the South Island Main Trunk has changed with it now handling predominantly long-haul freight, a change brought about in part by the containerisation of freight handling and the inter-island ferries.

Since the opening of the Ferrymead Railway, suburban and regional passenger services had operated in Christchurch to various termini, including Ferrymead, Lyttelton, Rolleston, Burnham, Whitecliffs, Springfield, Little River, Southbridge, Rangiora, and Ashburton. Some of these services were of the country mixed train variety, where passenger carriages were attached to freight trains, and these generally operated where passenger only trains could not be justified given the patronage. Such trains were operated out of Christchurch to destinations including Little River, Southbridge and Springfield. The services from Christchurch out to Lyttelton, Rangiora, and Ashburton were operated with locomotive-hauled passenger only trains. From 1926 to 1934, an Edison battery-electric railcar operated passenger services between Christchurch and Little River. Occasional special or excursion trains operated out of Christchurch to take passengers to picnics, race meetings or other social functions.

As the South Island rail network was gradually extended and eventually completed, various long-distance passenger services were introduced and replaced. Early long-distance services out of Christchurch included the Culverden Express; the South Express', a Christchurch – Invercargill service inaugurated following the completion of the Main South Line; and the West Coast Express, which connected Christchurch to the West Coast of the South Island. Some of these services were later replaced with railcars as steam was phased out; others with new services which, it was hoped, would revitalise the flagging fortunes of those routes. Such was the case with the South Express', which were replaced with the prestigious South Island Limited in 1949, and later the Southerner in 1970. The Picton Express was introduced in 1945 upon completion of the Main North Line and, following a period during which railcars ran on this route, was eventually superseded by the Coastal Pacific (now TranzCoastal). The West Coast Express' were likewise, following a replacement railcar service, superseded by the TranzAlpine. Today, the TranzCoastal and the TranzAlpine are the only passenger trains to depart from Christchurch.

Following the success of the electrification of the section of the Midland Line between Arthur’s Pass and Otira, it was decided in 1925 to introduce electrification in Christchurch on the line to Lyttelton. On 14 February 1929, the electrified line was opened using a 1.5 kV DC system, with an electrical substation at Woolston. This was originally intended to be the first stage of a larger plan for Christchurch passenger services. Six new EC class electric locomotives operated passenger services between Christchurch and Lyttelton, until reaching the end of their working lives in 1970, with the last electric train service running on 19 September 1970. With the withdrawal from service of the EC locomotives, the electrification was removed as the cost of purchasing replacement locomotives and maintaining the electric infrastructure could not be justified. The Electric Traction Group based at the Ferrymead Historic Park has preserved and returned to operational status locomotive EC 7.

Suburban passenger services in Christchurch were eventually cancelled due to lack of patronage. By 1951, the country mixed trains to Little River and Southbridge had disappeared, with the Ashburton passenger-only service following in 1958cite book |last=Mahoney |first=J. D. |authorlink= |coauthors= |editor= |others= |title=Down At The Station: A Study of the New Zealand Railway Station |origdate= |origyear= |origmonth= |url= |format= |accessdate= |accessyear= |accessmonth= |edition= |series= |date= |year=1987 |month= |publisher=The Dunmore Press Limited |location=Palmerston North |language= |isbn=0 86469 060 6 |oclc= |doi= |id= |pages=112 |chapter=7: The Main City Stations |chapterurl= |quote=... the city orientated branch trains from Little River and Southbridge were quite unique. They disappeared in 1951. The most important country service, the Ashburton Passenger, gave up in 1958, ... ] and the last run of a country mixed train to Springfield in June 1968.cite book |last=Mahoney |first=J. D. |authorlink= |coauthors= |editor= |others= |title=Down At The Station: A Study of the New Zealand Railway Station |origdate= |origyear= |origmonth= |url= |format= |accessdate= |accessyear= |accessmonth= |edition= |series= |date= |year= |month= |publisher= |location= |language= |isbn= |oclc= |doi= |id= |pages=114 |chapter=7: The Main City Stations |chapterurl= |quote=withdrawal of the last country mixed, to Springfield, in June 1968, ... of Rangiora suburban service in April 1976, end of steamer express connection September 1976, ... ] With the opening of the Lyttelton Road Tunnel in 1964, patronage of the passenger rail services out to Lyttelton slowly declined to the point were it was remarked that the number of passengers using the trains could easily be accommodated on a bus. [cite book |last=Bromby |first=Robin |authorlink= |coauthors= |editor=Olphert, Lorraine |others= |title=Rails That Built A Nation: An Encyclopedia of New Zealand Railways |origdate= |origyear= |origmonth= |url= |format= |accessdate= |accessyear= |accessmonth= |edition= |series= |date= |year=2003 |month= |publisher=Grantham House Publishing |location=Wellington |language= |isbn=1 86934 080 9 |oclc= |doi= |id= |pages=130 |chapter=Along The Tracks |chapterurl= |quote=Towards the end of the Lyttelton suburban service passenger numbers could have been accommodated within a bus - and soon were - ... ] This soon became the case, with the Christchurch to Lyttelton services ended on 28 February 1972. The Christchurch to Rangiora services were likewise cancelled four years later on 30 April 1976, and the steamer express connections between Lyttelton and Christchurch followed soon after on 14 September 1976 (coinciding with the cancellation of the overnight Wellington - Lyttelton inter-island passenger ferries).


Railway Stations

There is only one passenger railway station in operation in Christchurch, that being the Christchurch station at the junction of the Main South Line and Main North Line in the suburb of Addington. Most of the Christchurch railway stations closed following the loss of the suburban passenger services, though a few have remained as freight-only hubs in industrial areas. Some buildings and other amenities from closed stations remain, most notably the station buildings for the second Christchurch station, Lyttelton station and Papanui station are still in situ. Of most of the closed stations, no obvious signs remain.

Addington Railway Workshops

The Addington Railway Workshops were a major New Zealand Railways facility for the manufacture and maintenance of rolling stock. Opened in 1880, they continued to serve until deemed surplus to requirements and closed in 1990. Today, the Tower Junction Shopping Centre and Christchurch railway station occupy the site, though the original water tower used by the workshops in the days of steam remains in situ.


Freight is the mainstay of rail traffic in Christchurch, with no suburban passenger services and two long-distance passenger services. Rail freight handling has been centralised at the Middleton freight terminal which opened in 1998. Industrial areas in Sockburn and Woolston also serve as rail freight hubs. Prior to the opening of the Middleton freight terminal, freight was shunted between several sites along the Main South Line through Christchurch.

Opportunities for providing inter-modal services are being considered at expanding industrial areas in Islington, Rolleston and Southbrook, with possibilities also being considered in the Marsh/Shands and Chaneys areas.

According to Environment Canterbury, Christchurch geography and public transport usage patterns mean that public transport is currently best served with a bus based system. However, in anticipation of future growth, they are intending to consider other transport modes with preliminary investigations due in 2008. Other transport modes to be investigated, such as heavy rail or new light rail systems, are expected to meet several performance criteria before they can be considered as options for future public transport requirements.

Two long-distance passenger services operate from Christchurch: the TranzAlpine to Greymouth and the TranzCoastal to Picton. These services operate from the only passenger railway station in Christchurch with departures each morning, returning in the evening. Occasional steam-hauled excursion trains run from or through Christchurch operated by Mainline Steam.

The purchase of the rail operations division of Toll NZ by the New Zealand Government has revived hope of the return of a commuter rail service to Christchurch, linking the city to satellite towns such as Lyttelton, Rangiora and Rolleston on the existing track network. [cite news |first=CHARLIE |last=GATES |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Commuter rail network mayor's goal |url=http://www.stuff.co.nz/thepress/4513480a6009.html |work=The Press |publisher=Fairfax New Zealand |date=2008-05-07 |accessdate=2008-05-07 ]


In August 2005, a small-scale study involving three focus groups was conducted to gauge public interest in commuter rail for Christchurch. The study concluded that there was interest in the idea if service expectations could be met. An Environment Canterbury commissioned discussion paper (Sinclair Knight Merz: The Future of Public Transport in Christchurch Discussion Paper, June 2004) concluded that priority should be given to bus-based public transport, but that future planning should include provision for other public transport options. A report commissioned in 2005 by Environment Canterbury from consultants GHD Limited (Network Level Investigative Report - Proposed Introduction of Commuter Rail Services to Christchurch City and Environs, June 2005) suggested that commuter rail would involve substantial costs and further investigation would be needed to determine what the requirements are.

A 2007 consultation report "Christchurch Rolleston Transportation Study" found that 9% of the people who provided feedback wanted rail to have a greater role in the transport network and were concerned about the possibility of losing future options for developing rail links. One of the conclusions of the study was that rail is not a viable option for public transport within the scope of the study (until 2021) [cite conference |first= |last= |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Christchurch Rolleston Transportation Study |booktitle=Connell Wagner Limited |pages=12 |publisher=Environment Canterbury |date= |location=Christchurch |url=http://www.ecan.govt.nz/Our+Environment/Transport/Christchurch+Rolleston+Transportation+Study/ConsultationReport2007.htm |accessdate=2007-10-23 |id= ] . In December 2007, the Selwyn District Council approved the Christchurch, Rolleston and Environs Transportation Study, of which a key component is the protection of the railway corridor between Rolleston and central Christchurch for future commuter use. [Robyn Bristow, [http://www.stuff.co.nz/4310736a6530.html "$245m Revamp in Road and Rail Plan"] , "The Press" (4 December 2007).]

Pete Hodgson, as a Minister for Transport, indicated that, providing passenger rail is incorporated into the Regional Land Transport Strategy, the central government would be prepared to meet 60% of the costs of purchasing rolling stock and extending infrastructure if so required, and noted that the initiative is consistent with the National Rail Strategy. [cite conference |first= |last= |authorlink= |coauthors= |title=Greater Christchurch Urban Development Strategy and Action Plan 2007 |booktitle=Urban Development Strategy Forum |pages=156 |publisher=Greater Christchurch UDS |date= |location= |url=http://www.greaterchristchurch.org.nz/StrategyDocument/ |accessdate=2007-10-23 |id= ]

2005 report: Proposed Introduction of Commuter Rail Services to Christchurch City and Environs

Following a meeting held by Environment Canterbury in April 2005 to discuss options for passenger rail in Christchurch, engineering consultants GHD Limited were commissioned to prepare a report. The purpose of the report was to investigate the options discussed, and provide estimates of the capital and operational costs involved. Five options were included in the final report.

Option 1: Utilising the Existing Network

This option envisaged the introduction of frequent services between Lyttelton and Islington, with more limited services south to Rolleston/Darfield and north to Rangiora.

Little or no new track would be laid, though upgrades to existing track were expected. Also required would be the purchase of passenger rolling stock and the construction of new stations.

Option 2: Double Tracking and Resignalling to Belfast

As with option 1, this would involve the introduction of frequent services between Lyttelton and Islington, as well as frequent services between Belfast and Islington.

In addition to the double tracking of the Main North Line to Belfast, there would also be a need to upgrade Addington Junction, with a possible requirement to also upgrade existing track.

Option 3: Double Tracking and Resignalling to Rangiora

As with option 2, this would involve the introduction of frequent services between Lyttelton and Islington, in addition to frequent services between Rangiora and Islington. Limited services would be provided south of Islington, and an upgrade of the Rangiora station would be included to cater for commuters from Woodend.

Track works would include double tracking the Main North Line from Addington Junction to Rangiora and an upgrade of Addington Junction.

Option 4: Double Tracking and Resignalling to Rangiora and Rolleston

This would involve the introduction of frequent services between Lyttelton and Rolleston/Darfield, as well as frequent services between Rangiora and Rolleston/Darfield. Also suggested was the possibility of reopening closed branch lines to encourage the growth of, or a reduction in traffic to/from, areas such as Prebbleton (formerly on the Southbridge Branch) and Oxford (formerly on the Oxford Branch), etc.

Track works would include new layouts at Addington and Rolleston, as well as the double tracking of the Main South Line out to Rolleston and the double tracking of the Main North Line out to Rangiora.

Option 5: Double Tracking and Resignalling to Rangiora and Rolleston, plus the Construction of a Central City Underground Loop

As with option 4, but services would also be provided to a central city station via new underground tracks.

This option was regarded as unviable, and not considered for future study.

Heritage Operations

Several rail heritage organisations are based in Christchurch, most of which were established to preserve rolling stock from the steam era. The most well-known of these organisations, the Canterbury Railway Society, operates the Ferrymead Railway at the Ferrymead Heritage Park with steam, diesel, and electric motive power. It also has a large collection of stored or restored heritage rolling stock on site, as well as several rail-related facilities including a workshops and two stations.

Other rail heritage organisations in Christchurch include Canterbury Steam Preservation Society and Mainline Steam.

ee also

* Environment Canterbury
* Lyttelton Rail Tunnel
* Toll Rail, rail freight operator.
* Tranz Scenic, long-distance passenger services.


* cite conference
first = Robin
last = Dunlop
authorlink =
coauthors =
date =
year = 2005-06-30
month =
title = Annual Report 2004-2005
conference =
conferenceurl =
booktitle = House Of Representatives
editor =
others =
volume =
edition =
publisher = Ministry of Transport
location = Wellington
pages =
url = http://www.transport.govt.nz/assets/NewPDFs/annual-report-2005.pdf
format = PDF
accessdate =
doi =
id = ISSN|0085-4123

* cite conference
first =
last = Ministry of Transport
authorlink =
coauthors =
date =
year = 2005
month = May
title = National Rail Strategy
conference =
conferenceurl =
booktitle = Ministry of Transport
editor =
others =
volume =
edition =
publisher = Ministry of Transport
location = Wellington
pages =
url = http://www.transport.govt.nz/nrs-page-1-1544/
format = HTML
accessdate =
doi =
id = ISBN 0-478-10005-1


Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Rail transport in New Zealand — Infobox rail railroad name = Rail transport in New Zealand logo filename = logo size = system map caption = The current New Zealand railway network. marks = locale = NZL start year = 1863 end year = predecessor line = successor line = gauge =… …   Wikipedia

  • Public transport in Christchurch — Metro Locale New Zealand Service area Christchurch Service type Bus services Fuel type …   Wikipedia

  • 1863 in rail transport — EventsJanuary events* January 8 Ground is broken by the Central Pacific Railroad in Sacramento, California, on the western half of the First Transcontinental Railroad in North America. [cite book|author=Ambrose, Stephen E.|title=Nothing Like It… …   Wikipedia

  • 1867 in rail transport — Events May events * May 7 The Windsor and Annapolis Railway is incorporated in Nova Scotia. [cite web| url=http://www.trainweb.org/canadianrailways/articles/SignificantDatesInNSRailwayHistoryPart2.html| title=Significant Dates in Nova Scotia s… …   Wikipedia

  • Christchurch Railway Station — For the railway station in Dorset, England, see Christchurch railway station. Christchurch Tranz Scenic Heavy rail …   Wikipedia

  • Christchurch tramway system — A Christchurch Tramway tram, Worcester Street (March 2005) Operation Loca …   Wikipedia

  • Transport in New Zealand — Transport in New Zealand, with its mountainous topography and relatively small population mostly located on a long coastline, has always faced many challenges. Before Europeans arrived, Māori either walked or used watercraft on rivers or along… …   Wikipedia

  • Christchurch tramway routes — have developed from lines that were first established by a troika of private tramway companies in the latter part of the 19th century, through to a significantly expanded system under the municipal Christchurch Tramway Board, to the City Council… …   Wikipedia

  • Transport 21 — is an Irish infrastructure plan, announced on 1 November 2005 in Dublin Castle by the then Irish Minister for Transport Martin Cullen. [ [http://www.rte.ie/news/2005/1101/transport.html RTÉ News: National transport plan to cost €34bn ] ] It aims… …   Wikipedia

  • Christchurch trolleybus turntable — The turntable on 5 April 1969, shortly before its closure …   Wikipedia

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.