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The Midland Line
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The Midland Railway Line

The Midland Railway Line originally run from Rolleston to Stillwater, but in effect it runs from Christchurch to Hokitika.

Route Selection
The story of the construction of the Midland railway line from Springfield through the high country to Otira and the West Coast also saw daunting challenges over come by skilful engineering and back breaking labour in a harsh environment.  But unlike the road, which was built remarkably quickly, the rail link to the West Coast took over 36 years to complete, during which time the original contractors abandoned the project and then New Zealand’s largest construction company was forced to hand over the trouble-plagued job to the Public Works Department.

In 1870 Colonial Treasurer Julius Vogel announced an ambitious plan to build a network of railways to link the scattered settlements of New Zealand.  Some track had already been laid in Canterbury, and by 1878 the main trunk between Christchurch and Dunedin was completed, with a number of branch lines extending out into the plains.  In 1884 a royal commission decided that the line to Springfield should be continued up the Waimakariri Valley and over Arthur’s Pass, instead of the longer but easier route up the Hurunui Valley and over Harper Pass.

Construction Begins
In 1887 the New Zealand Midland Railway Company was contracted by the government to build a railway across to the West Coast and on to Nelson, all to be completed within 10 years.  This was quite unrealistic in view of the lack of funding and ignorance of the conditions by the company’s London directors, and it is not surprising that the venture failed within a decade.  About 120 kilometres of track was laid in Westland, but in Canterbury only the Kowai River bridge and a short stretch to Otarama at the entrance to the Waimakariri Gorge had been constructed.  After much legal argument, the Crown took over and work was resumed in 1898 by the Public Works Department. 

The next section, around the edge of the gorge and across Broken River, was described by the district engineer as ‘very rough, the mountain slope rises from the riverbed while the river runs in a fearful gorge all the way’.  In just 13 kilometres the line passes through 16 tunnels and crosses four major viaducts.  The Staircase Gully viaduct is 73 metres high, the loftiest in the South Island, and the Broken River viaduct is almost as tall.  With little in the way of machinery to relieve the labour, construction of this section was very slow and difficult.  Most of the workers, often with their wives and families, lived in tents pitched on the nearby hillsides.

Government Completion
By 1906 trains were able to run to a temporary terminus at Broken River, where coaches took over to complete the journey to the West Coast in a single day in favorable conditions. 

Although the next leg, through to Arthur’s Pass village, was comparatively easy, it took eight years to complete.  The railway was extended in gentle grades up the Slovens Steam, then skirted a series of lakes before reaching the construction settlement at Cass in 1910.  In the next four years the line was taken through a cutting into the Waimakariri Valley, across the river and up the Bealey Valley to Arthur’s Pass.  Cobb and co. coaches were now confined to taking passengers across to Otira.

The Main Divide itself now presented the last obstacle.  The original proposal was to build a complex rail system over the pass, involving a switchback and rack rail, which would have been expensive and impractical to operate, and was rejected in favour of an even more expensive tunnel.  In order to accommodate a major height difference at each end, the longest tunnel (8.5 kilometres) in the southern hemisphere at the time was designed to rise from Otira to Arthur’s Pass with a gradient of 1 in 33 – the steepest in New Zealand.

Otira Tunnel
John McLean and Sons, a highly regarded construction company, was awarded the contract to build the tunnel and began work in May 1908.  Crumbling rock, very cold working conditions, excessive water and persistent labour problems eventually proved too much and in 1912 the company was forced to ask Parliament to release it from the contract with less than half the tunnel completed.  Once again with less than half the tunnel completed.  Once again the Public Works Department took over and the job proceeded very slowly throughout the war.

During the course of the tunnel project eight men were killed in accidents, and at one stage a rock fall imprisoned 10 men, two of them for three days.  When tunneling crews from each end met in 1918 the surveyor’s centre lines were found to very by only 29 millimetres for line and 19millimetres for level – a remarkable feat of accuracy given the comparatively crude nature of their instruments.  During the next five years the tunnel was enlarged, lined in concrete and electrified before it opened for traffic.

Although steam trains were used on the rest of the line, electric locomotives took over through the tunnel because of the steep gradient, and the fact that the heaviest loads (coal) would be coming up the slope from Otira, where steam engines would present problems with smoke and furnace gases.  The six locomotives that shuttled through the tunnel were powered by a coal-fired electricity generating plant at Otira.

In August 1923, after 36 years of construction, the 63-kilometre-long Midland line between Springfield and Otira was completed.  The only railway to cross the Southern Alps, it has gained a reputation as being one of the world’s great train journeys.


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