Rail Land: Dunedin’s forgotten railway system, and small city urbanism in Aotearoa.
This article originally appeared in The Spinoff in November 2018.
If you live in a large city with a passenger rail network, a railway underpass will not be a remarkable sight to you. But to me, coming across such a structure in my home city, very near where I grew up, was like discovering a piece of a lost civilisation.
It was a subway tunnel underneath the motorway and railway line, to provide access to the former Green Island Railway Station, in one of Dunedin’s southern suburbs. Inside was a locked up entrance to a ramp, leading to what was once a platform and a station building. It could have been part of any railway station in Wellington or Auckland. But the idea that, in Dunedin, some organisation would contribute the engineering, the money and the concrete for a structure dedicated to public transport, was as hard to square with the city I knew, as if I had found some centuries-old pyramid.
I was there to do research for a music video based on the Dunedin rail system. I knew about trams and cable cars. Their end, in 1956, was celebrated with parades and photographs, and remembered nostalgically when I grew up in the 1990s, an era when the city rediscovered, and then enthusiastically marketed its turn of the 20th century character. But until this research, I never realised that we had suburban rail services, just as Auckland and Wellington do today, and held on to them for almost three decades after the trams, until the end of 1982.
The Dunedin I knew was one where we accepted that our diesel bus network was all there was. I knew it would be infrequent, unreliable, and depressing, and I knew that it wouldn’t get better. In a small city that hadn’t grown for a century, there was no ambition to improve public transport.
In that era, the regional council’s main promise was ‘value for money’ for its ratepayers, and of the few ratepayers I knew - most wouldn’t dream of using buses themselves. People thought buses were only there for school children and students, the poor and the disadvantaged. And if I wanted to travel to another South Island city - I either needed a car, or I had to endure the kind of bus ride where the driver may or may not decide to leave on their favourite radio station on for the 6 hours to Christchurch. You accepted the city you were given, or you moved.
I moved. I chose Auckland - a textbook public transport nightmare, but a city with constant growth, and, in the second decade of the century, constant improvement in public transport, cycling and walking amenities. I took the Western Line to my first job there, and every trip, looking at the palm-filled backyards of houses, manicured to face the road, but untamed from the train, was a wonder.
In this decade, the cities for people who care about public transport have been the largest ones. This isn’t only because of the 19th century systems that survive in the megalopolises of Melbourne or New York City, but because, in the next order of cities, constant growth has made urban revival economically and politically possible, and even necessary - and not only in public transport, but in cycling and walking amenities, and urban planning for denser city centres.
But the premise I moved to Auckland on - that, as an ‘urbanist,’ as I started to call myself, I couldn’t be fulfilled in Dunedin because of its size, was wrong. Dunedin perfected the high functioning, highly integrated city, with public transport that everyone wanted to use. It just happened in the wrong century.
In the early 20th century, New Zealanders were thoroughly linked by passenger rail. In just the South Island, the cities of Dunedin, Christchurch and Invercargill all owned on-street tram networks, and state provider New Zealand Rail added to these with heavy suburban rail, regular long distance express trains between major centres, and slower, but still regular, passenger services to a dizzying array of small towns around the Island. In Dunedin, trams ran at up to 5 minute frequencies, and fed to train stations which could take workers to and from the far suburbs of Port Chalmers and Mosgiel, or stops in between. On any given day there were at least two passenger rail services to Christchurch, and at least one to Invercargill and towns along the way.
Rail patronage peaked during The Second World War, but even before then, private vehicles had their effect. A number of branch lines to small rural towns stopped taking passengers in the 1930s, and these continued to drop off in the 50s and 60s. NZR responded to the competition from motor vehicles by building or commissioning Railcars for regional routes with smaller patronage. Railcars were smaller, faster and more economical, and seemed to stem the demise in the early 1960s. But after a large scale purchase of Fiat railcars turned out to be a maintenance disaster, NZR started to close major long distance passenger routes, and reduce capacity on others, rather than replace the troubled vehicles. A startling loss, and sign of things to come was the loss of all passenger services to the Bay of Plenty in 1967.
Rail had a mixed decade in the 70s - on the one hand it started some of its most ambitious projects: the Kaimai Tunnel, and the Silver Star - a ‘motel on wheels’ between Auckland and Wellington that remains New Zealand’s most luxurious ever travel service. It reintroduced bar service to trains, and for me, the in house art department reached a pinnacle with their psychedelic early 70s advertisements.
But on the other hand, NZR was financially struggling, and caught between two unclear roles - should it be a public good, or a cost conscious corporation? As NZR lost its government-mandated monopoly on long distance freight, more services were closed, like the Central Otago railcars in 1976, and The Blue Streak in 1977. And in the great economic restructure of the fourth Labour government NZR formally become a state-owned enterprise.
Then, in 1993, came the endgame. As any New Zealand rail enthusiast knows, our rail system was sold to a coalition of local oligarchs and foreign investors, asset stripped and decapitalised, resold, and then sold back to the government, in much degraded form, and for much more than the government had sold it for. It was an economic coup worthy of post-Soviet Union Russia.
For passenger rail, the result was that by the end of 2002, all but three long distance passenger lines were closed. Over the following decade, these become focused on, and priced for tourism, rather than public transport. On Sunday the 10th of February, 2002, Dunedin lost The Southerner to Christchurch and Invercargill. It was the last public transport rail service left in Dunedin.
The suburban lines had faltered earlier, starting in the 1960s. Bluff lost its commuter service to Invercargill in 1967, while most Christchurch services closed 1972, and the last closed in 76. But somehow, Dunedin had held on longer. Port Chalmers to Dunedin services closed in 1979, and the last Mosgiel services ran until December, 1982.
How had Dunedin’s rail system lasted so long? And lasting as long as it did - why had it then died while Auckland and Wellington held on?
It might seem obvious that as the largest city, Auckland, would have the patronage for a rail system, but in the 80s and 90s, serious moves were made to close the system, and patronage and services in Auckland were so poor that, until the last couple of years, Wellington, with 400 000 to Auckland’s 1.5 million people, had higher patronage.
Wellington survived the darkest years of rail in the best shape. The city electrified it’s rail network between the 1930s and 50s, something Auckland only finished in 2015 (Christchurch was first to electrify part of it’s rail system, but the electric lines to Lyttelton were removed in the 70s).
Wellington suburbs reach out in long, thin corridors, constrained by geography, and making it hard to build new motorways. But then, so do Dunedin suburbs. Wellington is also the seat of government, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this made a difference. While most New Zealand railways were built by individual provinces in the 19th century, 20th century decisions about them were centralised to Wellington.
But the obvious argument is that Dunedin, with less than a third the population of Wellington, was just too small to sustain a rail system, and in the car driven 1980s, maybe this was true. Otago Daily Times records show that even the final service to Mosgiel was not full, and NZR stated in articles at the time that the Dunedin suburban services were covering less than 30% of the costs to run them.
But at the same time, the process to remove the suburban system seems to have happened obliquely, and out of the control of Dunedinites. One letter to the editor in 1976 asked about rumours of suburban service cuts, and complained there had been no genuine attempt to upgrade the quality of the carriages or the experience in years. NZR rail assured the letter writer that there were no plans to cut Dunedin services, but sure enough, a couple of years later, it was holding surveys in Port Chalmers and Mosgiel. Despite the commuters and town mayors preferring trains, NZR went ahead with the buses anyway.
Part of what made this project addictive was the mystery. The vast majority of the information for this video can’t be found online, and has to be found among old newspaper articles, in the excellent displays at Toitu, or the ephemera collections at Hocken Library. The time the world was building the internet corresponded with the time New Zealand sent its railway system to the scrap yard, and most evidence of that system has never been digitised. There are groups online for people interested in rail - though they mostly cater to those who love the machinery, or to those who fly the flag for the jargon and culture of the rail industry - for a century one of our biggest employers.
I was interested in rail from an urbanist point of view. I wasn’t interested in the nostalgia of steam or varieties of diesel engines. I cared about the efficiency of moving people around. Above all, I wanted timetables - I wanted to know how long it took to ride from A to B on the rail system. At the Hocken Library, I found some answers in the form of late 60s timetables. Even though the trains travelled at slow speeds, the direct routes meant that rail would be competitive with cars, even today.
Port Chalmers to Dunedin station took 21 minutes, just faster than a bus today in light traffic. The line from Dunedin to Mosgiel tunnels its way under two large hills - Lookout Point and Chain Hills (something the motorway system would never achieve) and the speed a train can reach Mosgiel is still impressive today. The 5:10pm Mosgiel Express reached Mosgiel Station in 18 minutes, something you might just be able to do today in a car, but not at ten past five.
Looking through old rail timetables unearthed another surprise for me. The state-owned enterprise period of 1989-1993, just before NZR was sold, turned out to be the most ambitious expansion of New Zealand passenger services since the 1940s. In 1991, Passenger services were reopened to Tauranga and Rotorua, and NZR ran both a day and a night service between Auckland and Wellington. Services were more expensive than buses, but still reasonably priced, and crucially, all services stopped at a wide selection of stops, meaning the long distance trains could double for small journeys like Hamilton to Papakura or Dunedin to Palmerston.
Today, the Overlander’s successor, the Northern Explorer, runs three times a week in each direction, and stops at only seven stations in between Auckland and Wellington. Towns that were once dependant on the railway, like Taumarunui, are bypassed.
Of course, the past is not necessary better than the present. Looking at older Wellington and Auckland suburban timetables, it’s clear that, by holding on through the dark ages, those cities have come out with suburban rail systems that are better now than they’ve ever been (albeit without the incredible tram networks they once connected to).
Which is why the decision to end Dunedin’s services seems all the more tragic. Rail networks are gifts from the past to the present - they were built in an era when they were politically and economically possible to build. This may have been partly due to exploitative wages and poor health and safety. But rail is now so expensive to build now that the richest, fastest growing cities in the developed world struggle to build small upgrades, let alone new systems.
Near the old Green Island station are pieces of rusting rail track. I remember them being there when I was a child. Until the 1980s, the Dunedin railway network was all double-tracked. When suburban services were closed, the second track was removed, the iron sold, and the railway sleepers sent to demolition yards, along with much of the native timber from demolished railway stations.
My father is tradesman, and in the 1990s I’d ride with him in the truck while he landscaped sections and renovated homes using cheap railway sleepers and wood from demolition yards. Today, double tracking railway lines, and building stations and platforms along the way costs millions of dollars. But in my childhood, much of the Dunedin railway system was being sold for scrap prices.
Dunedin is a small city, without a lot of growth. I don’t live there, or Auckland any more. I live in Whanganui, an even smaller city, also with a proud history of trams and railways, but with an even bleaker modern public transport system. And yet, I consider myself an urbanist, and I want to know what that means in a smaller urban centre.
Perhaps rail has a future in this country, beyond the growth-led changes in Auckland. I understand that a train from Wellington to Auckland, an eleven hour journey, today makes no sense to anyone but a tourist when a flight takes an hour. But I think that’s no longer the point - it’s the possible journeys in between that matter - like Taumarunui to Hamilton, or Levin to Waikanae. And while the Raurimu spiral makes the Auckland to Wellington journey unavoidably slow, trains on the sections from Hamilton to Auckland and Palmerston North to Wellington, in highly populated areas, can easily beat cars at peak times.
Whanganui has reasonably priced flights to Auckland, but flying to Wellington isn’t an option. Buses take 4 and a half hours, and the service doesn’t offer the dignity to tempt anyone who owns a car. Rail to Wellington, last offered in 1977 by the ‘Blue Streak’ railcar, took 3 hours 45 from Aramoho station, had an on board refreshment service, and could pick up passengers all along the lower North Island corridor as it went, offering a quality of service that would rival today’s air travel.
Maybe one day we’ll have small, pilotless electric planes - but the beauty of rail is that it’s not just a point to point journey from, say, Napier to Wellington - in that journey, Hastings, Palmerston North, Levin, and every other stop in between gets a share. By making the most of long rail corridors, small urban centres could support each other to have dignified transport options.
Dunedin has been growing a little, and returning for this research, I can confirm the bus system is better than it was. But rail has been growing there too. The decision by Dunedin City Council to buy the railway line to Middlemarch (with The Otago Excursion Train Trust), and Dunedin station, has left it with what is now a proud tourism asset - Dunedin Railways, who service the cruise ship market in the summer, and run daily tourist trains through the Taieri Gorge year-round. And while it’s now single tracked - the lines of the old suburban system are still there, and I wonder if they could have a future beyond tourism. While Wellington and Auckland consider expensive rail options to their airports, Dunedin has a rail line that already passes its airport - an airport that is famously distant from the city, and to which the Otago Regional Council currently offers no public transport.
Are these the dreams of a tragic urbanist? So be it if they are. Given the challenges, the real mystery and wonder is that passenger rail survived at all in Aotearoa. How did Masterton, a city of 25 000, hold onto its rail services with Wellington when every other regular interurban service died? How does Palmerston North have a weekday commuter train to Wellington, when Hamilton has no such service to Auckland?
I started looking into passenger rail history to make a one-off music video. But the topic has since consumed me, and taken on a life of its own.
With the somewhat bemused help of the people I work with, I’ve created a tour called Rail Land - where every show is designed so that the audience, as well as myself, can travel to and from the show by affordable, extraordinary passenger rail.
The tour will travel on every public transport rail system that survives in New Zealand, and, because there is no public transport rail in the South Island, we’re chartering a train from Dunedin to Waitati.
The railways that still offer regular public transport on our islands are miraculous, and mysterious things. The are gifts from the past to the future, and if they didn’t exist now, they would be impossible to build from scratch. Most of them cost spare change to ride, but if it weren’t for their public service function, they might be tourism journeys that cost hundreds.
For me, celebrating rail isn’t an exercise in nostalgia. It’s a way of understanding the efficient and well-connected country that is in our potential. It’s about celebrating the railways that survived the odds to become 21st-century passenger transport assets, and those that could still become assets again.