Hawke’s Bay historian Michael Fowler
THE day of the announcement that the Napier-to-Gisborne railway was to be abandoned by KiwiRail, I was driving to Gisborne.
It was a reflective journey. I was aware of the engineering effort required to build the line, and the decades of frustration, abandonments, political infighting and the lives lost. The history is long and complex.
When a Royal Commission was set up in 1880 to look at proposed railway routes throughout New Zealand, a Napier-to-Gisborne line was not recommended due to the rough terrain and limited opportunities for the Crown-owned land nearby.
Some momentum began in 1897 when an East Coast Railway League was formed, and branches in Gisborne, Wairoa and Napier began to push the government for an East Coast railway.
Gisborne, however, preferred a route to Auckland via Rotorua — to send its freight to a bigger market — and could see no purpose for a rail link to Wairoa. Napier was not overly keen itself on a line to Gisborne, fearing a loss of tourists to that region via rail. Wairoa desperately wanted a rail connection with Napier.
When Gisborne made it very clear in 1898 they preferred a rail link to Rotorua — putting the Napier line at risk — Wairoa threatened to withdraw its support from the East Coast Railway League. This was apparently enough to sway the government towards a Napier-to-Gisborne line, as The Poverty Bay Herald reported in June 1898: “The government has acceded to the clamor of a handful of people in Wairoa.”
Finally, in 1910, an Act was passed to give authorisation to build a railway from Napier to Gisborne (but opposition still existed). Two years later, on January 29, 1912, prime minister Sir Joseph Ward turned the first sod at Napier for the rail link to Wairoa. Construction on the Wairoa-to-Gisborne line began in 1919.
By 1930, after years of delays, the Napier-to-Gisborne railway had only the Mohaka Viaduct to be completed, which would be 276 metres long and 97m above the Mohaka River, and some 36kms of line from Gisborne. However, a Railways Board set up by the Forbes government in 1930 decided the Napier-to-Gisborne line would not pay “for axle grease”, and in January 1931 was ordered to stop and the line was abandoned. Over 1700 tonnes (1.55 million kgs) of steel had already been delivered for the Mohaka Viaduct. The Labour Party promised it would finish the line if elected in 1935 — and it did just that, with work recommencing on the line in 1936. On July 1, 1937 the viaduct was completed, and the Napier-to-Wairoa line opened one month later for goods trains.
Disaster struck at night on February 20, 1938 when a flash flood at Kopuawhara swept away the single men’s quarters of No 4 camp, one of the work camps along the route of the Wairoa-to-Gisborne line. Twenty men and one woman, a waitress in the cookhouse, lost their lives.
In August 1942, 30 years after Sir Joseph turned the first sod at Napier, goods trains could make the journey from Napier right through to Gisborne. Passenger traffic commenced on the line in September 1942 (passenger trains went to Wairoa from Napier in 1939).
Slips, such as the one which occurred at Wharerata in March 2012, were not uncommon on the line. The Waikokopu slip in 1955 caused the line to be closed for 10 days, and in 1957 a million tonnes of debris took out a section of 274 metres, requiring four weeks of 24-hour clearance by 19 bulldozers and 70 men.
Commercial passenger traffic stopped on the line after Cyclone Bola in 1988 — and now goods traffic, for what it appears, has stopped forever.