The Lyttelton Rail Tunnel

Canterbury was being settled at a time when there was a boom in railway construction all over England. A rail tunnel between Lyttelton and Christchurch would have been seen as an answer to the problem of getting bulky luggage and goods from the port to the city. But Christchurch did not even have a railway, and a tunnel would be extremely expensive, because of the need to drill through volcanic rock.

However, with the growth in wool exports in the 1850s, and the increased money this gave the city, the Provincial Council decided to go ahead with the rail tunnel. Superintendent William Moorhouse, who had pushed for the project, announced the decision in October 1858.

The Lyttelton portal of the Lyttelton Rail Tunnel with construction workers - click for enlargement
The Lyttelton portal of the Lyttelton Rail Tunnel with construction workers

Work began in 1860, but the English contractors gave up when they struck rock. The Canterbury provincial engineer, Edward Dobson, wrote a report showing that the rock would not be a big problem, and Julius Von Haast confirmed it. The decision was made based on the work of these two men to go ahead with the tunnel. An Australian contractor was found, and his men started work on the Heathcote end of the tunnel in July 1861.

Dobson was the engineer who looked after the building of the tunnel, and his skill was shown when the two lines of the tunnel (one coming from Lyttelton, one from Heathcote) met exactly as planned on 24 May 1867, when an iron rod was passed through. In five days time it was possible for men to walk from one end of the tunnel to the other. On 10 June 1867 people made the most of the opportunity to walk through the new tunnel.

There had been a number of problems in building the tunnel. There was more hard rock to be drilled through than expected, and ways to ventilate and drain the tunnel had to be found. There were few injuries during the building of the tunnel, but two men died when explosives were not handled carefully enough.

The delays caused by these problems made the public of Christchurch impatient. The people in charge of the tunnel project decided to open the tunnel to the public before it was completely finished, and the first trial trip took place on 18 November 1867.

The Lyttelton rail tunnel was officially opened for passenger traffic on 9 December 1867, taking less than seven minutes to make the trip through the hill section of the track. It was New Zealand's first rail tunnel, and for many years the longest. It was the first tunnel in the world to be driven through the side of an extinct volcano.

By the time the tunnel opened, Christchurch had a railway. In April 1863 the Pilgrim, a broad-gauge locomotive, had arrived from Melbourne. A line was built from the wharf to Ferrymead, and on 1 December 1863, New Zealand's first passenger line opened, with the railway station built on the South Belt (later Moorhouse Avenue).

The Lyttelton tunnel was 2.4 km long, and built at a cost of 195,000 pounds.

See our page on the Lyttelton Road Tunnel.