Lyttelton Rail Tunnel, seen here in the old Illustrated Press, opened in 1867 to join Christchurch and the port.
Imagine arriving fresh to New Zealand at Lyttelton and disembarking from a ship with all your worldly belongings, ready to start a new life in a blossoming little town called Christchurch.
You’ve travelled for months to get to your new home, but this final stage throws up one of the trickiest parts of the journey – a long, arduous scramble over the steep Bridle Path of the Port Hills or a perilous journey by small boat across the Sumner bar to Ferrymead.
The idea would be enough to put anyone off.
The tunnel under construction, with provincial engineer, Edward Dobson in his distinctive white top hat, to the right of the tunnel entrance.
But while the hills were an inconvenience for travellers, for businessmen desperate to export Canterbury’s goods to the rest of the world they were a major hindrance with the potential to cripple the market.
The region’s early settlers realised this, and almost as soon as they’d poured off the Four Ships there were murmurs of building a tunnel through the hills.
Steam engines replaced the electric locomotives on the Lyttelton line during repairs to the overhead equipment at Woolston in August 1932.
The idea was mooted in the early 1850s, but political wrangling proved a stumbling block as conservative colonists condemned it as financially reckless and an unnecessary extravagance.
Chief among the opposers was James FitzGerald, a former superintendent of Canterbury province who dismissed it as ill thought-out and unaffordable.
But his successor William Moorhouse, elected in 1857, was a great advocate.
Heavy rails on the curve at the entrance to the Lyttelton tunnel were replaced with new ones in 1933 after the weight and speed of electric locomotives caused considerable wear.
“Railway Billy” asked the council to “consider and determine the best method of securing safe and expeditious transit of our marketable productions to the place of export”, and in October 1858 a decision was made to built New Zealand’s first railway tunnel and the first in the world to pass through the side of an extinct volcano.
Work began in 1860 but the British contractors demanded more money and gave up when they hit rock.
Undeterred, Moorhouse sailed to Melbourne and recruited new contractors.
The first locomotive and train in New Zealand, at Heathcote in 1863.
The actual building work fell to Edward Dobson, Canterbury’s provincial engineer, who opened up access cuttings at each end of the tunnel.
Educated at university in London, he had studied the new Belgian railway system and brought his knowledge to New Zealand.
David Welch, an historian who has written a book about the tunnel, Port To Plains, said Dobson’s brilliance was key to its success.
Heathcote Valley rail station, signal box and the rail tunnel to Lyttelton, January 1981.
“To me, he is the real hero of it all,” he said. “We were very lucky to get such a multi-faceted engineer. He was hugely influential.
“At the time railways were pretty new – there was no railway line in New Zealand when they started building the tunnel, and it was still pretty new technology in a way.”
Work was arduous to say the least, with progress at a painstaking three metres a week.
Lyttelton railway tunnel is just as important today as it was 150 years ago, with over a million tonnes of coal being freighted through every year.
Miners attacked the face with pick and shovel, using gunpowder to bring down rock that was then carried away by horse-drawn wagon.
More rock had to be excavated than was expected, the tunnel was incredibly stuffy and ventilation shafts had to be put in to allow workers to breathe.
It was also very wet – so bad that in one stretch a cover had to be built to protect miners.
Welch said: “At one stage there was 50,000 gallons a day pouring off the rock face above them … They couldn’t get rid of the water and had to bucket it out in big wooden vats.”
Despite the conditions there were few injuries, with just two deaths during an explosion.
Eventually, on May 24, 1867, the two holes being bored from each side met and an iron rod was passed through. A few weeks later the public were able to walk the entire length of the tunnel.
The Lyttelton tunnel was officially opened for passengers on December 9, the journey taking seven minutes – a far cry from the struggle over the Bridle Path.
But the tunnel wasn’t quite finished – workers still had to shape the inside, finally completing it in 1874.
It eventually contained 1.5 million bricks and cost 195,000 pounds to build.
KiwiRail engineer Trent Ludlow said it was a “massive achievement”, given its complexity.
He said: “Strategically for Christchurch, when you look at the challenges they had in getting their goods in and out, without that tunnel it would have really restricted the growth of the city.”
The tunnel was crucial for Christchurch and the success of the Lyttelton port, carrying both goods and passengers between the two.
And its role has changed little in 150 years, trains carrying 1.1 million tonnes of coal, 300,000 tonnes of logs and up to 80,000 containers through the tunnel every year.
“For us it is a vital link for us, so good-on the forefathers for having that vision,” Peter Davie, the port company’s chief executive said.
“As the rail tunnel was established it allowed Lyttelton to develop as a deep-water port. That was the primary issue – we didn’t have a deep-water port in Canterbury.
“It really opened up the region for trading.”
Today, up to nine trains a day travel through the tunnel, all now carrying freight after the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes.