The North Island main trunk line

Page 3 – Rise and fall

Up and running

After more than two decades of surveys, engineering challenges and sheer hard work, the main trunk's first through train left Wellington on the night of 7 August 1908. This 'Parliament Special' carried politicians and other dignitaries to Auckland to meet the United States Navy's visiting Great White Fleet, which arrived in port on the 9th. The train needed 20½ hours, and several changes of locomotive, to complete the trip. In the middle section it crawled over a temporary, unballasted track that the Public Works Department had rushed through in the nick of time.

Hear about the North Island main trunk line

Listen to an excerpt from Spectrum, 1 October 2006, Radio New Zealand. See a transcript of this file.

The finished line was officially opened by Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward on 6 November. Regular express services started in mid February 1909, taking about 18 hours to complete the journey. In 1924 a new 'Night Limited' express, hauled by New Zealand Railways' celebrated AB-class 'Pacific' locomotives, cut the trip to just over 14 hours. The inter-war years were to be the golden age of main trunk passenger travel.

Despite its discomforts, most business, government and tourist travellers preferred overnight travel. It allowed them to save on accommodation and delivered them at their destination in the early morning. A 'Daylight Limited' was trialled in 1925–6 and 1929–30 but thereafter was confined to the Christmas and Easter holiday periods. At these times main trunk traffic swelled to bursting point, especially in the late 1930s.

The holiday rush

On Christmas Eve 1934, five trains carried 1800 travellers from Wellington to Auckland. In 1938 a total of eight expresses ferried more than 3000 passengers north. Easter traffic also boomed in these years, peaking on the Thursday before Easter 1939 when eight expresses ran each way between Auckland and Wellington. The New Zealand Herald described the bustle of Auckland station at Christmas 1935:

Throngs of people in the most diverse kinds of holiday attire, people laden with suitcases, bags and parcels of every conceivable shape and size, and above all children, armed with buckets and spades, toy aeroplanes, squeakers and a hundred and one other toys, all hurried or were hurried down the platforms, until it seemed that everyone in Auckland was bent on leaving the city.

A downhill spiral

Passenger numbers on the main trunk dwindled from the 1950s due to increasing competition from cars, buses and aeroplanes. After decades of running a predominantly overnight service, in the 1960s New Zealand Railways promoted the scenic attractions of daytime travel on the main trunk route. In 1963 a diesel-hauled Scenic Daylight service was introduced, followed by the daytime Blue Streak (1968) and Silver Fern (1972) railcars, which did the trip in under 11 hours. In 1991 railcars were replaced by the Overlander train.

The main trunk remained a crucial freight artery, and between 1980 and 1988 the central section between Hamilton and Palmerston North was electrified. But passenger numbers continued to fall during the 1980s and 1990s. The overnight Northerner service – the heir to the legendary Night Limited – was axed in 2004. In 2006 the daytime Overlander seemed set for the same fate. It survived, thanks in part to public protest, and passenger numbers subsequently increased. Following the repurchase of railways by the government in 2008, the future of passenger travel on the main trunk appeared somewhat more assured. In 2017 a daytime passenger service – now known as the Northern Explorer – operated three times a week in each direction between Wellington and Auckland.

How to cite this page

'Rise and fall', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/culture/main-trunk-line/rise-and-fall, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Apr-2017