First passengers traverse Lyttelton rail tunnel

9 December 1867

Lyttelton rail tunnel under construction, 1860s (Alexander Turnbull Library, MNZ-1683)

After 6½ years of construction, it took just 6½ minutes for the first trainload of passengers to speed through the 2.6- km tunnel linking the Canterbury plains to the port of Lyttelton.

Canterbury Provincial Superintendent William Moorhouse (‘Railway Billy’) had proposed this ambitious project as early as 1858. In July 1861, amid much fanfare, he ceremonially ‘turned the first sod’, but the task proved challenging. The first firm contracted to do the work withdrew. The hardness of the volcanic rock and the need to work out ways of ventilating and draining the tunnel all resulted in delays.

Provincial Engineer Edward Dobson oversaw the work, and his skill was demonstrated when the Lyttelton and Heathcote ends met perfectly in May 1867. Several weeks later, the tunnel was opened to the people of Lyttelton and Christchurch for a day, and hundreds walked its length.

Temporary rails were laid to enable the passage of the first locomotive on 18 November. The first goods train followed a week later, with passenger services beginning on 9 December. 

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