Lyttelton Rail Tunnel

Lyttelton Rail Tunnel

Lyttelton Rail Tunnel (1867)

Extraordinary engineering

In 1850 settlers sweated over the steep, narrow Bridle Path from Lyttelton to the swampy site of Christchurch. Heavy goods had to be unloaded at Lyttelton and put aboard small craft that were sent across the perilous Sumner bar to Ferrymead, near the mouth of the Heathcote River. Here they were unpacked again and put into wagons, pulled from late 1863 by New Zealand’s first steam locomotives, which ran to Christchurch. Ferrymead was just a stopgap; Lyttelton was the only logical deepwater port.

People talked about a tunnel almost before the Four Ships finished discharging. Action replaced talk after William Moorhouse won the provincial superintendency in 1857. ‘Railway Billy’ convinced his council to think big and build one of the longest tunnels yet contemplated (2.6 km), and the first in the world to go through the walls of an ancient volcano – to link two townships with just 3000 inhabitants. George Stephenson’s nephew, G.R. Stephenson, prepared the estimates, but when British contractors demanded more money, Moorhouse sailed to Melbourne to sign up Holmes and Co. On 17 July 1861, in appalling weather, he turned the first sod of the ‘Canterbury railway tunnel’. Being Christchurch, it was a hierarchical knees-up. While the elite banqueted in a large marquee, 1500 sodden folk rioted over the quality of the beer provided for them.

The work was arduous. Miners prepared the tunnel faces with picks and long chisels, fired gunpowder charges and then returned to load the spoil into horse­drawn wagons. The two faces crept towards each other at a rate of about 3 m a week. It was stuffy and wet – in one very bad stretch an iron shield had to be built over the miners so that they could keep working despite the water. The breakthrough was made in 1867. Night-shift workers still had three years of finishing-off ahead of them, but by December passenger trains were running.

After electric trains entered service, tunnel trips no longer included ‘smoke-filled carriages, grime and the odd cinder in the eye’. This is no carefully tended shrine to Victorian progress; it is an important part of the country’s transport infrastructure, as the hideous off-ramps that bracket the Lyttelton portal show. The old tunnel withstood the 2010/11 earthquakes and as the coal wagons and container flats rattling through the entrance show, it still links port and plain. A complementary 2-km road tunnel opened in 1964.

Further information

This site is item number 33 on the History of New Zealand in 100 Places list.



  • W.H. Scotter, A history of Port Lyttelton, Lyttelton Harbour Board, Christchurch, 1968

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