1978: Not Without Tragedy, The Longest Tunnel in New Zealand Opened to Train Traffic

September 12, 1978

On New Zealand’s North Island, the Kamai Tunnel along the East Coast Main Trunk Railway was formally opened. Construction on the rail tunnel, which runs for 5.5 miles (8.9 kilometers) underneath the heavily forested Kamai Range, started in 1965 with a turning-of-the-sod ceremony officiated by New Zealand’s Works Minister Percy Allen. The key objectives for building the tunnel included reducing the rail distance between the cities of Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty region and Hamilton in Waikato region by more than 31 miles (51 kilometers) and the rail distance between Tauranga and the city of Rotorua (likewise in the Bay of Plenty region) by 62 miles (100 kilometers).

The project’s actual excavation work underground started in 1969, and it proved to be a formidable endeavor. Calamity marred construction in 1970 when a cave-in trapped a dozen workers. While eight men survived and were rescued from the collapse, the other four – Peter James Clarkson, Alfred Thomas Leighton, Donald Alexander McGregor, and James Smart – lost their lives.

After a postponement of several months following the tragedy, excavation efforts were resumed and the Kamai Tunnel was eventually completed. On the day of the tunnel’s debut in 1978, the first official train that traveled through the new structure was the Silver Fern railcar RM3. Those riding on board this train, which ran from Hamilton to Tauranga, included several railway officials and 50 schoolchildren.

En route between Hamilton and Tauranga, New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon boarded the train at the town of Matamata. The next stop for the train was just a little further away, specifically an area close by the western end of the Kamai Tunnel. A crowd had gathered at that location for the tunnel’s dedication ceremony. As part of this afternoon ceremony, Muldoon and various other public officials addressed everyone in attendance.

In addition, Muldoon unveiled two plaques affixed to a boulder near the tunnel. One of these plaques commemorated the opening of the Kamai Tunnel. The other plaque, along with paying tribute to the four men who died in the 1970 disaster, acknowledged all of those who helped build the tunnel. Muldoon, after unveiling the plaques, cut a ribbon at the tunnel and declared the new structure to be open. The train then continued its journey to Tauranga.

At the time of its opening, the Kamai Tunnel was the longest tunnel in the Southern Hemisphere. This record was broken just over a decade later by the Hex River Tunnels system in South Africa, but the Kamai Tunnel remains the longest tunnel in New Zealand.

For more information on the Kamai Tunnel, please check out https://www.nzherald.co.nz/the-country/news/article.cfm?c_id=16&objectid=12122497.

Additional information on the two plaques near the tunnel’s western end is available at https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/photo/kaimai-tunnel-disaster-memorial.

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