1954: A Major Breakthrough for a Railway Tunnel in New Zealand

April 20, 1954

A pivotal milestone took place in the development of the Rimutaka Tunnel, which runs through the mountain chain now called the Remutaka Range (known as the Rimutaka Range until 2017) in the southernmost region of New Zealand’s North Island. (This railway tunnel is specifically located between Maymorn, a rural section of the city of Upper Hutt, on the western side and the town of Featherston on the eastern side.) About six years after construction on the Rimutaka Tunnel had started, both halves of the planned structure came together when workers boring through it from different directions met up with each other a year ahead of schedule.

This tunnel was planned as a replacement for the railway line known as the Rimutaka Incline. Starting in 1878, the Rimutaka Incline served as the line for trains traveling over steep mountain passes in that portion of the Remutaka Range. By the 1940s, however, the steady increase in maintenance costs for the Rimutaka Incline’s aging infrastructure led government officials to examine options for a replacement.

In 1948, construction began on the Rimutaka Tunnel as a replacement that would also reduce the rail-based distance between Upper Hutt and Featherston from approximately 24 miles (38.6 kilometers) to 15 miles (24.1 kilometers). This construction was first performed directly by the New Zealand Department of Public Works (the present-day Ministry of Works and Development), which bored though 1,054 feet (321 meters) on the western end and 820 feet (250 meters) on the eastern end. In 1951, a contract for completing the Rimutaka Tunnel was let to a consortium consisting of the American civil engineering company Morrison-Knudsen and the Australia-based Downer Group.

Three days after both ends of the tunnel were joined together in 1954, a celebration was held to commemorate that achievement. (The above photo features a large number of the people attending that ceremony.) Those on hand for the festivities included Sidney George Holland, who served as prime minister of New Zealand from 1949 to 1957. He was among those who rode on the first train to travel through the entire tunnel as part of the day’s celebration.

A month later, the concrete lining for the Rimutaka Tunnel was finished. Subsequent work was carried out on the installation of approach formations, tracks, and traffic control equipment. The tunnel was officially opened on November 3, 1955 – five days after the Rimutaka Incline had been closed.   

The newly completed Rimutaka Tunnel superseded the Otira Tunnel on the South Island of New Zealand as that country’s longest railway tunnel. The Rimutaka Tunnel held that record until the opening of the Kamai Tunnel in the upper section of the North Island in 1978. The Rimutaka Tunnel remains the longest railway tunnel in New Zealand that serves scheduled passenger trains.

The Rimutaka Tunnel is part of the route for the regional commuter rail service known as the Wairarapa Connection. That route is also used extensively for transporting freight, including lumber from local pine forests.

For more information on the Rimutaka Tunnel, please check out https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rimutaka_Tunnel

A video depicting a ride through the tunnel is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOK5LhaNxLA

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