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NZ’s Engineering Milestones: Lyttelton Rail Tunnel

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Before 1867, settlers had two options when transporting themselves between Lyttelton and Christchurch. They either had to embark on a perilous scramble over the volcanic Port Hills or take a ship across the Sumner Bar. This was a massive inconvenience to travellers and early settlers soon began thinking of ways to solve it.  

There was talk of building a tunnel through the hills among the early settlers, but it wasn’t until the 1850s that a genuine plan emerged. At first, it faced much backlash from conservative colonists who condemned the idea as unfeasible and reckless. James Fitzgerald, a former Superintendent of Canterbury was one of the leading figures in the campaign against building the tunnel. He completely dismissed the idea, seeing it as unaffordable. However, Canterbury Provincial Superintendent William Moorhouse was a great advocate and pushed for the project.

With the increased money in the city from the growth of wool exports in the 1850s, the council decided to go ahead with building New Zealand’s first railway tunnel. Moorhouse announced the decision in 1858. Two years later, work began on the project that would be the first of its kind in the region. 

There were problems very early on during the works when British contractors struck rock. They concluded the rock was far too difficult to bore through and demanded more money to continue with the project. Undeterred, Moorhouse travelled to Melbourne and hired new contractors, Holmes and Co. The contract was for £240,000 with the tunnel itself costing £195,000. Anxious to get started, Moorhouse had Edward Dobson, Canterbury’s provincial engineer open up the access cuttings at both ends of the tunnel.

Work proceeded in 1861 and miners faced rigorous conditions during construction. The tunnel was so congested that the miners struggled to breathe. Ventilation shafts had to be put in the tunnel, as well as an iron shield for the water. Due to the conditions, progress moved at a rate of only three metres a week.

There were very few injuries during construction, however there was an incident where two men died in an explosion. These problems caused delays and the public soon became impatient, so a decision was made to allow people to take a trial trip of the tunnel. On 18th November 1867, the tunnel was opened to the public to walk through. When the Lyttelton was completed on December 9th, it marked a significant moment in history for engineering. The Lyttelton Rail Tunnel was New Zealand's longest railway tunnel at the time. It was also the first tunnel in the world to be constructed through the side of an extinct volcano. The journey took seven minutes, far removed from the arduous struggle over the Bridle Path. 

The Lyttelton Rail Tunnel’s role has changed very little in the past 150 years. Every year, it carries 300,000 tonnes of logs, 1.1 million tonnes of coal and up to 800,000 containers. Although passengers no longer travel through the tunnel, it’s still a vital part of New Zealand’s transport infrastructure.

Given the challenges of drilling through hard volcanic rock, the Lyttelton Rail Tunnel was a great achievement. It changed the course of transportation in New Zealand’s southern island. It’s one of our country’s greatest engineering works.

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