Flashback – When Christchurch had Commuter Trains

This post first appeared on the traNZport blog and is republished with permission.

New Zealand has two metropolitan areas served by commuter rail systems; Auckland and Wellington. Wellington’s system has a long history of incremental development, including electrification over much of the network from the late 1930s onwards. It currently consists of three electrified lines and a branch served by frequent, modern EMUs, and a diesel operated service to the Wairarapa.

Auckland’s system was incredibly run-down, infrequent and barely used by the late 1980s. In 1993 its old, diesel hauled trains were replaced by more modern second-hand DMUs (from Perth) and in 2003 a new, more central, city rail terminal was opened at Britomart. This, along with other projects such as double-tracking, rebuilding decrepit stations, and the electrification of the three lines plus Onehunga branch, including brand new EMUs, has led to a massive rail revival. Now, Auckland is building an underground rail link to better serve its city centre, reduce travel times on existing lines, and increase frequency of services and capacity of the entire network.

If you drive around Christchurch you might notice, occasionally, that you cross railway lines. For example, if you travel down Lincoln Rd through Addington to the City Centre, or Riccarton Rd by Hagley Park, or turn into Harewood Rd from Papanui Rd. You may know these tracks – which head north and south of the city and towards the port at Lyttelton – are used by freight trains, with perhaps several services per day, plus the occasional long-distance train (well, there are two, mostly aimed at tourists). What you might not know about these tracks is they were once used by commuter rail services too. What follows is a bit of a high level overview of what once was. I was working on something slightly related when I saw this fantastic article on The Spinoff about Dunedin’s rail services (which Id also love to explore in more detail another time).

Suburban train timetable 1965

A bit of background – rail transport in Christchurch

Local rail services in Christchurch are as old as the railways themselves, dating back to the opening of New Zealand’s first steam railway to Ferrymead in 1863. However, after World War II local rail services declined rapidly. Christchurch was served by a mixture of ‘country’ and ‘suburban’ services that all converged at the main rail terminal on Moorhouse Ave (aka Christchurch Railway Station). The 1876 era gothic-style station was replaced by a giant, red-brick facility in 1960 (more on that below).

Country services weren’t commuter services but were instead aimed at giving people in country areas access to the city to conduct business, attend school, go shopping or visit friends or family etc. In 1950 trains operated to and from Waipara, Springfield, Little River, Southbridge, Methven and Ashburton. Christchurch was the only New Zealand city with an extensive country train system such as this. Most of these were discontinued between 1952 and 1958, with the final, a decrepit mixed service from Springfield, being discontinued in 1968.

Map of the Christchurch suburban rail network

Suburban services were aimed at commuters and ran along three lines to Burnham, Rangiora and Lyttelton. Services to Burnham didn’t amount to much, owing to the lack of development to the southwest of Christchurch at the time, but an “inverse” service (out in the morning and back into the city in the evening) for industrial workers at Sockburn, Hornby and Islington, as well as personal at the air force base and army camp along the line, remained until 1967. The Rangiora line once had several daily services, along with limited weekend services, but these were cut to two daily trains in 1958 and then one daily train from 1967. Lyttelton rail services was a different beast and during the 1950s there were over twenty services each way per day, meaning about one per hour throughout the day with extra peak services. Perhaps the most defining feature of the Lyttelton services was that they were electrified. From 1929 six Ec class electric locomotives hauled all traffic between the city and the port, including suburban services. This was New Zealand’s first electrified urban railway, fittingly installed along New Zealand’s very first railway line.

Suburban train timetable 1965

Some recent history – the last days of local rail services in Christchurch

Even in the mid-1960s, Christchurch still had a reasonable commuter rail network. During weekdays there were two services per day in each direction to Rangiora, still around 19 in each direction to Lyttelton, and the single service to Burnham. The main station on Moorhouse Ave had opened in 1960 and was truly impressive. A huge, four story red-brick building with a distinctive clock-tower at one end, it had two entrances, two concourses, a large and spacious booking hall and waiting room, a book shop, cafeteria, and hairdresser, plus more. At the business end, it had five platforms for trains; three dock platforms (two at one end facing Addington and one at the other end facing Lyttelton) and two thru platforms (essentially one long platform broken by a crossover to allow trains to overtake each other). It’s look and feel reminds you of a reasonably sized rail terminal in a North American city.

Christchurch railway station

Impressive? It certainly was. In addition to the suburban services, in the mid-1960s the station also had the aforementioned Springfield service plus the daily South Island Limited to Dunedin and Invercargill, daily railcar services to Picton, the West Coast and Dunedin, and on Friday and Sunday nights the departure of a night express to Dunedin and Invercargill.

Station 1
Christchurch railway station showing the dock platform at the end facing Lyttelton

However, by the mid-1960s Christchurch was changing rapidly and it had a negative impact on the rail system. Auto-dependent suburbs were being built miles away from the railway lines, the Christchurch Master Transportation Plan proposed a network of motorways, expressways and arterial roads criss-crossing the city, and the Lyttelton road tunnel had just opened, ending the railways monopoly on passenger transport on that route. Rail services faced competition from road transport operators, including the Midland coach line and the Christchurch Transport Board. As documents like the Christchurch Master Transportation Plan and Traffic in a New Zealand City pointed out, rail played only a minor role in bringing commuters into the city, and with the land-use planning of the time, there was no prospect of this changing.

The result of these developments were swift. Services to Burnham ended in 1967, and services to Rangiora and Lyttelton were cut about the same time. In 1970, the ageing Ec class electric locomotives were withdrawn from service and not replaced, the electric infrastructure subsequently being removed, and haulage of suburban trains, now mostly at peak only, being undertaken by Dj class diesel locomotives.  The service lasted less than two years on from this decision, ending in February 1972 (the Christchurch Transport Board route 28 replaced it and is still in service today). The remaining single weekday suburban service between Christchurch and Rangiora ended in March 1976. This left only one last local rail service, the Boat Train that linked with the inter-island ferry in Lyttelton. This service linked with morning and evening departures and arrivals of the last inter-island ferry on the run (TEV Rangatira), although the ‘Southerner’ (the replacement for the South Island Limited) operated connections for evening departures. This connection ended, along with the inter-island ferry service, in September 1976.

So, what’s left today?

Much of Christchurch’s suburban rail infrastructure remained in place for some years afterwards, but much has now decayed or been obliterated. Most suburban stations were removed during the 1970s and 80s, with a few surviving into the 90s. Rolleston station remains in use for the Tranz Alpine (though no longer an island platform) and Rangiora station remains in use for the Coastal Pacific. Papanui station is still in place as perhaps the most compete example of a suburban station in the inner city, though part of the platform is covered in as part of the café that occupies the historic station building. Lyttelton station remains in place, though the track no longer runs alongside the platform. Until recently, island platforms remained in place (without station buildings) at Hornby and Woolston, but these were recently removed. One platform is still in place at Heathcote, the remains of Addington station’s platform are still in place, but that’s practically it. The large railway station on Moorhouse Ave remained in place, servicing an ever decreasing number of long-distance rail services, until 1993 when it was replaced by a much smaller tourist focused station in Addington. Crucially, at this time, the junction of the Main South and Main North lines in Addington was reversed, so that trains approaching from the north could no longer directly access the city. The station was converted for use as a science education centre, with a new annex containing a cinema. The former platform area and station yard was converted to car parking and small commercial buildings. Following the 2011 earthquake, the station building was, sadly, demolished and replaced by more ugly light-commercial buildings (arguably destroying what could be an amazing public pace linking the city to Sydenham – but that’s another story).


The summary of remaining rail infrastructure is important as it gives an indication of the challenges facing any reintroduction of local rail services to Greater Christchurch, and that is something this story is a prelude to in a future series of posts. This is a far from exhaustive history of passenger rail in Christchurch, and I’m keen to explore it further in more detail as well as the history of rail services in other cities. In the meantime, this is an interesting story, and a reminder of what could have been. Auckland’s rail system held on just long enough to survive into an age where a major rethink in land-use and transport planning meant the legacy network could be used as a basis for transforming the city. Sadly, Christchurch’s didn’t, probably because it lacked the population to truly justify keeping it around for another decade or two. The trends of the time simply made easy meat of it. This means, over time, decisions have been made that have chipped away at the rail networks fabric, which has made any rail revival more challenging and difficult (though not necessarily impossible nor undesirable). The lesson from this story, I feel, is to look at what remains as an asset and incorporate it into future transport thinking. However, in order to do that, this kind of thinking needs to be put into action now, and the railway infrastructure in and around the city protected. This includes the corridors and suitable areas of land for stations, park and rides, etc. Too much has been lost already.

2 thoughts on “Flashback – When Christchurch had Commuter Trains

  1. Interesting Article- It would be great if a tram train or train operated from the Hornby Siding on Great South Road and ran all the way to St Martins by The Tannery. It could shuttle backward and forward as there is double track all the way. Being a tram it could drop passengers off onto the roadway at controlled intersections or adjacent.The infra structure is already there.The system would link the busy Hub at Hornby with the Tannery and provide drop offs at Addington, Annex Road Polytech. It would need to have a trailer carriage for bikes, scooters and skateboards and wheelchairs etc. the service could be extended to Ferrymead for bikers and to Halswell Junction Road for a Park and ride. Imagine going to a skatepark on the train or to The Tannery to the Pictures or even Caddyshack Golf Course.Gerald Thorner Ph 021 1291249


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