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The Nelson Railway to Nowhere, New Zealand

Railway and old cottage, Whangamomona. Perfect timeless bucolic pastoral scene with a traditionally deserted rural cottage illuminated by warm sunshine with green field and pasture on the hillside behind, rusty railway line in foreground.

The Nelson Railway to Nowhere

An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983

The Nelson Railway to Nowhere

By Marco Stojanovik

This article is part of a cluster of historical stories that provide  mature and senior travellers (as either a couple or solo traveller) considering a small group tour of New Zealand insight into the places visited.

Since the 1860s, Nelsonians – the locals of Nelson, a city in the West Coast Tasman district of New Zealand – have had but one dream: to have trains connect them to the rest of the South Island. At one point they got close, part of a line extending 96km from the town. But, intended to run from Nelson to Inanagahua Junction, where it would meet the Main Trunk Line, it never quite made it. After 80 years, despite the people’s drive and determination, multiple unforeseeable roadblocks had slowed progress to a halt and the line was finally abandoned. What was left was a railway to nowhere.

This article explores the fascinating story of Nelson’s railroad. Much of the information from this article is drawn from Bruce Ansley’s Down South: In Search of the Great Southern Land, as well as sources linked to throughout the article. It is intended as background reading for Odyssey Traveller’s tour of New Zealand’s South Island, which focuses on the history of the European settlement of New Zealand on the South Island and their co-existence with the Maori people.

Panorama of Nelson City, reflected in the still waters of the Maitai River, New Zealand.

A Gradual Construction of the Railway

Nelsonians had begun lobbying for a railway to connect them to the rest of the South Island from as early as the 1860s before permission was finally granted in 1871. Construction began in 1873 and it seemed their dreams would come true with decent progress made by 1876, the line running for 30km to the southwest of the city, just short of Foxhill. However there suddenly it stopped, taking a pause along with a national economic recession.

When work finally resumed in 1879-80, the line was extended to Belgrove. But again, progress from here was gradual: only ten years later it reached Kahatu, now a junction where the roads to Nelson and Motueka meet. By 1906, it had been extended by rail bridge across the Motueka River to a tiny place called Tadmor, hidden in a valley squeezed between the Hope and Pinchback Ranges.

By this point, frustration had grown over the time take taken to build the railway. Thirty-three years and just 66km of track had been built from Nelson, a rate of 2 km a year. To say the construction was slow would be an understatement.

Still, they did not give up with the line extended over the next few years to places such as Kiwi, Tui, Kaka, and by 1912 to Glenhope. Just when it seemed they were on a roll, however, World War One reared its ugly head and construction was once again suspended.

Kawatiri Historic Railway Walk in Glenhope, South Island, New Zealand

It was 1920 before work began again, this time a determined effort taking the line through to Kawatiri, where the road forks today, by 1926.  The railway people built a 185m tunnel and two bridges across the Hope River and then began to prepare to join the main line at Inangahua.

Construction continued and when workers went on Christmas holidays in 1930, they held high spirits and expectations; but by early the following January all three hundred of them had been made redundant. The Great Depression had hit New Zealand and work on the railway was suspended. By this point, passenger numbers and freight volumes had decreased due to the rapid development of road freight and passenger passport, and building the railway was just not economically feasible or viable long-term any longer.

A total of 96km of track had been built, but alas ultimately it had fallen short, less than 70km from Inangahua Junction where it would connect with the main trunk line. This would be as far as Nelson’s dream went.

Closure and Protest

From 1931, the Nelson to Glenhope railway line struggled on, running at a loss for most of its life. Services were continually run down due to cost cutting, and road transport rose to be an increasingly attractive alternative. The line was thus under constant threat of closure with people urged to “use it or lose it”.

Then the inevitable came. In 1952, the government announces that the Nelson line was to be abandoned altogether, remaining open only until the completion of the major highway. In 1954, 400 people packed the last passenger service to Glenhope; and a year later freight services were also suspended with the last Nelson train arriving in September.

But the Nelsonians were not happy with this decision, taking to protests at the cathedral steps. A petition collected 12,000 signatures but, going the way of petitions generally, disappeared without effect.

Protesters turned fierce in desperation. Among them, was the young socialist, Sonja Davies, who would later go on to be a successful trade unionist and politician, tireless peace campaigner, and third winner of the newly created Order of New Zealand. Responding to a call for local women to take action, Davies joined eight others sitting on the tracks at Kiwi Station for a week to prevent the pulling up of railway lines. These women were arrested and fined for their protests, but the railway was dismantled regardless.

The Remains of the Railway

You could trace the railway through Tapawera for a long time afterwards, down the valley to Tadmor and Kawatiri. Here even today visitors can inspect a tunnel and public walkway and wander through a lonely station outpost. At Glenhope, a similarly lonely station building still stands in a paddock, once its station yard. Meanwhile, at Nelson’s Founders Park, ancient rolling stock, sections of line and old station buildings are preserved.

In 2016 the tunnel through the Spooner Range near Nelson, one of the first great projects of the railway buildings, reopened to the public. However, other than that and periodic efforts to rebuild parts of the old line, Nelson remains railway-wise disconnected from the rest of the South Island.

Kawatiri Historic Railway Walk in Glenhope, South Island, New Zealand

Small Group Tour of New Zealand’s South Island

Odyssey Traveller is pleased to introduce our new small group tour of New Zealand, focusing on the beautiful South Island. Our tour is for up to 15 people, typically mature and senior travellers joining as a couple or as solo traveller.  It is will be led by an Odyssey tour guide and joined by expert local guides who will impart their knowledge about the history, Maori culture, and landscapes of places we will visit. Our itinerary gets off the beaten track, following the east coast of the South Island through to the West coast, before returning to Christchurch.

The arrival of Europeans – mostly British settlers – in New Zealand set in motion a startling and ultimately largely successful co-existence with the Maori people that will be the focus of this small group South Island tour of New Zealand.

This particular tour has periods of free time built into the itinerary, allowing you to explore each destination at your own pace, and choose from a variety of available activities. This way, we make sure that there is something to enjoy for every kind of traveller.

Odyssey Traveller has been conducting educational tours since 1983 designed for small groups of mature and senior travellers, focusing on the history, culture, wildlife, and architecture of our destinations. Our small group tours are typically between 6 to 12 people, and are cost inclusive, encompassing accommodation, attraction entries, and transport. For more information, click here, and head to this page to make a booking.

Articles about New Zealand published by Odyssey Traveller:

For all the articles Odyssey Traveller has published for mature aged and senior travellers, click through on this link.

External articles to assist you on your visit to New Zealand:


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