Early New Plymouth was isolated. It didn't have a safe port and the few roads were rough and often impassable in winter. The province relied on bullock drawn drays to shift heavy loads. To travel anywhere took time and effort.

A railway was suggested as early as 1864, but the Taranaki Wars put everything on hold for several years. It was rather fortuitous then, to have the Prime Minister himself underline the need for a more direct and reliable land route. In January 1871 William Fox travelled to New Plymouth in the first Cobb Coach to enter the town. The horse-drawn coaches were rough and uncomfortable transport.

The coach left Hāwera at 3.30am and, travelling the only route via Ōpunake, reached New Plymouth at 9.15pm that night. The journey so exhausted the Prime Minister that he didn't attend the celebratory dinner that evening and went instead to bed.

A railway at last

Soon after, news spread that the Government was going to provide £50,000 for an 11 mile stretch of railway between New Plymouth and Raleigh (now Waitara) as the first part of a line intended later to reach to Whanganui. Waitara had a small port, while New Plymouth had none. A railway would allow easier transport of goods between the two settlements.

Octavius Carrington (brother of Frederic Carrington) carried out the survey, providing two options - a seaward route, about a mile from the coast, and an inland route. The inland route was chosen (it would be more convenient to hook up with the later route south) and railway firm John Brogden and Sons was contracted to construct the railway.

The first sod was turned and celebrations began. In honour of the occasion a song was composed:

"Hurrah! Hurrah! The railway car shall roll across the land

And commerce shall smile upon the isle of gold and ironsand.

Fair hands today have dug the clay and cut the first queen sod.

For the iron route, that shall lead out where the foot of man ne'er trod."

The proposed route wound its way through central New Plymouth from Puke Ariki pā - more of a scenic route than a convenient one. 

Pickaxe and shovel - a slow task

Construction began with pickaxe and shovel, horse drawn drays were used to take the fill away. A Māori burial ground lay on the proposed route and it was necessary to move them. William Perrott of Lepperton took the contract and, ignoring the tapu on the site, carried on with the work. In January 1874 his seven-year-old daughter Caroline (Queenie) disappeared. Searches failed to find a trace. But work continued and the line eventually reached Waitara.

On the evening of September 2 the first engine was cheered across Devon Street. The official opening wasn't until October 14, 1875. Two locomotives, named ‘Fox’ and ‘Ferret’ had been imported from Scotland, along with two large and three small passenger carriages and a variety of goods wagons.

The first of the four trains to travel to Waitara and back was a ceremonial one with invited guests. Covered in flags and evergreens the locomotive ‘Fox’ was christened by Jane Carrington (daughter of Frederic Carrington). Pulling out with three carriages ‘Fox’ arrived in Waitara 43 minutes later. The day continued with members of the public taking advantage of the free return trip to Waitara. The next day the regular service began, with one train a day each way, two on Saturdays but none on Sundays. Stations were at Eliot Street, Smart Road, Egmont Road, Henwood Road, Corbett Road, Kaipakopako, Sentry Hill and Waitara Road.

The little trains had introduced a new freedom to the people of the region. A trip out to Waitara, usually a lengthy horse ride, had been cut considerably.

Staying on track?

But already problems had arisen - the climb up Liardet Street was too much for one heavily laden train on opening day. It came to a wheezy stop and had to back to the station before taking another run up the hill. Often in later years a shunting engine had to push the trains from behind up the steep gradient.

Horse and oxen were scared out of their wits by the new engines. Horses bolted as the frightening spectacle of a steaming, chugging engine passed by, and many oxen refused to cross the railway lines. A new age of engine power had begun. 

To the great consternation of many, Sunday trains began in May 1876. A public meeting was held at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church and people were told that “pleasure parties going out on Sundays were the Devil's travellers”. But the Sunday trains stayed.

Devon Street crossing a hazard

One of the worst issues was the crossing on Devon Street. It was to be a problem for the next 32 years. An early law required that horses were not to be driven over the crossing faster than walking pace. Local police had a ready haul of victims as walking pace was often difficult. Culprits were fined five shillings plus costs for speeding. 

As the town grew and rail traffic increased the danger and inconvenience of a railway line across the town's main street became a nightmare. Settlers were getting annoyed and tempers were fraying. In an effort to reduce the risk, train speeds over the crossing were reduced to six miles an hour (10 km/h), the engine gave a warning whistle, and a porter with a red flag stood by the crossing when it was approaching.

This didn't prevent people from being struck and killed by the train. In 1890 a man was killed at the Vivian Street crossing. In 1901, when three men were killed in separate accidents along the railway, town residents had had enough. One of the men run over, Charles Brown, had been a leading citizen of the town and was an early settler. His death shocked the community. Something had to be done about the railway running through the town. Despite the deaths it took another six years before the “monstrosity of a crossing” was removed. The new line snaked along the foreshore before diving inland and re-joining the old route at Waiwaka Terrace. 

The railway grows

By 1877 the railway line had extended out to Inglewood. Trains were now going faster - reflecting the improvement in engine power. In 1879 a daily service was set up, leaving New Plymouth at 7am to enable travellers to reach Whanganui by 8pm. The train sped between Sentry Hill and Inglewood at a dashing 30 kilometres an hour. The railway went only as far as Stratford and horse drawn travel had to bridge the gap to the south before the train to Whanganui could be met.

A daring traveller made the newspaper headlines in 1880 after a record journey between New Plymouth and Wellington. He left New Plymouth by train on Monday, reached Whanganui the same evening, caught a steamer going south and arrived in Wellington before 9am on Tuesday morning - a journey of 26 hours.

In 1881 the train line reached Hāwera and a trip by train from New Plymouth took 3 hours and 21 minutes to reach the town. The line then spread quickly and by 1901 thousands of passengers were travelling between Auckland and Wellington along using the Onehunga-New Plymouth steamer service and the New Plymouth-Wellington railway. Seven years later travelling from New Plymouth by train to Wellington took a mere 12 hours and 10 minutes.

The railway widened horizons, enabling people to travel greater distances. School trips and excursion trains extended around the province. Cattle, milk and butter and wool could be transported around the country with ease. New markets opened up and small communities serviced by the railway flourished.

The end of the line

Steam changed to diesel in the mid 1950's with the introduction of the railcar. In 1977 the Blue Streak railcars were withdrawn and all passenger services on the main lines were taken over by buses. The once busy stations around the province were removed. Today freight trains are the only ones to use the railway lines.


Scanlan, A.B (1977). Taranaki's First Railway. New Plymouth: A. Scanlan.

Related Information


Puke Ariki Heritage Collection: Rail transport


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