Narrow gauge of 3ft 6in 1,mm was adopted nationally. Railways became centrally controlled as a government department under the names New Zealand Government Railways or New Zealand Railways Department NZR , and land transport was heavily regulated from onwards. NZR eventually expanded into other transport modes, especially with the Railways Road Services , inter-island ferries and Rail Air service.
NZR also had an extensive network of workshops. By , NZR employed 22, staff. In the early s, NZR was corporatised as the New Zealand Railways Corporation and drastically restructured,  especially following the deregulation of land transport in The Corporation became a state-owned enterprise in , required to turn a profit.
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In , the rail, inter-island ferry and infrastructure businesses of the Railways Corporation were split off into New Zealand Rail Limited , which was in turn privatised in , and renamed Tranz Rail in The parcels and bus service business units were also privatised, and the Railways Corporation continued to dispose of surplus land.
The central government renationalised first the Auckland metro railway network in , then the rest of the country in , and finally the rail and ferry operations in , creating a new state-owned enterprise, KiwiRail. Today, services are primarily provided by KiwiRail and focused on bulk freight, with a small number of tourist orientated passenger services, such as the TranzAlpine , Coastal Pacific and Northern Explorer.
Dunedin Railways also operate tourist trains out of Dunedin , and a number of heritage operators run charter specials from time to time. Urban passenger rail services exist only in Auckland and Wellington.
Rail in New Zealand has received significant and ongoing government investment since re-nationalisation in , with the two urban rail systems being upgraded. The railway network was initially constructed by the provincial governments of New Zealand from onwards. New Zealand's first public railway was opened in that year, running the short distance between Christchurch and the wharf at Ferrymead and built by the Canterbury Provincial Railways. Auckland's first railway, between Auckland and Onehunga , opened in Vogel also arranged for Brogdens of England to undertake several rail construction contracts, to be built by "Brogden's Navvies" recruited in England.
Following the abolition of the provinces in , railway lines were controlled by the central government, originally under the Public Works Department , and from under the New Zealand Railways Department. A Minister of Railways was responsible for the department and was a member of the New Zealand Cabinet. Only the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company, nationalised in , achieved any measure of success, with the rest being purchased by the Government before completion of their intended railway lines.
One exception to this rule was the Ohai Railway Board in Southland, which was owned by the State Mines department and a local county council until its dissolution in The first major route was completed between Christchurch and Dunedin in , later extended to Invercargill the following year. The North Island Main Trunk , linking capital city Wellington with the largest city Auckland , opened in after 23 years of construction. At the network's peak in , about branch lines were operating.
Large-scale closures of branch railway lines began in the s and s. The network was initially protected from road transport competition under the Transport Licensing Act , but this protection was gradually eased until its total abolition in , along with the deregulation of the land transport industry. The networks of the North and South Islands were independent of one another until the introduction of the inter-island roll-on roll-off rail ferry service in by the Railways Department, now branded The Interislander.
In , the Railways Department was corporatised into a new entity at the same time land transport was deregulated. The Corporation embarked on a major restructuring, laying off thousands of staff and cutting unprofitable services. After the land transport deregulation there was a substantial rationalisation of freight facilities; many stations and smaller yards were closed and freight train services were sped up, increased in length and made heavier, with the removal of guard's vans in and the gradual elimination of older rolling stock, particularly four-wheeled wagons.
In , the Railways Corporation became a state-owned enterprise , required to make a profit.
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In , the core rail operations of the Corporation were transferred to New Zealand Rail Limited, another state-owned enterprise, with the Corporation retaining non-core assets which were gradually disposed of, including a significant land portfolio. In many cases, the Corporation did not dispose of land due to Treaty of Waitangi claims and has continued to manage land. New Zealand Rail Limited was privatised in Rail freight volumes increased between and from 8.
Tranz Rail was accused of deliberately running down some lines through lack of maintenance. The Midland Line for example, which mostly carries coal from the West Coast to Lyttelton, was assessed to be in a safe but poor state by the LTSA government safety body in , and has needed major repairs.
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Tranz Rail was accused of forcing freight onto the roads, and in introduced a containerisation scheme that assumed that most freight would be carried in containers on unit trains made up of fixed consists of flat deck wagons. Container loading depots were constructed at the major freight terminals. One of the reasons often cited for these policies was that the cost of using road transport to Tranz Rail was less than that of using rail because the road infrastructure is provided as a public good , whereas the rail network was a private good.
Tranz Rail retained time slots for freight trains, and the Auckland Regional Council was granted slots for it to contract the operation of suburban passenger trains. Cited reasons included a "level playing field" for freight movements on road and rail, and ensuring access to the tracks for all interested parties.
In exchange, Toll was granted exclusive use of the rail network subject to minimum freight and passenger volumes, payment of track access charges and its own investment in new rolling stock. These negotiations did not progress and eventually went to arbitration at the start of Other rail operating companies using the rail network include Transdev Auckland and Transdev Wellington , who operate suburban services in Auckland and Wellington respectively, and Dunedin Railways , who operate tourist trains out of Dunedin.
KiwiRail released in a year turnaround plan for the rail industry. Nevertheless, significant improvements in freight volumes have followed other than with coal. Two of KiwiRail's major customers, Mainfreight and Fonterra , also invested heavily in rail-related infrastructure. In , the government began a "Future of Rail" review, and in December released a draft New Zealand Rail Plan, outlining changes to the rail transport industry. The City Rail Link is an underground rail line currently under construction linking Britomart Transport Centre to Mount Eden railway station in Auckland, and is due to open in Light rail networks are planned for Auckland and Wellington.
In December , the Government of New Zealand committed funding to reintroducing a five-year trial rail service, named Te Huia , between Papakura in southern Auckland to Hamilton, starting in Freight is carried by KiwiRail and provides the majority of its revenue traffic. Major bulk freight includes coal, lime, steel, wood and wood products, paper pulp, dry and liquid milk, cars, fertiliser, grain and shipping containers. Freight levels have returned to the level that they were at when the railway had a virtual monopoly on land transport, prior to In By , tonnes carried had increased to In recent years the amount of freight moved by rail has increased substantially and has started to gain market share in non-bulk areas as well.
Until June , Dunedin Railways operated tourist trains out of Dunedin , with frequent services on the former Otago Central Railway line and occasional services north from Dunedin to Palmerston. Mixed trains were "once the backbone of the New Zealand railway passenger system" on branch and even main lines; but the last scheduled mixed train ran between Whangarei and Opua on 6 June With a "rake of assorted wagons" and one or two passenger carriages, often listed as "goods with car" in timetables, they were slow, often stopping and shunting wagons en route.
In the s they ran from Christchurch to Springfield on the Midland Line, and into the s overnight between Christchurch and Dunedin. On the North Island Main Trunk they ran during the day while the expresses ran at night. On the Okahukura-Stratford Line they lasted to the early s. In the s and s, most provincial routes had railcar and locomotive-hauled passenger services. In , 25 million passengers travelled by rail; by the number had decreased to Currently, Auckland and Wellington have suburban passenger services.
In both cities, the respective local governments own the suburban passenger rolling stock and contract the operation of services to a third-party, in both cases Transdev. In , Wellington became the second city after the Christchurch service to Lyttelton to have electric suburban trains, and from to was the only city with them. From July , the services have been operated by Transdev Wellington. Wellington's suburban rolling stock consists of electric multiple units , with diesel locomotive-hauled carriage trains used on the Wairarapa service.
All of the rolling stock except the diesel locomotives is owned by Greater Wellington Rail Limited, a subsidiary of Greater Wellington Regional Council. Transdev Wellington contracts KiwiRail to provide and operate the required diesel locomotives. Auckland's network consists of four lines: Southern , Eastern , Western and Onehunga. All services on these lines are provided by AM class electric trains , the conversion from diesel being completed by the end of  with the exception of the non-electrified section of track between Papakura and Pukekohe, where a diesel train shuttle service operates.
In recent years the mothballed Onehunga Branch was reopened  and a new line was built Manukau Branch , opened April Most Auckland rolling stock is owned by Auckland Transport, which funds and coordinates all services. In , the recently elected Labour -led Coalition government proposed to provide commuter rail in Christchurch and to provide long-distance commuter services from Auckland to Hamilton and Tauranga.
Other cities Christchurch, Dunedin, Invercargill and Napier-Hastings once had suburban services, but they were withdrawn due to a lack of patronage. The Christchurch-Lyttelton suburban service was stopped in when passengers were down to "a busload". The last "boat train" for the ferry service to Wellington ran in The There were worker's trains north to Rangiora; two in the morning and two in the afternoon. Dunedin had suburban trains to Port Chalmers and Mosgiel, withdrawn on 3 December The Invercargill to Bluff service stopped in ; in the sole Clayton steam railcar had been used.
Worker's concession tickets had been introduced in , initially for the Wellington-Hutt service, and extended next year to Auckland, Christchurch and Dunedin and then between Westport and Waimangaroa. Up to the s and s, pupils had to commute to larger towns for secondary education from places that only had a primary school; for example from rural Canterbury to Christchurch Technical High School. The service was cancelled when Queen Charlotte College opened in Picton in , and those students remaining at the Marlborough Colleges switched to buses. The NZR offered season tickets for primary and secondary school students from , using funds paid for out of the Education budget, and from for students attending primary schools from a place lacking a local school.
School season passes increased from in to 29, in —15, when one in seven primary and secondary students travelled by train. Some pupils reached home after dark in the winter and had to milk cows before and after school. John Pascoe said that some children spend "up to six hours a day travelling. The New Zealand rail network has around 4, kilometres 2, miles of line,  of which about kilometres miles is electrified.
At the network's peak in , some 5, kilometres 3, miles of line was open. The network has been the subject of major upgrading works on a number of occasions. All of these involved major tunnelling works, of close to 9 kilometres 5. Significant infrastructure improvements were also carried out on the North Island Main Trunk in the mids, some as part of the electrification scheme.
As part of the year Turnaround Plan announced in , a number of regional lines were placed under threat of closure:  all lines in Northland that form part of the North Auckland Line , the Stratford—Okahukura Line in Taranaki mothballed since , the northern portion of the Wairarapa Line , the Gisborne — Napier section of the Palmerston North - Gisborne Line mothballed due to storm damage north of Wairoa early , mothballed Napier — Gisborne from October  As part of KiwiRail's year long-term plan, most new capital will be spent on locomotives, wagons and the Auckland — Wellington — Christchurch freight corridor.
Signals are of the colour light type and operate on speed signalling principles, i.