History of the railway line through Porirua City

This page outlines the construction of the original single track line through Porirua City.

The Railway Builders

Harry Pasley Higginson. The railway line between Wellington and Longburn was constructed by the Wellington & Manawatu Railway Company (W&MRC). The Company was formed after earlier government projects to form a rail link to the west coast stalled and were abandoned.

A number of surveyors were involved in formulating the early stages of the project; their work was handed over to Harry Pasley Higginson.

Higginson was born in England in 1838 and undertook his engineering apprenticeship under Sir William Fairburn from 1855-1859. He worked on railways in Russia, Mauritius, India and England before coming to New Zealand in 1872 to take up an appointment as superintending engineer for railways and other public works in the South Island. In 1878 he went into private practice. He was involved in a number of railway, waterworks and other engineering projects before being appointed to the W&MRC project in 1882. Following completion of the line he became engineer-manager of the Wellington Gas Works. He died in 1889.

One of the share holders of the W&MRC, C.T. Richardson believed that the line was a monument to Higginson’s ‘…energy and skill, and no man could have a better monument.’ [See Ref. i]

Photo: Harry Pasley Higginson, circa 1876. Taken by an unidentified photographer.
National Library of New Zealand http://mp.natlib.govt.nz/detail/?id=12571
Reference Number: 1/2-066660-F

Higginson was appointed Chief Engineer for the project on 4 April 1882. His contract was expected to be completed within five years from 25 September 1882, allowing six months for him to review all the previous survey work, finalise the layout and designs and let the first contracts for the work. He took on two engineering assistants – the Fulton brothers Arthur and James – to assist with overseeing the project. Responsibility was divided between the Fultons, with James given charge of the northern section from Longburn to Waikanae and Arthur the difficult southern section, which included the line between Kenepuru and Paekakariki. The work proceeded well and the line was ultimately commissioned six months ahead of schedule.

Higginson retired at the completion of the line and Arthur Fulton took over the Chief Engineer’s role. Arthur died of typhoid fever in 1889 and was succeeded by his brother James. James Fulton was followed by his assistant James Marchbanks, who remained Chief Engineer and Locomotive Superintendent until the line was sold to the government in 1908. [See Ref. ii]

Marchbanks later went on to become Chief Engineer for the Wellington Harbour Board.

Construction History

The route for the railway line was difficult, with major reclamation work required in Wellington, clearance of dense bush along large stretches of the track, tunneling through the faulted hills north of Wellington and crossing the swamps north of Levin. In all thirteen tunnels, five major bridges and a massive timber viaduct, at Belmont, were required, along with all the ancillary infrastructure like workshops, sheds, yards, stations, signals, level crossings and over-bridges and the like. While the tunnels and bridges were fairly standard engineering structures typical of those being built elsewhere around the country, the Belmont viaduct was one of the largest timber viaducts built anywhere at the time and was a significant engineering project in its own right. The timber viaduct was replaced in 1904 by a prefabricated steel structure from the United States.

The route was divided into a number of sections with each section being separately contracted out. The Porirua section ran from Johnsonville to a point just beyond the Porirua Harbour Crossing at Paremata and this section was divided into two main contracts, the first for the Belmont Viaduct (Contract 8) and the second for the harbourside formation at Porirua and the construction of Paremata Bridge (Contract 10).

Henderson and Company of Dunedin won the tender for Contract 10. They completed the five-span timber truss bridge, supported on cast iron cylinders (piers) driven into the bed of the estuary, in mid January 1885 (although it was another six months before the rails were laid). This first Paremata rail bridge remained in use until 1960 when a new rail bridge was constructed to the west of the original bridge.

On 21 September 1885 the railway from Wellington to Paremata Station was opened. Until the tunnels and other sections of line were completed, passengers travelling north were taken by coach, around the Pauatahanui inlet and over the Paekakariki hill, to link up with the Foxton train.

There were two other sections on this part of the line. From Paremata Bridge to Pukerua Bay Station (Contract 12) the route ran through sandhills at Plimmerton and then skirted the Taupo Swamp (formerly Plimmerton Swamp and a supply of flax for the flax trade) and ran four miles up the Pukerua Saddle. The final section of the line was from Pukerua Bay to Paekakariki and this was the most difficult as it involved the construction of 6 tunnels on a very steep gradient.

The official opening of the complete line took place on 3 November 1886, when Governor Sir William Jervois drove the last pike at Otaihanga, near Waikanae. The day was marked by a public holiday in Wellington, and the first train carrying stock arrived from Longburn. The public timetable became operative on 1 December 1886.
While the Company’s first engines were British designed, within four years the W&MRC had turned to America for the design and supply of its engines as well as all the goods trucks and passenger carriages, and consequently were able to offer a technologically advanced and innovative service. It was the first to introduce dining cars, electric lighting in carriages (1896) and to use telephones along the track instead of a Morse system. [See Ref. iii]

The North Island Main Trunk Line (NIMT) connecting Wellington and Auckland opened on 6 November 1908 and by 9 November that year the first passenger train service had commenced between Wellington and Auckland. This service has continued ever since.



Cassells, K. R. Uncommon Carrier - The History of the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company 1882-1908,Wellington, 1994.


Hoy, Douglas George. West of the Tararuas - An illustrated history of the Wellington Manawatu Railway Co. Wellington : Southern Press 1972 p. 88


Bromby, Robin. Rails that Built a Nation: An Encyclopedia of New Zealand Railways, Wellington : Grantham House, 2003 p. 20

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