What it means to Christchurch & Canterbury

There can be few better examples of human grit and determination than the construction of the Lyttelton Rail Tunnel (LRT) and there could have been nothing better for the advancement and progress of the fledgling settlement of Christchurch and the province of Canterbury. When the first ships of the Canterbury pilgrims arrived in December 1850, and during the next two decades, the single most difficult logistic challenge was the Port Hills that barred the way between Lyttelton and Christchurch. The Settlers had to walk over the very steep Bridle Path to reach the new settlement while their bags and possessions made the short but time consuming and treacherous journey by sea round the coast to the Avon-Heathcote estuary and up either one of the rivers to a suitable landing point. It was an often repeated complaint that it was more expensive to send goods 12 miles from Lyttelton to Christchurch than 12,000 miles from London to Lyttelton.


Lyttelton Portal

Lyttelton Portal under construction 1867


Less than eight years after the first settlers arrived the LRT was proposed by W.S. Moorhouse, and just three years later he turned the first sod at the Heathcote portal of the tunnel; in six years the contractors drilled through some of the hardest rock ever experienced up to then and the tunnel opened to rail traffic seventeen years, almost to the day, after the first settlers arrived. From the opening of the tunnel till 1964, when the road tunnel was opened, the LRT was the economic artery for Canterbury and much of the South Island, carrying meat, wool, timber, grain, seeds and general freight to the rest of the country and international markets. At the same time it brought in raw materials, manufactured goods, general freight and more settlers. Without the tunnel economic growth would necessarily have been stifled and the development of the Canterbury settlement would have been considerably slower.


Heathcote StationHeathcote Railway Station 1919 


During the 1st year of operations the savings for freight on exports of wool and grain, attributed to the LRT, were estimated at £15,500 while savings for imports of general merchandise were calculated at £9,000; while this may not seem a lot of money, it was during an economic slow down and was still a very significant saving to the very young colony. After the opening of the tunnel a journey that had taken the settlers at least half a day was covered in approximately 30 minutes (the 1st passenger train from Christchurch to Lyttelton was comfortably under half an hour); freight transfer times came down from several days to matter of hours. During the decade of the 1870s almost 30,000 immigrants arrived in Canterbury via Lyttelton and the tunnel with a peak of 12,304 in 1874. All of these migrants who could now go direct to Christchurch along with all their bags and possessions had good reason to thank the foresight of the provincial superintendent W.S. Moorhouse, and the skill of the provincial engineer Edward Dobson.


The LRT enabled Lyttelton to become the busiest port in the South Island and for Christchurch to grow to be the largest city of the island. Without such ready access to a deep water port the economic growth and development of Canterbury especially, and much of the rest of the South Island, would have been much delayed by the added transport costs for getting wool and grain, and later on meat, to international markets. The LRT was also the most significant single structure in the first section of what was to become the New Zealand rail system. Even today the LRT is the essential conduit for coal, logs, meat, wool and general goods for export; despite its relative invisibility it has provided the most significant benefits socially, culturally and economically, to Christchurch and Canterbury. It will be 140 years this December 9th since the opening of the LRT and no less than the people who made it all possible the LRT deserves at least a heritage plaque at the gates to the old Heathcote Station site to mark the community appreciation of the endeavour and the resultant benefits that we enjoy.

The history – Significant dates

• 1 October 1858 W.S. Moorhouse proposed construction of a rail tunnel from Lyttelton to Ch.Ch.
• 1860 Tunnel contractors began work but gave up when hard rock was encountered.
• 17th July 1861 WS Moorhouse turns the 1st sod at Heathcote portal to recommence construction..
• 1 Dec 1863 1st stage completed, the Rly line from ChCh to Ferrymead wharf.
• May 1867 The 2 drives, from Lyttelton and Heathcote, meet within inches accuracy.
• 18th Nov 1867 The 1st locomotive through the tunnel.
• 9th Dec 1867 Official opening of the tunnel.
• After the tunnel opening, Lyttelton was able to receive water from a spring broached by the tunnel near the Lyttelton portal.


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