Railway Footbridge

549 East Street, Ashburton

  • Railway Footbridge, Ashburton.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Christine Whybrew. Date: 25/05/2016.
  • Railway Footbridge, Ashburton.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Christine Whybrew. Date: 25/05/2016.
  • Railway Footbridge, Ashburton. Bridge detail, stress ring.
    Copyright: Heritage New Zealand. Taken By: Christine Whybrew. Date: 25/05/2016.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 2 Public Access Able to Visit
List Number 7665 Date Entered 30th June 2006


Extent of List Entry

Extent includes part of the land described as Pt Res 953 (Railway Land), Canterbury Land District, as shown on SO 19618, and the structure known as Railway Footbridge thereon. (Refer to map in Appendix 1 of the List entry report for further information).

City/District Council

Ashburton District


Canterbury Region

Legal description

Pt Res 953 (Railway Land), Canterbury Land District

Location description

The footbridge spans the railway lines between East and West Streets, just north of Wills Street, Ashburton.


The Railway Footbridge, constructed in 1917 over the railway lines near 549 East Street, Ashburton, is a key surviving feature from the Ashburton Railway Station complex, following the demolition of the main station building in 2013. The Railway Footbridge, with its bowstring truss, represents a structure once common throughout New Zealand but now rare. Only a very small number of such railway footbridges remain in situ and these all differ slightly in the number of spans used and the design of the bracing.

In August 1917, Ashburton’s citizens welcomed the completion of a new railway station building, built to a design by the renowned New Zealand Railways’ Chief Draughtsman George Alexander Troup, to replace an earlier railway station assemblage built when the railway reached Ashburton from Christchurch in 1874. By November 1917, an impressive new footbridge was built to allow people to cross the railway line safely.

Constructed from metal and jarrah timber the Railway Footbridge is relatively large, and its bowstring truss has an impressive span of 25.6 metres. Initially the east end of the bridge had ramps descending at right angles both towards the town centre and to the station building, but the north-east ramp was removed in 1983.

The Ashburton Railway Station remained a busy thoroughfare until the 1980s, when the number of passenger trains was steadily reduced. In 2002, the passenger train service stopped altogether and the station building was demolished in 2013. However, the railway line itself continues to be used by freight trains and the Railway Footbridge remains a well-used public amenity, despite the loss of the station building itself.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The Railway Footbridge has historical significance. Built in 1917 as part of the replacement Ashburton Railway Station, the Railway Footbridge is a tangible survivor of a place that demonstrated the pre-eminent role played by the railways throughout New Zealand.

The Railway Footbridge is associated with an era when railways were New Zealand’s dominating means of transport, an important aspect of the country’s history. This particular place is illustrative of the structures built from the end of the First World War, when the rail system was being greatly developed. The Railway Footbridge is now a key railway heritage survivor at Ashburton following the demolition of the railway station building.

Architectural Significance or Value

The Railway Footbridge has architectural value as an example of the construction system designed by New Zealand Railways’ engineers at this time for such amenities. Its location gives it a prominence in the town and the aesthetic qualities of the central span can be widely seen.

The Railway Footbridge at Ashburton represents a structure once common throughout New Zealand. Only around seven such bowstring truss footbridges remain and these all differ slightly in the number of spans used and the design of the bracing.

(a) The extent to which the place reflects important or representative aspects of New Zealand history

The Railway Footbridge is a good example of what was once a common feature of large railway stations throughout New Zealand.

The essential transport system provided by railways was of national importance. It underpinned economic development as the country’s population increased and expanded activities into more remote areas. After the First World War, the railway system was continuing to be developed to meet the ever-increasing growth in both passenger and freight traffic. The large Ashburton Railway Station, with its extensive yards, was centrally located in this provincial centre – and the Railway Footbridge was a practical and safety requirement to allow pedestrians to cross the tracks. It is representative of the place the rail network had at this date in provincial centres throughout the country and also indicates the high volume of traffic generated from the large Ashburton district.

(e) The community association with, or public esteem for the place

The Railway Footbridge has been providing the Ashburton community with convenient pedestrian access over the rail tracks since 1917, and it continues to be well used. It is considered to be not only an important historic item but also a valued public amenity.

(g) The technical accomplishment, value, or design of the place

The Railway Footbridge illustrates the technical accomplishment of the engineers in New Zealand Rail who designed it. They prepared standard designs, which could be adapted for use in various locations, using mass produced components efficiently and economically. The practicality and effectiveness of these designs is demonstrated by their wide and sustained use.

Summary of Significance or Values

Despite the loss of the Railway Station building through demolition, the Railway Footbridge retains sufficient values to remain on the List, in its own right, as a Category 2 historic place. It is a key railway heritage survivor at Ashburton, part of the story of the pre-eminent role played by the railways throughout New Zealand. With its bowstring truss design, the Railway Footbridge at Ashburton represents a structure once common throughout New Zealand but now comparatively rare.


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New Zealand Railways

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Historical Narrative

Early History

Te Wai Pounamu was been occupied for centuries prior to the arrival of the first European colonial settlers. The vast network of wetlands and plains of Kā Pākihi Whakatekateka o Waitaha (Canterbury Plains) is inherently important to the history of its early occupation. The area was rich in food from the forest and waterways. Major awa such as the Hakatere (Ashburton) were supplied from the mountain fed aquifers of Kā Tiritiri o te Moana (Southern Alps) while other spring fed waterways meandered throughout the landscape. The rivers teamed with tuna, kōkopu, kanakana and inaka, the wetlands were a good supply of wading birds and fibres for weaving, food and medicine, with the forest supplying kererū, tūī and other fauna as well as building materials. Ara Tawhito (traditional travelling routes) crossed over the landscape providing annual and seasonal pathways up and down and across the Plains. Permanent pā sites and temporary kāinga were located within and around the Plains as Rapuwai, Waitaha, Kati Māmoe and latterly Ngāi Tahu established and used the mahinga kai sites where they gathered and utilised natural resources from the network of springs, waterways, wetlands, grasslands and lowland podocarp forests that abounded along the rivers and estuaries.

Ashburton was traditionally called Kāpuka. Situated along the Hakatere mahinga kai network that provided sustenance, tools and materials, Kāpuka supported the vibrant and successful pā dotted along the coastline which were thriving trade centres for a range of goods, including pounamu.

In the 1840s early European explorers travelling through the Ashburton district closely followed the coastline but, as land was taken up by pastoralists, a better route across the plains soon evolved. This widely accepted route traversed the Ashburton River a few miles inland to avoid coastal swamps. Through the 1860s and 1870s a small township began to grow on the river’s north bank as the place became a frequent overnight stopping point and coach staging post.

Development of a Rail Transport System

Provision of a rail transport system was an early goal of the Canterbury Provincial Government and in particular it was recognised that there must be a link from Christchurch and the Canterbury Plains to the port at Lyttelton. This was achieved in 1867 by construction of a tunnel through the Port Hills, preceded in 1863 by provision of a rail link between Christchurch and the Ferrymead Wharf - the first public railway in New Zealand. Work began on development of the rail link extending to the Waitaki River, Canterbury’s southern boundary, with the formal turning of the first sod at Christchurch on 24 May 1865. The route largely followed that normally taken by travellers and was planned to pass through the slowly growing township of Ashburton.

The line reached Selwyn on 7 October 1867 but funding issues halted work for a few years. Julius Vogel’s 1870 Public Works Scheme provided national funding for railways and placed a high priority on completion of a main trunk line between Christchurch and Invercargill. In 1873 the line reached Rakaia, and the extension from Rakaia to Ashburton was completed by August 1874.

The railway line ran straight through the middle of the burgeoning Ashburton township close beside East Street. The large railway reserve area with its marshalling yards bisected the town. Running parallel to East Street, the principal retail street of the town, is West Street on the other side of the railway tracks, where over the years many commercial buildings associated with servicing the farming activities of the region were located.

In the 1870s, the town had an undistinguished appearance, already displaying the usual ribbon development extending along the main street. From its beginnings the non-descript station building was considered an eyesore rather than an enhancement. Early photographs indicate a very basic assemblage of structures that are assumed to have been built when the line first reached the town. Although new premises were promised, in 1895 the existing structure was enlarged and given a new coat of paint.

Over the following three decades the town took on a grander appearance with construction of substantial new buildings and improvements to public open spaces. The Borough Council successfully negotiated with the Railways Department to clear and tidy the railway reserve between the main street and the rail tracks where many trees were planted. In 1911 a timber footbridge, with steps rather than ramps, was built to cross the railway lines at Cameron Street.

A New Station for Ashburton

In 1917 provision was made for a new station that provided suitable accommodation and facilities. Built some 15 metres north-east of the original station it came into use on 18 June 1917 with no grand ceremony to mark the event.

The Ashburton Station was designed by renowned Railways Architect, George Troup. Built of timber with a corrugated iron roof, it had a traditionally laid out plan, with the main street entrance on East Street. The station’s construction was accompanied by a re-arrangement of the extensive railway yards, allowing more efficient handling of freight.

A ‘nicely-graded ramp bridge’, the Railway Footbridge, was erected shortly after the new railway station was built, around November 1917, ‘so as to give an easy crossing at Wills Street’. This new footbridge situated some 200 metres south-west of the Station building provided for the needs of pedestrians because within the Station’s immediate vicinity there were many busy streets which crossed or ended at the railway lines. Around the same time the original 1911 timber footbridge was shifted from Cameron Street to Aitken Street. The 1917 footbridge featured a bowstring truss, which was common the time, and had ramps descending at right angles both towards the town centre and to the Station building. The truss was comparatively large, with an 84 foot (25.6 metre) span.

Both the new railway station and the footbridge provided Ashburton area residents and Railways’ staff with long desired amenities which functioned well over the following decades.

In 1974 the original 1911 timber footbridge was removed. In 1983 part of the ramp (the north-east one) on the town side of the 1917 Railway Bridge was removed.

A Dwindling Service

Through the 1980s and 1990s the number of passenger trains was reduced until only the Southerner remained and it ceased operation in February 2002. In 1991 the Station building was sold to private owners and internal changes were made to the building for retail purposes. The viability of this operation lessened after 1994 when State Highway 1 was transferred from East to West Street. In 2008 the owner applied for resource consent to demolish the Ashburton Railway Station building under the Resource Management Act 1991. The application was originally rejected by the Ashburton District Council, but the owner appealed to the Environment Court as he argued that it was uneconomic to retain and strengthen. The Ashburton Heritage Trust was formed in 2008 in an attempt to save the station from demolition, and hoped to purchase it if funds could be obtained. There were prolonged negotiations between the owner, council and the Trust in the hope of finding an economically-viable use for the building. It was finally agreed between the parties that all options had been exhausted, and a joint memorandum was signed to that effect. On that basis, the Court overturned the council’s decision and in January 2013 granted consent for demolition to proceed. In mid-2013 the Ashburton Railway Station building was demolished. Fortunately the Railway Footbridge did not suffer the same fate. In the mid 2000s, ONTRACK, then owner of the railway, had gifted the Railway Footbridge to the Ashburton District Council, with occupancy under a licence for the yard area. The Railway Footbridge is widely used, continuing the amenity values it has provided the community since 1917.

Physical Description

Current Description


The town of Ashburton is sited on flat land and has a typical grid pattern street layout. The railway lines bisect the town centre, flanked by East and West Streets which run almost north and south. A strip of land planted with lawns and trees separates the railway lines from the footpath of East Street.

The Railway Footbridge is located over the railway lines between East and West Streets, approximately 200 metres south of the now vacant site where the Ashburton Railway Station building previously stood. The main structures in this area are now a pair of modern tilt-slab concrete buildings that flanked the railway station complex prior to its demolition.

The Footbridge

The Railway Footbridge is approximately 60 metres in length (excluding the ramps) and features a bowstring truss, approximately 25.6 metres long, as its central span over the railway lines. The iron components are marked as being of New Zealand Railways manufacture. Bracing elements between the arch and the bridge deck feature centrally placed stress rings which are not only functional but also provide decorative detailing to the structure. The extensions at each side rest on jarrah timber supports with the ramps and decking also of timber. Wire is strung between the structural members to create a safety balustrade. Since its original construction, the timber decking has been overlaid with an asphalt coating.

Comparative Analysis

The bow or bowstring truss style footbridge was often used, in New Zealand and elsewhere, to provide pedestrian access across the often expansive sets of rail lines associated with railway stations, albeit with variations in the style of bracing and number of trusses. Rather than being a common feature as they once were, they are now relatively rare.

In addition to the Ashburton Railway Footbridge, the following six surviving bowstring truss railway footbridges have been identified:

Greymouth Railway Station Footbridge

The 89 foot (27 metre) Greymouth Railway Station Footbridge (Category 1 historic place, List No. 5014) was constructed in 1925 but dismantled in 2002. In circa 2010 the central span bowstring truss was removed to a ‘temporary’ location for display at Shantytown Heritage Park, with the potential for it to be returned to Greymouth at a future date.

Oamaru Railway Station Footbridge

The Railway Footbridge at Oamaru (included in Oamaru Harbour Historic Area, List No. 7536) links Wansbeck Street and the harbour via Marine Parade, close to Holmes Wharf. Dating from the mid 1920s, it is a bowstring bridge, constructed in part of rail iron. The weight is borne by the bow, with hangers to the deck of the bridge. It has a 10-12 metre span. The access ramp from the bottom of Wansbeck Street is a zig-zag form; while the ramp from the Holmes Wharf side is straight.

Dunedin Railway Station Footbridge

Dunedin Railway Station Footbridge was built around the late nineteenth century/early twentieth century (and repaired and partially reconstructed in 2008 after it was accidentally damaged in February 2008). It has three bowstring arches with diagonal bracing. With a 97 foot (29.5 metre) span, this is the only surviving New Zealand example of a bowstring truss railway footbridge that exceeds the length of the Ashburton Railway Footbridge. It is not currently entered on the New Zealand Heritage List.

Woburn no. 1 and Woburn no. 2 footbridges

There are two bowstring footbridges at Woburn Railway Station in Lower Hutt - one to the south-west of the station and one to the north-east. They differ in that the south-east one is covered by white painted timber boards for the length of the bridge including the ramps. The one to the north-east lacks the timber boards. The two bridges are not currently entered on the New Zealand Heritage List.

Fielding Railway Station footbridge (former)

Now known as the Makino Footbridge, this bowstring truss footbridge was originally situated over the railway line in Fielding but some years ago it was shifted and now is over the Makino Stream. The bridge is not currently entered on the New Zealand Heritage List.

Other railway footbridges

In addition to those bowstring truss footbridges, other simpler timber beam railway footbridges survive around New Zealand, such as can be seen at railway footbridges at Moana near Lake Brunner (Moana Railway Station Historic Area, List No 7054), Papanui and Sockburn in Christchurch, and Ravensbourne near Dunedin. These were typically constructed when all that was required was a bridge to cross a single line.

Several bowstring railway footbridges have been lost in recent decades. Papakura’s bowstring railway footbridge was demolished in 2007. The Huntly Railway Station Footbridge was relocated to Helensville Railway Station in circa 1993 but it was not able to be re-erected since insufficient parts survived for it to be safe. The Point Resolution bowstring bridge which crossed the railway line at Parnell Baths, Auckland, was completely replaced by a modern structure in the 2000s.

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1917 -

1983 -
Removal of the northern ramp which led down to the Station platform

Construction Details

Iron, timber, asphalt

Completion Date

12th October 2016

Report Written By

Robyn Burgess

Information Sources

Mahoney, 1987

J. D. Mahoney, Down at the Station: A Study of the New Zealand Railway Station, Palmerston North, 1987

Scotter, 1972

W H Scotter, Ashburton: A History of Town and County, 1972

Other Information

A fully referenced version of this report is available from the HNZPT Southern Region Office.

This place has been identified in other heritage listings. The reference is Rail Heritage Trust of New Zealand, ‘Ashburton Railway Station and Footbridge’: URL http://www.railheritage.org.nz/Register/Listing.aspx?c=21&r=4&l=43 (accessed July 2016).

Please note that entry on the New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero identifies only the heritage values of the property concerned, and should not be construed as advice on the state of the property, or as a comment of its soundness or safety, including in regard to earthquake risk, safety in the event of fire, or insanitary conditions.