Moorhouse Railway Tunnel

Christchurch-Lyttelton Line, Lyttelton

  • Moorhouse Railway Tunnel, Lyttelton. CC BY 3.0 Image courtesy of
    Copyright: Matthew25187 - Wikimedia Commons. Taken By: Matthew25187. Date: 12/01/2007.

List Entry Information

List Entry Status Listed List Entry Type Historic Place Category 1 Public Access Private/No Public Access
List Number 7172 Date Entered 21st April 1994 Date of Effect 21st April 1994


City/District Council

Christchurch City


Canterbury Region


The Canterbury Provincial Council began considering possible routes for a rail link between the township of Christchurch and the port of Lyttelton about 1853. The idea was shelved because of the cost involved until 1858 when the superintendent, William Sefton Moorhouse (c1825-81), initiated it once again. George Robert Stevenson was consulted. He favoured a 10km line with a 2.6 km tunnel. He recommended an English firm of contractors, Smith and Knight of London, but this firm is said to have declined the contract when they discovered that it involved tunnelling through a volcano.

Edward Dobson, provincial engineer, had been responsible for the project since 1854. The provincial geologist, Julius von Haast, undertook exploration and site investigation, advising the engineers. The contract was finally let to Holmes and Co of Melbourne in 1861. Of the 240 000 pound contract price, the cost of the tunnel was estimated at 195 000 pounds. The contract allowed five years for construction. Construction of the tunnel began with a ceremony at Heathcote on 17 July 1861 at which Moorhouse cut the first sod and on 29 September 1862 a ceremonial stone was placed by Mrs Moorhouse.

Boring went ahead from both the Lyttelton and Heathcote ends. Gunpowder charges were used and blown materials was removed using horses. The tunnellers met on 28 May 1867. 5'6" gauge rails were laid and the first train went through in mid November 1867. Passenger services began in December though workers continued drainage and widening by night. The tunnel remained in the contractors hands until August 1868 and it took another four years to finish lining the tunnel. From 1863 a temporary railway line had operated between Christchurch and Ferrymeade wharf.

Between April 1876 and December 1877, the 5'6" gauge rails were replaced with 3'6" gauge. Since this time the tunnel has seen no major modifications. The instalment of heavier rails, improved signalling, electrification (1925-28) and dieselisation (c1970) reflect technological progress. With dieselisation, the electric locomotives and substations were phased out.

Assessment criteriaopen/close

Historical Significance or Value

The Moorhouse Railway Tunnel has historical significance as a result of its contribution to the commercial development of Canterbury through transport. It linked the pastoral plains with the provincial port within the first 20 years of Canterbury settlement and in doing so allowed produce to be exported. While the initiative for building the tunnel was provincial, the Christchurch-Lyttelton railway line has been described as the first important railway in the country (JD Mahoney). The line predates New Zealand's great railway expansion of the 1870s under Julius Vogel. The tunnel is arguably the single most important structure on the line other than the line itself.

The tunnel has additional significance in that it was conceived and projected by WS Moorhouse, Canterbury's provincial superintendent, and associated with Edward Dobson, Julius von Haast and Edward Richardson. Today it is maintained by New Zealand Rail Ltd. It is still in use and is essential to the owners operation.


Moorhouse Railway Tunnel is a very rare structure in that it was constructed through the flank or wall of an extinct volcano. It has been suggested that it was the first tunnel in the world to do so and this technological development is of very great significance. Within its colonial climate, the Moorhouse Railway Tunnel was an ambitious piece of engineering. It has been described as the first major engineering work in New Zealand (GGT) and a remarkable engineering feat.


The tunnel ends are enhanced by the landscape setting but the tunnel itself is largely concealed within the volcano and is not a prominent landmark. It relates to the Heathcote and Lyttelton signal boxes sited at either end of the tunnel.


Construction Professionalsopen/close

Richardson, Edward

Edward Richardson trained as a civil engineer in London. He worked as a railway engineer in England and in Ireland and in 1852 went to Australia where he worked as a road engineer in Melboune. In 1855 he entered partnership with George Holmes as a general contractor. In 1861 Holmes and Richardson were awarded the contract for the Moorhouse Tunnel and Richardson arrived at Ferrymeade with enough material to begin the first stage of the line to Christchurch. In 1862 Richardson went to Europe to study the technology used for the Mont Cenis tunnel. He returned to Canterbury to supervise the construction and completion of the Moorhouse Tunnel.

Following its completion, Richardson remained in New Zealand and became prominent as both a businessman, landowner and public figure. He was a member of the Canterbury Provincial Council for Lyttelton from 1870-76, a member of the House of Representatives for Christchurch West from 1871 and for the City of Christchurch from 1875. He was minister of public works from 1872-77 in the Waterhouse, Fox, Vogel, Pollen and Atkinson governments, and again from 1884-87 when he was ranked third in parliament below Robert Stout and Julius Vogel. He remained on the Legislative Council until his retirement in 1899. He had been appointed CMG in 1879.

Dobson, Edward

Edward Dobson trained in architecture and civil engineering in London and from 1846-49 worked as a railway engineer near Nottingham. He was one of the original purchasers of land under the Canterbury Association, immigrating in 1850 and settling in Canterbury. In 1854 he was appointed provincial engineer for Canterbury. In this capacity, Dobson superintended the Moorhouse Raiway Tunnel. In 1864 he decided on the main route for a road to be built from Christchurch to the West Coast goldfields. The route had been discovered earlier that year by his son Arthur, an engineer, surveyor, geologist and explorer, and continues to be known as Arthur's Pass (1864-66). Edward also drained low-lying land at Rangiora and is said to have reclaimed 10 000 acres by doing so.

Dobson resigned as provincial engineer in 1868 and moved to Australia the following year where he worked as an engineer for a railway compny in Melbourne and as a water supply engineer in Melbourne and in Geelong. Returning to New Zealand in 1876, he formed a partnership with his son Arthur in 1878. Dobson and Son were responsible for many engineering works between 1878 and 1885 including the upgrading of the Timaru waterworks, the supply of water to the Canterbury Plains, the surveying of a railway line through the Southern Alps, and a report on the public water supply in Christchurch (1882).

He was elected a member of the Institute of Civil Engineers in 1881. Having lectured since the 1860s and written a number of engineering papers, Dobson then helped establish the School of Engineering at Canterbury College in 1887. He lectured part-time until 1892 and was the author of several engineering books.

Additional informationopen/close

Physical Description


Edward DOBSON, Provincial Engineer

Julius von HAAST, Provincial Geologist

Edward RICHARDSON, Contractor's Engineer


Holmes and Co, Melbourne

Julius von HAAST (1822-1887):

Johann Franz Julius von Haast was a German geologist. He came to New Zealand in 1858 to report to Germany about immigration prospects. Having made explorations in the Nelson and West Coast regions, Haast then requested that he examine the site of the proposed Moorhouse Tunnel. Following his report, which was favourable, the contract was let and the tunnel completed. Haast was then given the post of Canterbury's provincial geologist in 1861. In 1863 he married Edward Dobson's daughter.

As provincial geologist, Haast explored and mapped out the province which included Westland. He crossed Haast Pass in 1863 though did not discover it. He correctly predicted that an artesian water supply would lie beneath the Canterbury Plains. From his alpine expeditions he gathered geological, topographical and botanical information. His collections led to the rapid expansion of the provincial museum and he was appointed director in 1868. BW Mountfort's new building was opened in 1870. Haast helped establish the Canterbury Collegiate Union in 1871 which in turn promoted the establishment of Canterbury College. He was its first professor of geology in 1876.

He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1867. He was knighted by the emporer of Austria in 1875. He received honorary doctorates from the university of Tubingen in 1862 and Cambridge University in 1886. In 1886 he visited the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, representing New Zealand as a commissioner. He had been appointed CMG in 1883.


Moorhouse Railway Tunnel is 2.6 kilometres (129 chains) long and was built through the flank or wall of an extinct volcano. The tunnel has an elliptical cross-section and an ashlar springer. Tunnel ends appear to be of squared rubble brought to course. On either side of the arch at keystone level is a plaque, one commemorating the contractors and the other commemorating WS Moorhouse and E Dobson.

Notable Features

Route through the flank of an extinct volcano

Construction Dates

Original Construction
1861 -

1876 - 1877
Altered from 5'3" to 3'6" dual gauge

1925 - 1928

1970 -

Construction Details

Random rubble stone construction fixed with cement and with an ashlar springer.

Information Sources

Archives New Zealand (Chch)

Archives New Zealand (Christchurch)

Records of the Canterbury Provincial Council including the Public Works Department and the Railway Department

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

Oliver, WH (ed), Vol I, 1769-1869, Allen & Unwin, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1990

Orange, Claudia, Vol II,1870-1900, Bridget Williams Books, Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1993

Scholefield, GH (ed), Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, 1940

University of Canterbury

University of Canterbury

School of Engineering


-Dobson, Edward, CE, Public Works in the Province of Canterbury, Institution of Civil Engineers, London, 1870

Institute of Professional Engineers in NZ (IPENZ)

Institute of Professional Engineers in NZ

Engineering to 1990, Engineering Publications Co Ltd, Wellington, 1990

Other Information

A fully referenced Registration Report is available from the NZHPT Southern region office.

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.