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Story: Bridges and tunnels

Millers Flat bridge

New Zealand’s hilly terrain and many rivers made bridges and tunnels a necessity, and their opening was often celebrated by large crowds. Notable bridges include the kilometre-long Auckland Harbour Bridge, and the impressive series of elegant railway viaducts on the North Island main trunk line.

Story by Jock Phillips
Main image: Millers Flat bridge

Story Summary

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Many bridges and tunnels

New Zealand is hilly and has many rivers, so bridges and tunnels were needed when building roads and railways. In 2009 there were 2,174 rail bridges, over 15,600 road bridges, and 150 rail tunnels.

Changing transport

Māori and early Pākehā settlers travelled by foot or canoe, crossing rivers by canoe or punt. Later, when coaches, carts and motor vehicles arrived, bridges were necessary. Railways also needed bridges and tunnels.

Cities built on rivers, such as Hamilton and Christchurch, required bridges.

Building bridges and tunnels

Bridges were made of wood, stone, iron or concrete. Early on, it was difficult to build bridges and tunnels. Many were in isolated areas. Floods washed away early wooden bridges, or they rotted. Tunnel builders struggled with heavy rainfall, unstable rock and earthquakes.

Bridges and tunnels took a long time to build, and opened up access to remote areas. When they were completed, people held celebrations.

Groups of bridges

  • The Clutha River/Mata-Au, New Zealand’s second-longest river, has many bridges. In a huge flood in 1878, a number were swept away, and had to be rebuilt.
  • Christchurch has 26 road bridges and seven footbridges on the Avon River.
  • The North Island main trunk railway line, completed in 1908, has more than 20 viaducts. Some are very long and high.

Auckland Harbour Bridge

The Auckland Harbour Bridge, more than a kilometre long, is New Zealand’s most dramatic bridge. It was constructed between Auckland city and the North Shore in the late 1950s.

Rail tunnels

  • The Lyttelton tunnel, built in the 1860s, links Christchurch with its port at Lyttelton.
  • The 8.5-kilometre Ōtira tunnel runs through the Southern Alps, on the railway line from Christchurch to the West Coast.
  • The 8.8-kilometre Rimutaka tunnel is in the Rimutaka Range between Wellington and Wairarapa.
  • The Kaimai tunnel, linking Auckland and Tauranga through the Kaimai Range, is New Zealand’s longest – 8.85 kilometres.

Road and other tunnels

Because cars are better than trains at climbing hills, New Zealand has fewer road tunnels.

  • Wellington is hilly, and a number of road tunnels link suburbs to the city.
  • The Homer Tunnel, on the road to Milford Sound, was begun in 1935 but not used until 1954.
  • The Lyttelton road tunnel, built 100 years after the rail tunnel, links Christchurch with Lyttelton.

Tunnels have also been built for other purposes, including power schemes, defence, and city electricity and water.

How to cite this page:

Jock Phillips, 'Bridges and tunnels', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/bridges-and-tunnels (accessed 28 March 2017)

Story by Jock Phillips, published 11 Mar 2010