January 14th 1900 was an important day for Gisborne residents, as the Railways Minister, Joseph Ward, turned the first sod on the railway route from Gisborne to Motu.
The railway had been proposed since 1886, but it was only local agitation in 1897 that began to get the project moving. Once started, progress was steady on this railway which was isolated from the rest of the network. With a railway also proposed southward toward Hawkes Bay, it was hoped that an eventual railway route from Napier through Gisborne and on to the Bay of Plenty would be achieved.
The northern route from Gisborne reached Ormond in 1902, Te Karaka in 1907 and Matawai in 1917. The railway gave much-needed access to Gisborne’s northern farming communities at a time when the district’s roads were in an atrocious state. The line began operating at a profit transporting sheep, cattle, timber and road metal. J.A. Mackay in “Historic Poverty Bay and the East Coast, N.I., N.Z.” tells us that the railway was also popular with passengers, and 4000 people had rides on the train when the section to Ormond opened on the 26th June 1902.
Although the line reached Motuhora in November 1917, a distance of 49 miles, the work was discontinued. In 1938 the route through the Waimana Gorge to Taneatua was discussed, but a lack of plant and materials prevented work starting. The outbreak of World War II led to a postponement, and a cost review in 1946 led to an investigation of alternatives.
Passenger services on the branch line ceased in 1945 as NZR Road Services buses began to offer alternative transport. Competition from road transport, benefiting from war surplus trucks, caused the line to start losing money by 1952. Maintenance was suspended and the line closed on 24th March 1959. Gisborne – Motuhora became another of our “ghost railways.”
“Exploring New Zealand’s Ghost Railways” (Leitch & Scott, 1998) has a detailed description of the railway route, much of which survives.
In my early days, spying out the old track-bed from the car as we drove from Gisborne through to the Bay of Plenty was a favourite past-time. In many places the railway is close to State Highway 2, and the highway runs along the old track-bed in many places. Tunnels, cuttings and bridge approaches can easily be seen.
When I was maintaining telephone exchanges in the area in the late 1970s the concrete platform of the Matawai Station was easy to find, as the turn-off to Motu ran right beside it as the road left the town.
If the railway through to the Bay of Plenty had been completed, I have no doubt that it would be a popular tourist route today. The dramatic and rugged landscape inland near Motu is a sight to be seen, having been shaken, crushed and overthrown during millennia of seismic activity.