Wednesday 19 December 2018

East Coast Main Trunk [1B]: Rotorua Branch 2 (Rotorua Station 2) : Five Generations Of Rotorua

This will be the last posting about the ECMT for a while. I have no plans to map any other parts of the ECMT or its various branches for the present time (even though I did spend some time recently downloading coverage for some other ECMT parts).

Rotorua is a well known city in the Bay of Plenty based around Lake Rotorua and is the terminus of the mothballed Rotorua Branch. Like other parts of the ECMT it had various incarnations due to repurposing of different connecting sections as other lines opened or closed. The first part was privately built from Morrinsville to Tirau (a total of 78.5 km) and opened in 1886. It was taken over by the Government soon after and reached Putaruru in the same year. The section from Putaruru to Rotorua was opened in stages between 1893-1894. The total length of the route was then 111 km made up of Morrinsville-Waharoa (24.55 km), Waharoa-Putaruru (36.02 km) and Putaruru-Rotorua (c.50.50 km). The Rotorua route was one of several proposed to link the ECMT through to Gisborne, which was later considered for a linkup with what became the Taneatua Branch instead, but was never built. Extensions from Rotorua to Taupo were also considered, along with a freight connection to the Waipa State Mill just south of the city. Again, none of these ideas amounted to anything. The most recent idea has been from the New Zealand First political party which in 2014 suggested that Rotorua could be reached via a new line from Kinleith (one presumes this would bypass the notoriously steep Mamaku incline of the original route) which would continue on to Taupo.

Rotorua had passenger services via Auckland from the outset, originally the prestigious Rotorua Limited, which became the Rotorua Express. In 1959 this steam train was replaced by 88 seat twinset railcars, which only lasted until 1968 when the service ceased entirely. Passenger operations were resumed in 1991 with a Silver Fern railcar as the Geyserland Express, also from Auckland. This ceased when the line was shut down in 2001. 

From 1978 the section of the Rotorua Branch from Morrinsville-Waharoa became part of the ECMT main line as the original main line via Paeroa was reincorporated into the Thames Branch and the Kaimai Tunnel, accessed via Waharoa, opened. At the same time, the section frm Waharoa to Putaruru became part of the Kinleith Branch that had opened from Putaruru to Kinleith in the early 1950s. Consequently at that time the Rotorua line was reduced to the 50 km section from Putaruru to Rotorua. The line gradually wound down after the deregulation of long distance freight (which drastically reduced the traffic on the entire NZ national network) from 1982 to 2001 when the passenger services ceased, freight services having been withdrawn the previous year. Prior to that, in 1989, the central city Rotorua station was closed with the terminus being shifted 2 km nearer to Putaruru, at Koutu. In 1995 the passenger terminal at Koutu moved from the south side to the north side of Lake Road. In 2014 the Lake Road overbridge was demolished, cutting off access to the former freight terminal on the south side of the road.

The line is currently partly used by Rail Riders operating self propelled adapted golf buggies ("rail cruisers") for tourists from Mamaku. Some other parts of the line are impassible due to theft of track. Other tourism or heritage railway proposals such as the Second Chance Train Trust (1990s) and Geyserland Express Trust, later Rotorua Ngongotaha Rail Trust have collapsed. The latter group proposed the re-opening of the line for full freight and passenger operations but this never had a chance of getting off the ground. 

So the five generations of Rotorua begin in 1951 which is our first aerial image as seen below.

Note the freight yard was relatively small in this era but did have the goods shed (opposite the station) and the stockyard at the eastern end.. The station is the original straight building. The engine depot with turntable is visible at the west end of the yard. Housing is located all along the southern boundary but a lot of the station land has not been developed yet.

Next image is from 1966.
We can see very major differences in the 15 year interval between the taking of these aerials. Without doing additional research I can't narrow down the period when these works were carried out. However we can see that there was a major expansion of the freight yards, a new station building set closer to the road, which also had a bus terminal in front of it, and a road services depot building upper left. Some housing at the top right corner has been removed.

Next image is from 1972.
The only  obvious change in this instance is the removal of the stockyards at the eastern end of the line, as this was an era when stock carriage by rail was being phased out around the country. Formerly the Rotorua station had carried significant volumes of stock to the freezing works in Auckland.

Next image is 1983
At the western end of the yard there is a new single road diesel era engine shed (replacing the two road steam shed) and the turntable has been replaced at a site closer to Ranolf Street. Up at the eastern end next to Fenton Street the building next to the former stockyards (function unknown at this stage) has gone. Some track in the yard has been altered but otherwise it still looks much the same. A few of the houses have gone. However the station precinct did not have a long life from this point; it was closed down in 1989. This was an era when wholesale slashing and burning of the national railway system was being carried out, resulting in a great deal of valuable central city railway properties around NZ being cleared and sold for redevelopment. So the central city terminus was closed and the freight yard was relocated 2 km up the line to Koutu. The impact of this decision on the reinstated passenger service that began in 1991 has been hotly debated.

Finally we have the current aerial view of the site.
There is practically no continuity between the NZR era and the present day. That is one of the reasons for drawing maps like these, to help people visit on the ground and get a sense of what once was. There are just two buildings in the present day site that can be seen on the 1983 aerial photo. These are the L-shaped building (currently ASB Bank) at the corner of Amohau Street and Tutanekai Street (a smaller square version of this can be seen in some of the earlier aerials as well) and the McDonalds premises on the corner of Amohau Street and Fenton Street.