The Vogel era

Page 3 – Vogel's vision

In 1869, when Julius Vogel became Colonial Treasurer in the government led by Premier William Fox, he observed that:

New Zealand is a peculiar country. You cannot get over its geographical configuration. You cannot bring together the two ends nearer than they are. There will always be a certain amount of isolation in different parts until the iron horse [railway] runs through the two islands.

In June 1870 Vogel unveiled the most ambitious public works and assisted-immigration programme in New Zealand’s history. It was to be funded by massive borrowing in the London money markets, reaching £10 million by 1876 and £21 million by 1881 (equivalent to $1.5 billion and $3.5 billion respectively in 2018). This would be spent on assisted (government-subsidised) immigration and on building or improving infrastructure, including the telegraph network, roads, public buildings and port facilities. Its centerpiece was a promise to build more than 1000 miles (1600 km) of railway in nine years.

A peaceful conquest

Vogel hoped to stimulate a stagnant, war-weary colonial economy. He also promised to reignite what many saw as New Zealand’s faltering colonisation project – to ‘re-illume that sacred flame’. To Pākehā eyes, much of the North Island remained a wilderness of bush, native ‘wasteland’ and potential rebellion. As recently as the late 1860s, clashes with the warrior prophets Tītokowaru and Te Kooti had forced many Pākehā settlers to flee isolated homesteads for the safety of coastal towns. Vogel hoped that immigrants, roads and railways would spearhead a peaceful Pākehā conquest of the Māori heartland.

The policy’s success hinged on the rapid and cheap acquisition of Māori land. The resulting influx of settlers into new districts would not only stimulate economic growth but quickly swamp the local Māori population. Employment on public works schemes, Vogel believed, would hasten the integration of Māori into the European economy. Two decades later, while living in Britain in 1893, Vogel put it more bluntly: ‘The Public Works Policy seemed to the Government the sole alternative to a war of extermination with the natives.’

Building railways (as well as roads) in a mountainous, geologically unstable and swampy country was a difficult challenge. New Zealand lacked capital and labour, but compared to Britain and Europe land was relatively cheap. Rather than build the most direct routes with expensive earthworks, tunnels and stone bridges, it made sense to build longer, winding routes around obstacles, to erect wooden trestle bridges, and to tolerate tight curves and steep gradients. These factors, together with the wish to build quickly and cheaply, led to the adoption of a narrow 3 ft 6 in (1067-mm) gauge as the national standard.

A single gauge

Canterbury’s first railways were built using the broad 5 ft 3 in (1600-mm) ‘Irish’ gauge, while Southland adopted the 4 ft 8½ in (1435-mm) ‘standard’ gauge (used in Britain, the US and many other countries). The government’s decision to impose the 3 ft 6 in ‘Cape’ gauge (the earlier lines were converted by 1877) meant that New Zealand avoided the problems that have plagued Australia, where colonial (state) railways were built using three different gauges.