Rail transport — The way of the future in the 19th century
Railways were transforming travel in England and Europe by the middle of the 19th century. It is thus, scarcely surprising that the building of railways should be top of the list of priorities for British colonies of the time. In Manawatu the way that railways were viewed is evident in the layout of the towns through which they pass. Palmerston North, Feilding and Halcombe were all laid out round a central railway.
Manawatu’s first railway was the Foxton-Palmerston route —constructed in 1873 as a wooden tramway with horse-drawn wagons running along it. A Wellington newspaper of the day reported a few months after the opening “The tramway from Foxton to Palmerston has opened up a large area of land, and given a great impetus to settlement in this part of the country.”
But wooden rails were not durable enough to carry steam locomotives and as the first three eight ton engines were ordered for the line — the Skunk, the Possum and the Wallaby — work began on replacing the wooden rails with iron. The first train ran from Foxton to Palmerston along the completed iron railway in April 1876.
Extending this railway from Palmerston North to Wanganui was one of the major projects offered to the first groups of immigrants to go to Feilding and Halcombe. The grand opening of this line took place in May 1878.
The Foxton-Palmerston North-Wanganui railway was a Government owned line. When the Wellington — Manawatu link was first talked about in 1878 it was also to be a Government-funded project. By January 1881, a group of Wellington businessmen eager to take advantage of the new market opportunities opening up in Manawatu, were tired of waiting for Government action. They formed the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company and built a railway line from Wellington to join up with the existing Foxton-Palmerston North line at Longburn. The line was completed in November, 1886, and opened up much of inland Horowhenua and Manawatu for settlement.
The company operated a very successful railway service until December 1908 when it was bought by the New Zealand Government to become part of the North Island Main Trunk Line.
The Sanson-Foxton Tramway was a project carried out by the Manawatu County Council. Opened in August 1884, it extended the Foxton —Palmerston North line from where it turned inland at Himatangi north to Sanson. The last train ran on this line in November, 1945, by which time the line went through Sanson and on to the bank of the Rangitikei River to allow trains to load up with metal from the pit there.