Oxford Branch, New Zealand

Oxford Branch, New Zealand
     Oxford Branch
Overview
Type Heavy Rail
System New Zealand Government Railways (NZGR)
Status Closed
Locale Canterbury, New Zealand
Termini Rangiora
Sheffield
Stations 13
Operation
Opened 1884-07-28
Closed 1930-07-14 (Sheffield – Oxford East)
1959-04-19 (Oxford East – Rangiora)
Owner Railways Department
Operator(s) Railways Department
Character Rural
Technical
Line length 35.47 km (Rangiora – Oxford West)
No. of tracks Single
Track gauge 3 ft 6 in (1,067 mm)
Route map
Legend
Unknown BSicon "eABZ3rg" Station on transverse track
0 km Rangiora Main North Line
Unknown BSicon "exHST"
Bells
Unknown BSicon "exHST"
Fernside
Unknown BSicon "exHST"
Stoke
Unknown BSicon "exHST"
Springbank (Moeraki)
Unknown BSicon "exHST"
Cust
Unknown BSicon "exSTR" Unknown BSicon "exLUECKE"
Eyreton Branch
Unknown BSicon "exABZrg" Unknown BSicon "exSTRrf"
Unknown BSicon "exHST"
32.41 km Bennetts Junction
Unknown BSicon "exHST"
Carleton
Unknown BSicon "exBHF"
Oxford East
Unknown BSicon "exHST"
35.47 km Oxford West
Unknown BSicon "exHST"
View Hill
Unknown BSicon "exHST"
Bexley
Unknown BSicon "exWBRÜCKE1"
Waimakariri River Gorge bridge
Unknown BSicon "exSTRlf" Unknown BSicon "exSTRlg"
Unknown BSicon "eHSTq" Unknown BSicon "eABZ3rf"
Sheffield (Malvern) Midland Line

The Oxford Branch was a branch line railway that formed part of New Zealand's national rail network. It was located in the Canterbury region of the South Island, and ran roughly parallel with the Eyreton Branch that was located some ten kilometres south. It opened to Oxford in 1875 and survived until 1959.

The Oxford Branch was unusual in that for much of its life, it did not conform to the usual definition of a branch line, in that instead of running from a main line to a terminus, it actually linked two main lines, the Main North Line and the Midland Line. This meant it was the only portion of the proposed Canterbury Interior Main Line to be completed.

Contents

Construction

In the late 1860s, the Oxford region was plagued by appalling transport conditions, and as Oxford possessed one of Canterbury's two major stands of timber (the Little River Branch was built to the other), it was seen as economically important to build a branch line to provide a convenient means of transporting the timber. At the time, the Main North Line up the east coast from Christchurch was under construction and a number of proposals were made of routes from junctions with the main line to Oxford. Two proposals were accepted, one from Rangiora to Oxford, and another from Kaiapoi, terminating in West Eyreton (the Eyreton Branch).

Construction of the Oxford Branch was undertaken by a department of the central government of New Zealand even though the Canterbury Provincial Railways were building the Main North Line, and work began in mid-1872, four months before the main line even reached Rangiora. At this stage, the Main North Line was being built to 1600mm broad gauge while the branch was being built to the newly nationally accepted 1067mm narrow gauge, and this created a break-of-gauge in Rangiora for a brief period until the Canterbury Provincial Railways were converted to narrow gauge.

On 1 December 1874, the branch was opened from Rangiora to Cust, and the rest of the line to Oxford followed on 21 June 1875 with two stations established in Oxford, East and West. East Oxford was considered to be the 'main' Oxford station. In early 1877, the Public Works Department chose to extend the Eyreton Branch to meet the Oxford Branch, and this was completed on 1 February 1878, with the two lines meeting at Bennetts Junction. An extension of the Oxford Branch itself soon followed; despite the Long Depression of the 1880s and the disapproval of a Royal Commission in 1880, a line was built linking Oxford with Sheffield (then known as Malvern and the terminus of a branch line that grew to become the Midland Line). This was opened on 28 July 1884 with its most notable engineering feat being a combined road/rail bridge over the Waimakariri Gorge. At this stage, the 55 kilometre long line from Kaiapoi to Sheffield was seen as the most northerly portion of the proposed Canterbury Interior Main Line, but it was ultimately the only portion to be built.

Operation

From its opening, the Oxford Branch saw two "mixed" trains of passengers and freight each way per day and a locomotive depot was established in Oxford, and once the connection with the Eyreton Branch was established, one daily train ran to Oxford from the Eyreton line too. The trip from Christchurch to Oxford took three hours, including an hour and forty minutes from Rangiora to the terminus.

The extension from Oxford to Sheffield saw only light local traffic, and its sole moment of significant worth came during World War I. During the combat years, wartime needs stimulated enough traffic to justify two trains daily, but with the coming of peace, trains fell to a mere single weekly service. Had the Midland Line and Main North Line both been completed earlier, the route could have become a convenient shortcut and bypass of Christchurch for trains from the West Coast to northern east coast destinations, but this did not eventuate and it mainly carried picnic trains and small quantities of local freight. Only one locomotive at a time was allowed on the bridge over the Waimakariri River despite its good condition, though it is doubtful this policy ever had to be enforced. Lacklustre traffic meant that the line was cut back to Oxford on 14 July 1930, reducing the branch's length to 35.5 kilometres.

Also in 1930, a Royal Commission determined that only one freight train daily from Christchurch to Oxford was required, and the New Zealand Railways Department acted upon this recommendation and slashed services. West Oxford's locomotive depot was closed, and as of 9 February 1931, the line became freight-only. It was also on that date that the link from the Eyreton Branch was closed. Services on the line remained daily until 1945, when they were cut to just twice weekly, and with financial losses increasing and traffic decreasing, the branch was closed on 19 April 1959.

The branch today

Traces of closed railways diminish and disappear due to the influence of human and natural activity, though in the case of the Oxford Branch, the significant bridge over the Waimakariri River still carries the road over the river, performing half of its original function as a road/rail bridge. The road from Oxford actually approaches the bridge along the railway's old alignment as it took a much easier route than the original road; the disused old winding road route is visible from the current road. The railway line's old track bed is sometimes still visible, especially around the Waimakariri Gorge area, and in Rangiora, the extra width of Blackett Street reveals the route the line took through the town. Loading banks still exist at the site of the Bennetts Junction and Carleton stations; Fernside and Springbank both still have their goods sheds, loading banks, and stockyards; replica station signs can be found at a few sites of old stations; and until 1997, the East Oxford station stood behind the Oxford Working Men's Club. It was relatively large for a rural New Zealand station and was once kept well-preserved, but it fell into such a severe state of disrepair that it was demolished in 1997 and all that remains now is the almost indestructible station safe and the platform.

External links

References

  • Churchman, Geoffrey B., and Hurst, Tony; The Railways Of New Zealand: A Journey Through History, HarperCollins Publishers (New Zealand), 1991 reprint
  • Leitch, David, and Scott, Brian; Exploring New Zealand's Ghost Railways, Grantham House, 1998 revised edition

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