On the right track: tramways archaeology in Christchurch

How did people get around Christchurch in the 19th century? People certainly walked, or rode, perhaps on a horse, or in a wheeled vehicle pulled by a horse, such as a dray, gig, hackney, or hansom. And let’s not forget that by the later 19th century many people were certainly racing around on bicycles . From early 1880 however, the people of Christchurch were given the option of travelling by tram. During the course of horizontal infrastructure rebuild we have come across lots of old tram lines, and in the process have become tramways archaeologists.

Trains versus trams

What’s the difference between a train and a tram? Both are flange wheeled vehicles that operate atop a permanent way  of iron rail: mostly it’s a question of scale. Trains are a heavy rail transportation system and trams are a light rail transportation system. Trains run on specially built lines that are always separate from other traffic, whereas trams run along lines (called tramways) that are built into public roads, a space they have to share with other traffic.

All the rage across the world in the 19th century, once trams finally arrived in Christchurch they proved to be a big hit. Before the Christchurch Tramway Board was formed in 1903 to municipalise, modernise, and electrify the network (the first electric trams ran in 1905), the tramways of 19th century Christchurch were owned and operated by private companies. The Canterbury Tramway Company was the first of these: formed in 1878, it opened its first passenger service in March 1880, and by the end of 1888 had 17 miles (more than 27 kilometres) of tramway in operation (Alexander 1985: 8).

Off the rails: rail types

Three different types of iron rail were used in the 19th century to carry Christchurch trams. Thin flat grooved rails were used in the early years – these were attached to longitudinal timber beams fastened to timber sleepers. This first type of rail (not surprisingly) wasn’t very robust – it cracked along the inside of the groove, and was soon replaced with other rail types (Anderson 1985: 29). Loubat’s grooved tramrail proved to be the best choice: with the flanges of the tram wheels running safely within the groove or ‘flangeway’ of the upper surface of the rail, Loubat’s rail could be easily set flush into the road surface where they didn’t pose such a hazard to other road users (except possibly unfortunate cyclists with narrow tires).


The three different types of rail that carried Christchurch trams in the 19th century. From left to right: the early flat grooved rail used by the Canterbury Tramway company, the flat bottomed Vignoles rail, and the Loubat grooved tram rail. Image: Anderson 1985: 29.

Mostly we have found Loubat’s grooved tramway rail in situ below Christchurch’s roads, though all the examples we have found so far have been associated with 20th century electric trams.

With the transition to electric trams all the tramlines of the private companies had to be replaced. Although the new electrics were of the standard gauge like their steam and horse powered predecessors, most of the tramlines were in poor condition, and the rail was too light to handle the much heavier electric tramcars, so had to be dug up and replaced. The standard method of tramway formation in the electric era involved bedding the sleepers on compacted shingle, and fixing the rails with big spike nails (Alexander 1986: 52). A good example of this was uncovered in 2012 on North Avon Road – you can read all about it here. From the 1920s this method was improved, with concrete being used instead of compacted shingle. Last week I spotted a fine example of this in the side of a sewer trench crossing Colombo Street.


An improved concrete tramway foundation of the 1920s period, as exposed in the side of a sewer trench crossing Colombo Street. It had some fine steel mesh reinforcing at a lower level. Image: H. Williams.

A later method involved completely embedding the rail in reinforced concrete (Alexander 1993: 78-79). We have come across lots of this type of tramway in the central city, just below the road surface. It’s easy to see why these tramways were simply covered over after the last of the trams stopped running in 1954, as removing them is lots of hard work!


A 20th century reinforced concrete tramway foundation, with the embedded Loubat grooved rail still in situ. Colombo Street, Sydenham. Image: H. Williams.

The tramway on Tuam Street

We have found the remnants of only one 19th century tramway. This was on Tuam Street, and formed part of the Canterbury Tramway Company’s Addington line, which opened to the public on 5 January 1882 (Star 5/1/1882: 2). Unlike most of the other 19th century tram routes, when the tramway network was electrified the Addington route was slightly altered, and Tuam Street bypassed. Because of this, remains of this 19th century tramline survived, unlike the lines of other routes that were dug up and relaid.

At three different locations on Tuam Street we found timber tramway sleepers, but sadly no rail. Presumably the well-worn rail was removed and scrapped, but it may have found another use. On Main Road near McCormacks Bay last year we looked at a trio of Vignoles rails exposed during road widening works. These had been embedded vertically in the ground, to support part of the seawall. We guess that these old rails had once been part of the adjacent roadway, where they carried the Sumner tram.


An alignment of old Vignoles type tram rails exposed on Main Road, McCormacks Bay during road widening works in February 2015. Image: H. Williams.


Close up of one of the well-worn and salt-spray corroded Vignoles type tram rails used to support the sea wall. The height of the rail is 116 mm, and you can see that the upper surface is well worn from contact with the tram wheel. Image: H. Williams.

Most of the sleepers of the Addington line had been removed; in over 300 metres of trenching on Tuam Street we found just eight sleepers, probably left there because their condition was too poor to justify their removal for reuse. Knowing that vast numbers of hardwood sleepers were being imported from Australia for our railway construction at the time (Press 8/9/1891:5), I was interested to learn that the timber was of a native species – rimu.


The remnants of two 19th century tramway sleepers of the Addington Line exposed on Tuam Street. They had been laid directly atop the sandy clay subsoil, rather than on top of any supporting ballast. Image: H. Williams.


An alignment of sleepers uncovered at the Tuam and Colombo Street intersection, laid not at right angles to the road, but on an angle, to carry the tram around the corner. Image: H. Williams.

There are so many social and cultural related tramway things that sadly we haven’t been able to touch upon in this week’s blog – such as the rules for riding a Christchurch tram in the 19th century (no playing musical instruments without the permission of the [tram!] conductor), or the saga of the council’s tramway hearse that never carried a single corpse and ended up a houseboat (Alexander 1983: 11).

Because of the context in which we have found these tramway features (located on public rather than private land) it’s been a different sort of archaeology than what we have been used to – representing one not of past peoples ‘in their place’, so to speak (be it in their former home, workplace, or backyard, the kind of contexts where we end up doing most of our archaeology), but of past peoples ‘between places’; neither here nor there but ‘on the way somewhere’ – a most ephemeral archaeology of people in transit, people in motion.


Although she rides the rails at Ferrymead, 134 ‘Kitty’, one of the eight Kitson steam tram motors imported by the Canterbury Tramway Company made a special trip back into town some years ago to blaze up a few laps on the city circuit. At left, Kitty leaves Cathedral Junction, October 2003, and at right, in the distance, the Invercargill Tramways No. 15 Birney electric tram, April 2015. Both trams were restored by the Tramway Historical Society. Image: D. Hinman (left) and H. Williams (right).

Thanks to Dave Hinman from the Tramway Historical Society for providing the photo of Kitty, and to Dr Rod Wallace for timber identification.

Hamish Williams


Alexander, M., 1985. Rails in the Roads: the steam and horse tram era in Christchurch. Christchurch NZ: Christchurch Transport Board and Tramway Historical Society.

Alexander, M., 1986. The Wire Web: the Christchurch Tramway Board & its early electric tramways, 1903-1920. Christchurch, N.Z: Christchurch Transport Board and Tramway Historical Society.

Alexander, M., 1993. Tram to the Terminus: the Christchurch Tramway Board and its electric tramways 1921-54. Christchurch N.Z: A&M and Tramway Historical Society.

Press. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz

Star. [online] Available at www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz