The Tram Tunnel or Bus Tunnel

Hataitai bus tunnel

The Hataitai side of the tunnel at the end of Waitoa Road

As the population of Hataitai increased at the end of the nineteenth century residents began demanding better access to the suburb. Before the tunnel was built access was via Newtown and Crawford Road, or by negotiating the road around the coast from Evan's Bay or tracks over Mt Victoria. In 1899 the Evening Post carried reports that residents of Kilbirnie were agitating to have the road from Newtown flattened so that trams could use it.

By 1904 there was a strong movement demanding a tunnel, and the Post reported a lively meeting of 100 people discussing the issue. It was said a tunnel would shorten the distance from North Kilbirnie (ie Hataitai) to the city by two-thirds of a mile. Residents pointed out that the spoil from the tunnel could be used for improvements in Kilbirnie, and said the Council would gain income in rates if more people were encoraged to settle in the district. The Hataitai Land Company in particular pushed for a tunnel, as this would improve the value of its sections.

Eventually plans were made and the Hataitai Land Company donated almost £10,000 towards the cost. Kilbirnie School had a half-day holiday when Richard Seddon turned the first sod on the Hataitai side on 18 October 1905. Charlie Taylor was a boy at the time and recalled in his memoirs:

The tunnel was dug by pick and shovel and explosives, the earth put into iron trucks and sent rolling down hill on the rails laid down Moxham Avenue to Evans Bay, where the Recreation Grounds are now, and the spoil taken out of the tunnel was tipped there to make an extension of the Reserve. Then horses would hitch on and haul the trucks back up on the other line. There was a man on the trucks going down who operated the brakes and the same man rode back on the trucks to get more spoil. There were no motor lorries or bulldozers, just man power.

The 1200ft-long tunnel took 18 months to build. A slip occurred during construction which killed three men and injured another.[read more] This caused delays while the debris was cleared, but work was finished on 11 April 1907 at a total cost of £15,834. The new tramline through the tunnel was tested the next day and officially opened to the public on 16 April 1907. A single-deck car was used for the test, and the run was a smooth one. The Mayor and Mayoress, city councillors, Corporation officials and members of the Miramar Borough Council were official guests. The Evening Post reported:

A large number of the residents of Kilbirnie turned out to witness the historic event of the running of the first tramcar, and at the Mayor's invitation a carload of children were given a run along a portion of the section. The visitors from town were entertained at the Kilbirnie Hotel by Mr E T Taylor. Responding to the toast of his health, the Mayor said he felt sure the line was going to prove a success, for which the enterprise of the Hataitai Land Syndicate had to be thanked.

The representative from the land company replied by saying they hadn't acted out of philanthropy but with the hope of future benefits, and in fact the company wasted no time in promoting itself. Only two days later the Post reported that the Hataitai Land Company was opening up another block of sections and noted "completion of the connecting tunnel places what was the suburb of Hataitai on an equal footing with city residential property which is distant not more than 10 minutes by car from the GPO."

Initially tramcars ran every twenty minutes, and more frequently between 5 and 7pm. There was much discussion about where fare sections should be on the new route, with various residents' groups wanting a say. Those on the Mt Victoria side wanted a 'penny section' fare to the Post Office, while those in Hataitai were concerned about consistency with the existing fare structure.

Within a couple of years of the tunnel opening, residents were saying it was not big enough and another tunnel should be built. The Mt Victoria Tunnel opened in 1931.

Conversion to Bus Tunnel

Wellington's trams were phased out in the 1960s, and in 1963 the tram tunnel was converted for use as a bus tunnel. The tram tracks, tram wire and two small water mains were taken out of the tunnel, and replaced with trolley bus wires, ducting for phone cables, electricity cables and a new 15-inch water main down the centre of the tunnel floor. This involved some ingenuity in the cramped space, as the Evening Post reported:

lengths of water pipe are laid onto a number of paper bags full of dry sand, so the pipes will be high enough above the bottom of their trench for welders to join them together. When the whole length is welded together workmen will spike the paper bags. The sand will run onto the trench floor and the main will be lowered gently and evenly to its resting place.

The first scheduled trolley bus service ran through the tunnel on Sunday 13 October 1963. Trolley buses and diesels still use the tunnel every day on the Miramar, Hataitai and Airport routes.

Sources: Town Clerk's report 1906-7; Evening Post (various); Tales of old Kilbirnie by CW Taylor pub 1964.

Read the Evening Post Reports of the fatal tunnel accident on 22 Feb 1907

Visit Wellington Public Library Tram Information Page for more information, books and links about Wellington's trams.

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