The Dunback Branch left the Main South Line at Palmerston and headed inland to its eponymous terminus 14.2 km inland. Opened in 1885, the line was originally expected to head into Central Otago but these plans did not eventuate and it remained as a short branch until it was closed in 1968 beyond Inch Valley. This station had in 1900 been connected with another branch of 4 km to lime works at Makareao and this “Inch Valley Railway”, which took in the entire length from Palmerston after 1968, was later renamed the Makareao Branch. This line became known for the “stone trains” of limestone being hauled down to the Milburn Cement works at Burnside (Dunedin), which constituted the entire traffic of the branch in later years. After the Clyde Dam was completed in the mid 1980s, the output of the cement works declined significantly and it was closed at the end of 1988. Trains on the branch were suspended at the same time, and formal closure occurred on 1 June 1989.
The Makareao Branch is one of the few branches I have examined to have had substantial bridge structures left after the track was lifted. I photographed many of the bridges between the first crossing of SH 85 and Inch Valley in 1999, when I traced the line in detail. All of the bridges on the line were wooden beamed right up to the time that it closed; unlike many other branches, steel girders never made any appearance on this route. This probably accounts for the exclusive use of DI and DJ locomotives with their light axle loading on the stone trains in the diesel era. Most of the bridges were wooden beams and piers, but some had stone piers. Beyond Inch Valley there appear to be no bridge remnants on either line; the first bridge up to Makareao, the lengthy crossing of the Shag River, stood for several years after closure but was demolished in the mid 1990s; the second much smaller bridge appears to be gone as well. On the upper Dunback route, what bridge sites you can find are just abutments, including a small bridge or culvert in the Dunback yard. With the passage of time, it is of course likely that most of the bridge remains will disappear.
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Beginning at Palmerston railway station, you should drive north on SH1 for about 400 metres to the intersection of Stour Street, which crosses the highway on a north-south alignment. The branch line left the MSL about 50 metres before this intersection and curved around to cross SH1 on the far side of the road and then follow its eastern side. A slight embankment hump can be seen alongside the road approaching East Otago High School. At the school entrance is an old semaphore railway signal, resited, which may have been the old home signal for the branch, which if there was one, would have been close by. The embankment becomes very prominent after Brough Street and the first bridge is located near the road bridge a few hundred metres further on, which in April 2010 still had the beams in place, well hidden in the trees. The line continued straight along Stour St and crossed Factory Road, whereafter it curved around westward and crossed a second bridge which appears to have been removed (no public access). You should turn left and drive along Burraness Street towards SH85 and turn right. The road takes a slight left hand bend after about 300 metres and the railway converged from the right, about 100 metres away in this view of the vicinity of a small bridge, which was still in place in December 2007. After another 300 metres the railway crossed SH85 at a small angle and then curved to run along the left hand side. Both approaches are currently used as farm tracks. Hughes Road intersects on the left 100 metres further on, just beyond which the No.4 bridge can be seen, largely intact. 400 metres further on. Bridge No.5 can be seen opposite Switchback road. If you drive down Switchback Road you may see on the left the possible site of a ballast pit just before crossing the river, which was in use for gravel extraction in 2007. The first part of the Dunback Branch was originally built to access ballast reserves alongside the river in this vicinity, which would have required connecting sidings, the routes of which have not been determined.
Continuing north-west on SH85, the railway route is diverging from the highway at this location and the next bridge site is hidden behind a house, the route then closes into the road as the valley narrows. As the road veers right the railway was right alongside on the left, following a line of greenery. The stockyards 200 metres further on are at the site of Meadowbank, the first station after Palmerston; the railway formation is the dirt track in the foreground. About 500 metres past Meadowbank, the remains of No.7 Bridge can be seen to the left. The river this crossed could have been another possible ballast source; there is a hypothetical pit site about 100 metres away on the east side of the highway. Road and rail continue to run close alongside up past the intersection of Munro Road and McElwee Road, with a crossing fence still visible on the latter. About 250 metres further on, you come to the site of Bridge No.8, well hidden in the weeds. The formation is now clearly just behind the fence as you continue north-east on Highway 85. A side road at a slight angle on the right leads to a site that possibly could have been a ballast pit. Just before a left hand curve in the road, you pass the site of Glenpark station, followed closely by the site of No.9 Bridge, which still has the beams and a centre pier in place. The hills close in fairly quickly after this point and the road and rail stay close together, the latter becoming a farm track hemmed in behind a fence as the routes pass through a spectacular limestone formation. About 500 metres further on you pass the intersection of Craig Road on the right, the rail rises above the road and a solid stone culvert can be seen under it. Further limestone formations are seen just beyond the railway here, along with further cuttings becoming more necessary as the hills close in. About 300 metres after the intersection of Blair Athol Road on the left, the road crosses the signposted Downlands Creek, with the old railway bridge No.10, now decked over for farm access, clearly visible on the left. As the road exits the S bend you are now approaching the site of Inch Valley Junction, 500 metres further on. As you approach the southern end of the station there appears to be another stone culvert passing under the formation. Inch Valley is denoted by a widening of the formation, there otherwise being little to see here with most of the remnants that could be seen ten years ago having disappeared, such as the loading bank that used to be present here. In NZR days, Inch Valley had a siding connected to it which led to a ballast pit, and this was probably the large gravel pits behind the poplars directly opposite the station in the river bed, although I haven’t confirmed this.
As you leave Inch Valley on SH85, the road takes a left hand bend. The railway passes through a small cutting along the side of the hill, and then just as the road begins to curve, the branch to Makareao curved away to the right, crossing the highway and heading for the river. On the left, the line continued on towards Dunback. As the highway approaches a 90 degree curve, the railway veers further left, the embankment clearly visible as it curves to follow the road. As the valley narrows, the formation rises above the level of the road and then, as the road begins a sharp curve to the right, the railway route enters a rock cutting. At the inside of this curve, the line emerges onto solid stone retaining walls right alongside the road (2). Road and rail both pass through further rock outcrops and then the rail route becomes an embankment again on a right hand curve. As the road straightens, the formation continues to curve round to a crossing over the road, just before this you may see what appears to be an old crossing gate opposite a signposted rest area. About 600 metres past the SH85 crossing you may be able to see bridge remains in the riverbed next to a highway culvert; aside from this there is very little trace of the railway on the north side of the highway. At a long right hand curve on the road you can see the old road on the left, and I recommend you make a stop to view a solid stone arched single lane bridge that used to be part of the highway. You may also find rail bridge remains on the opposite side of the highway. As you pass the intersection of Domain Road on the right, the rail formation becomes distinctly visible again on the right side of the road and is now seen clearly for the last 500 metres into Dunback. As you approach the station you can see a loading bank in the yard along with a railway house next to the road. You may be able to spot a bridge abutment just past the house. Continuing past what appears to be the local war memorial on the left, make a right turn into Murphy Road to view the end of the rail yard including stockyards and another loading bank.
Now retrace your steps, heading back east on SH85. After about 700 metres, take the left hand turn into Domain Road, crossing over the Shag River. 300 metres further on, turn right into Grange Hill Road, then 350 metres further take a left hand turn into Limekiln Road. After another 2.7 km the road crosses a small bridge over a gravel riverbed and then turns sharply left, bringing you directly alongside the Makareao Branch formation on your right. As the road approaches the limeworks, the formation is incorporated into the road. There are substantial historic remnants of the limeworks at this site, but it is on private land. As you return back down Limekiln road, you should be able to see the formation separate as it drops down a steep 1 in 35 gradient. The grade from Inch Valley was relentless between the first bridge and the limeworks, apart from a short level stretch for the second bridge. As you reach the road bridge, you may care to walk 500 metres down the stream bed to reach the site of the second rail bridge, although there appears to be little to see today. When you reach the intersection of Grange Hill Road, turn left this time and head down the Shag River valley on the opposite side from the highway and Dunback Branch. After about 800 metres go right to cross the Shag River (the straight ahead route is a dead end that heads into a gravel pit). After the right turn, turn left back onto Highway 85. Now drive about 500 metres towards Palmerston and take a left hand turn into McLew Road to cross over the Makareao Branch formation after 150 metres. Continue on the road to make a left hand turn onto a farm access road just after the bridge and drive about 300 metres to the east abutment of the 15-span Bridge No.1, of which only the abutments remain. On the near side (the road has been cut through the embankment) you can see the line disappearing up the grade towards Makareao as it approaches a pair of cuttings.