Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Dunback and Makareao Branches – 1 : Intro

This article is largely unaltered from its original publication in 1999. As I have not visited the area since then, except for a brief visit to Palmerston earlier this year, I am not in a position to be able to verify changes that may have occurred since 1999.

The Dunback Branch was a 15 km line that left the South Island Main Trunk at Palmerston, 51 km south of Oamaru and 63 km north of Dunedin, heading inland and north-west to the small town of Dunback. The line was opened in 1885 as the Waihemo Branch and was renamed later. It was at that time a typical rural branch line but could have gone much further, well into Central Otago, had not the route taken by the present Taieri Gorge Railway been chosen instead.

At Inch Valley, 11 km from Palmerston, a second line known initially as the Inch Valley Railway but later to the NZR as the Makareao Branch, was constructed up a hill to the Makareao Limeworks some 4 km to the north-east, opening in 1900. In later years the "stone trains" as they became known, rakes of highsided 4 wheel wagons carrying limestone to the Burnside Cement Works at Dunedin thrice weekly (earlier permitted to run up to five days per week as required), became the major traffic on this line and the Dunback Branch. The section from Inch Valley to Dunback was closed on 1 January 1968, after which the Palmerston to Inch Valley section became part of the Makareao Branch.

As the Clyde Dam project drew to a close in the late 1980s, the declining cement requirements contributed to the December 1988 closure of the Burnside works, removing the major traffic on the line, which closed the following June. In later years (by 1952 or earlier) the maximum permitted speed on the entire branch was a mere 30 km/h; during 1988 this reduced further to 20 km/h. Some members of the Otago Railway and Locomotive Society and the Pleasant Point Railway made a trolley trip up the line in February 1989, six weeks after the last train was run. The month before the line closed, a major auction of plant and equipment was held by Milburn Cement with one of the three days onsite at Makareao. After Milburn Cement’s owners, Holcim NZ, closed Burnside Cement Works, they reassigned the Makareao limeworks to another subsidiary, Taylor’s Lime, who continue to operate it today to supply industrial needs.

Today the remnants of both lines are still easily traced. A notable feature of this line is that from Palmerston to Inch Valley, most or all of the bridges are still in place, ten years after closure. The line left the SIMT at Palmerston a few hundred metres north of the station, crossing the main road and running through the township, then making its way towards Highway 85. After crossing this road, the formation more or less follows the south side of the road through the Meadowbank and Glenpark station sites, en route crossing several bridges, to reach Inch Valley where rails from a set of points are still present at the far end of the yard. The first bridge after crossing SH85 still has rails and sleepers on it; the rest are bereft but otherwise complete.

From Inch Valley the Dunback Branch continued on the south-west side of the highway as the road took a gentle left-hand bend, passing along some notable stone walling above the highway, and over several stone culverts. It then crossed SH85 again before heading down into the Dunback station yard. Some bridge abutments and cuttings can be seen in this area. Also of some interest between the crossing and Dunback is a stone arched road bridge hidden by trees on the opposite side of the road from the railway formation, where the road was deviated some years ago.

From Inch Valley the Makareao Branch crossed SH85 at the bend referred to above and then crossed McLew Road to be on its western side for the run to the river. It crossed the Shag River on a 15 span wooden bridge. This bridge was demolished by the army in the 1990s as an official exercise. If you drive across the McLew road bridge and then turn left immediately after the bridge onto a farm access road, you come to the site of the bridge, with the embankment continuing on your right up the grade and disappearing through a cutting. From the road, some rails are directly below the near approach and the abutment (made of rails and [apparently] sleepers) on the opposite side of the river is visible.

It appears that at the crossing of this farm track, the hump has been levelled as the embankment is rather higher at this point. It is also very obvious at this point how rural the line really was, even as close to Palmerston and the main trunk line as was the case. The Makareao Branch between Inch Valley and its terminus ran almost literally through the middle of nowhere. There is no major road up to Makareao, only the unsealed Limekiln Road, and the formation of the line passes through otherwise wide open country with no road access to much of the route. Makareao is not a typical station serving population, just an industrial site in a sparsely populated area, in contrast to the rest of the route close to main roads and population centres.

Between the bridge and the limeworks the line climbs steeply at grades of up to 1 in 35 to reach the terminus. The occasional excursion train was run to Makareao in the line's last years and I was a passenger on one such trip run by the Otago Excursion Train Trust in January 1988. Some photos from this trip are included. The line officially closed in June 1989 although the last stone train ran in December 1988.

Details of Route, Curves and Gradients


On the above diagram, numbers in circles are the bridge numbers. Numbers under the grade line are the gradient, the number to be divided into 1 e.g. 330 is a gradient of 1 in 330. The top scale is in miles; the bottom scale in kilometres. The curve diagram shows the curve radius in chains.

The line left Palmerston north of the station with the points facing south. It was on a track that paralleled the main line before turning left to cross State Highway 1 on a 7 1/2 chain curve and then running along the east side of Stour Street to its intersection with Factory Road. After crossing the latter, the route then curves left at 10 chains radius to head towards Highway 85 in a more or less easterly direction. There was an initial short downgrade at 1 in 50 maximum with mostly easy upgrades to Inch Valley. As the highway drops down the hill and takes a left turn, the formation can be seen coming in from the right. After crossing, the first of two 40 chain right hand curves brings the line parallel to the road but some distance out to the left. The second curve just before Meadowbank brings the route right alongside the road.

From Meadowbank to Glenpark the track is almost completely straight except for a 120 chain left hand curve just before the latter station. The road and the railway are then very close together the rest of the way to Inch Valley in which there are a number of curves up to 7 1/2 chains. The Inch Valley ballast siding, on the right hand side of the line, was probably on the opposite side of the road from the station where gravel pits are shown on the map.

Just north of Inch Valley station yard where the road curves to the left, the two lines split with the Makareao Branch going around 90 degrees to the right, immediately crossing Highway 85, followed closely by McLew Road, and heading for the 15 span wooden bridge across the Shag River. After making the crossing it climbed at 1 in 35 to level out at Bridge No.2, then the grade returned to a peak of 1 in 35 for the remaining distance to the terminus, crossing Limekiln Road twice. There were only a few curves on this section, none sharper than 10 chains. The Dunback branch formation continued to hug the left side of SH85 for about 2 km out of Inch Valley, climbing at 1 in 69 for the first 1.2 km and then dropping briefly at 1 in 60 followed by easy upgrades. It ran along the top of stone walling, passing through several cuttings and along high embankments, then it crossed the highway to follow its east side to the terminus. There were a number of curves in this section including several of 7 1/2 chains radius.

Stations and Sidings

Stations and siding facilities etc were as follows (from the NZRLS 1952 South Island Working Timetable reprint). Italics indicate a former facility at an open station. Distances are taken from the NZ Railway and Tramway Atlas and may vary from those printed in working timetables. All orientations are with regard to the direction in which the kilometrage runs. All stations on the branches themselves were unattended flag stations except for Dunback. It is possible that in some cases empty rakes of wagons were propelled up the grade from Inch Valley to Makareao with the locomotives at the rear of the train. The Working Timetable makes provision for such operations as well as allowing trains to be propelled without a guard's van as the last vehicle.


Palmerston (Junction)

0 (314 km from Christchurch) 15 m
  • Loco coaling / watering
  • Train examining
  • Refreshment rooms
  • Officered station
  • Engine shed (disused)
  • Turntable 62 feet (disconnected)
  • Goods shed
  • Station building (disused)
  • Passenger halt for Southerner
  • The turntable was sold to the Feilding and Districts Steam Rail Society and travelled north early in 2002.


4.38 km 19 m  
  • Loop (14 wagons)


7.23 km 27 m
  • Passenger platform (RHS)
  • Goods shed 30x20 feet
  • Loading bank
  • Loop (31 wagons)

Inch Valley

11.35 km 37 m
  • Passenger platform (RHS) - it is probable that the fence between the yard and the road is not on the railway boundary as this would leave little room for a platform.
  • Shelter shed
  • Loading bank (not listed in 1952 Working Timetable)
  • Ballast siding located 100 metres before the station on the right hand side, probably on the opposite side of the road where the map shows gravel pits beside the river (points facing Dunback). Overhead loading stage.
  • Ballast wagon loop (39 wagons)
  • Backshunt in pit (6 wagons)
  • Backshunt in pit (35 wagons)
  • Loop (15 wagons)


15.20 km 52 m
  • Flag station with caretaker
  • Loco watering
  • Passenger platform (LHS)
  • Goods shed 60x30 feet
  • Loading bank
  • Stockyards
  • Loop (19 wagons)
  • Goods shed loop (19 wagons)
  • Water vat loop (17 wagons)
  • West side loop (13 wagons)
  • Cattle yards backshunt (11 wagons)


15.06 km 105 m
  • Lime bins
  • Loop (26 wagons)

Photos in subsequent postings are numbered as series 1 (lower section, from Palmerston to Inch Valley) and series 2 (upper sections above Inch Valley).

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