The Parnell Rail Tunnel, linking the rail line from Britomart under Parnell Rise to Newmarket, has a long, and fascinating history. Built at a time of steam locomotives labouring to climb the (for railways) very steep hill, it soon had a reputation for being both absolutely crucial for Auckland as well as being rather unpleasant (think open carriages and lots of smoke – in a confined space!).
It also had only a single track – which soon turned out to be insufficient for Auckland’s burgeoning rail network. So in the 1910s, about 50 years after the first tunnel, a second tunnel was built in parallel, wide enough to carry a double track. The old tunnel was eventually bricked up, and remains closed today (see photo at right).
But in the 2010s, a century after it lost its original purpose, the tunnel may find a new use. What used to be too steep for some single-engine trains represents now a rather gentle gradient for cyclists. And a coalition of locals including Cycle Action is considering the idea of reopening the tunnel – for walking and cycling.
The northern end of this “rail trail” would link with lower Parnell at the future Parnell Train Station, and with a new walking and cycling path through the old Carlaw Park area to the City Centre. At the southern end, the tunnel comes out next to Newmarket Park, from where the best potential connections are still being discussed. In the immediate term, it might be via Sarawia Street, a low-traffic (though somewhat steep) side street of Parnell Road – though existing links also go to Ayr Street. In any case, it would offer a great new way to connect the lower part of the inner city with the higher ridges around it, and provide a fully-off-road route for most of the way.
The Waitemata Local Board together with the Greenways organisation and the Parnell community has been advocating for a technical study to assess how the tunnel could be reopened. Things like the physical state of the tunnel, security and access will have to be reviewed. We are hopeful that a project like this will find favour (and eventually funding). So maybe in a few years, Auckland may have its very own rail trail. A great next chapter in the tunnel’s history.