Tunnel Vision

Only the ghosts of steam trains past echo down a disused and, to many, forgotten rail tunnel that runs from Caversham to Kaikouri Valley.  Dunedin City Council reporter DAVID LOUGHREY talks to a man who wants the tunnel to be used as a walk and cycle track.

ONLY a couple of kilometres from the centre of Dunedin, well hidden by a main arterial road rumbling with midday traffic, is a long-disused railway cutting.

The cutting runs 300 metres or so into the side of a Caversham hill, until it hits the beginning of a long disused railway tunnel, its dark stone entrance rising to a gothic peak. To one Dunedin man at least, the tunnel could be more than a conduit for sewerage pipes, electricity and telecommunications cables, today's role.

Gerard Hyland has a dream of Dunedin being linked to the Otago Central Rail Trail by the Caversham tunnel, and another tunnel further down the line, running from Kaikorai Valley to Wingatui.
That tunnel is used for effluent pipes from Burnside industries, and runs on a steep grade, finishing on private land near Wingatui. While that dream may not be practical, Mr Hyland says the Caversham stretch is, "It's an amazing, lovely hidden spot in Dunedin. This is an amazing asset."
Mr Hyland, a 43-year-old father of three who works in the information services industry, may be fighting a one-man battle to get the tunnel tidied up and open to the public, but he does at least have the provisional backing of two Dunedin councillors.

His enthusiasm is not shared, however, by staff of the council's water and waste services department, who are responsible for the tunnel. They are in the process of hiring contractors to fence it off, concerned it is dangerous and liable to vandalism.

The tunnel is part of Dunedin's rail heritage, and has a fascinating history. It took trains south when the line first opened on January 22, 1879, the year after Dunedin was connected by rail to Christchurch.
It finished its working life in 1910, when rail traffic increased to the point a double line was needed, and the new Caversham tunnel was built.

Mr Hyland first discovered the 865m tunnel last year when he read about it in Paul Hayward's Intriguing Dunedin Street Walks. According to Mr Hayward's entry on the tunnel, it carried water that flooded most of South Dunedin in 1923 after the Kaikorai Stream burst its banks, and was later fitted out as an air raid shelter during World War 2. "There have been many suggestions made over the years to upgrade this tunnel for pedestrian and cycle use," Mr Hayward wrote. "One glance, however, will tell you what became of all that fine talk." When many of New Zealand's psychiatric institutions closed in the 1990s, there were rumours people were living in the tunnel, and Otago Daily Times files from 2001 show local residents believed it was a breeding ground for giant rats.

A visit to the Caversham end of the tunnel revealed a slice of rail history, but only after an encounter with one of the problems Mr Hyland wants to see fixed - a perilous walk through 200m to 300m of slimy, noisome mud and rubbish in the poorly drained cutting. Once there, a tiny speck of light could be seen at the end of the tunnel. "And that's Kaikorai Valley," Mr Hyland said
After visiting the tunnel he tried to get staff from the council's parks and reserves interested.
He was told it was the responsibility of the council's water and waste services department, but staff were not interested in the idea, citing health and safety and vandalism concerns.

That sinking feeling...a lush carpet of autumn leaves covers a treacherous mud


Mr Hyland made a submission to transportation strategy asking that the tunnel be re-established as a walking and cycling track. He argued it could be used as both a heritage walk, and a safer and easier cycleway in and out of Dunedin for the southern end of the city.  He noted the idea fitted in neatly with the transportation strategy's philosophies for cycling and walking. As a commuting option, it would eliminate the barrier of Lookout Point, allow cyclists to stay away from major traffic flows, and provide an "instant, local, accessible" tourist attraction. "This is not only a part of Dunedin's history that needs to be preserved and used, but an incredible resource that should be utilised to the full."
Mr Hyland asked in his submission for something to be done about the rubbish, mud and poor drainage at the entrance to the tunnel
The entrance of the old Caversham rail tunnel, which he wants opened to the public as a walking and cycling track.
Last week, water operations team leader Gerard McCombie said staff had identified the tunnel as "a confined space", meaning safety procedures had to be followed when entering. There were "all sorts of hazards" at the tunnel, including the swampy ground at the entrance, sewerage pipes and electrical cables, and it was very dark. As well, he was concerned about the possibility of vandalism to council facilities, and a contractor would soon be building fences to keep people out. While some work was planned to make the entrance safer, that was for council workers' access only.

Mr Hyland was disappointed to hear the entrance was to be fenced off.  That really, really upset me," he said.  "If that's the result I'll be gutted." Mr Hyland said he could see Mr McCombie's point in terms of the difficulties with safety, but not using the asset "seems such a criminal waste".
"How much would it cost to have a light system through there?"
 
Ventilation could also be provided, and Mr Hyland said there were community groups who would donate labour. Mr Hyland said he was not usually the sort of person to make submissions to the council pushing his ideas. This was the only time he had done such a thing. "It's just something that rubbed against me, I thought 'this one I'll stick with'." His interest in cycling was largely recreational and fitness based and he was not a member of any cycling club. "This would be the one and oniy thing I've got involved with. "I'm getting quite passionate about it. "It's infrastructure built by generations before us, and if it's not used it will be lost. It's worthwhile maintaining it and looking after it, making sure everyone can use it."

His vision of the tunnel as an asset for both locals and tourists was backed up by Cr Teresa Stevenson, who included the idea in her submissions to both the transportation strategy, and to the council's annual plan.  Cr John Bezett agreed the issue should at least be considered.
While he would not welcome people walking or cycling through the tunnel now, he said the idea should be investigated further. "Council staff are quite aware of my support for cycleways, Dunedin had to "get radical" when considering walking and cycling options.
"I'm quite happy for them to fence it off, but let's look at it and come up with a definitive idea.
"That should be done - who knows, it might be easy to open up."

Footnote: Gerard Hyland's submission is being considered by the Dunedin transport strategy committee

 

Route to school for councillor

THE OLD Caversham tunnel was once a  popular short-cut to Burnside for Caversham and South Dunedin workers, and for one Dunedin city councillor, a quick and flat route to school.

Cr John Bezett used to ride his bicycle through the tunnel to Kings High School and he remembers the route being popular with workers travelling to industries at Bumside. At that time, he said, there was a freezing works, abattoir, cement works and tannery. Cr Bezett said both he and his brother used to cycle from Green Island to Kings from the 1950s. "It was a well-used cycleway, from time to time it got very wet, but it was a quick way to get through." There was a slip Inside the tunnel at one point, leaving a hump that took time to smooth out under bicycle tyres and boots, As far as he knew, this tunnel was popular as a walking and
cycling route from the 1950s to the 1970s, though it is possible older residents would remember earlier use. Cr Bezett's memories are backed up by Alma Rutherford's book
on Caversham, The Edge of Town. Rutherford wrote the 3.35m high tunnel, which was 3.2m wide, ran through a mainly sandstone hill. "It has often, down the years, been traversed by adventurous cyclists and pedestrians." Cr Bezett said current Occupational Health and Safety
requirements could present a barrier to any tunnel revamp. Someone would find a reason to rule the tunnel unsafe, he said.

Photographs: © Jane Dawber

27/05/2006 from ODT Saturday 27 May 2006, © Otago Daily Times