Mount Victoria tunnel

Looking through the tunnel towards the Basin Reserve. Elevated walkway on the right.

After the tram tunnel opened in 1907 residents and developers began demanding another tunnel through Mt Victoria. In May 1914 a proposal costing £70,000 was put forward, but the Council wanted the City Engineer to come up with another plan that wouldn't require the route to cut through private property at the Basin Reserve or Wellington College. In 1920 a loan of £160,000 was raised to cover the tunnel, approaches and tram tracks. There were more delays but eventually the Council contracted Hansford and Mills Construction Company to build the tunnel, and work on the access roads finally started in July 1929.

The access roads provided work for relief workers once the Depression set in in 1930. One former worker recalled that he worked alongside doctors and lawyers as they hacked away at the rock. Some men would come to work in their suits and only then change into overalls, so that their neighbours would not know they were doing relief work.

Roadworks, Paterson Street approach to tunnel. Photo courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library ref PA Coll-5448, item 1/1-025183-G.

The Taurima Street end of the tunnel during construction. Central block of rock visible, side tunnels have been enlarged around it. Photo courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library ref PA Coll-5448, item 1/1-024796-G.

Arnold Downer was chief engineer on the project. During construction Hansford and Mills went into liquidation but Downer was asked to stay on and complete the work. He later formed his own company. Tunneling began in December 1929. The mountain was pierced from each side by two parallel eight-foot tunnels about 12 ft apart, that 12 ft representing a central block of rock, the top of which served as a working platform for the cement gang as the completion of the tunnel proceeded. Initial breakthrough was made on 31 May 1930. The Evening Post reported that the tunnellers "could hear the drills on the other side, growing louder and louder as they approached the break. Then came the first pick through and a few minutes later the hole was widened sufficiently to allow a man to wriggle through [...] the rocks and their muddy surface were well soaked with water and just on the city side of the hole there was a steady torrent of water pouring down from the roof."

By the end of 1930 money was running out and there was debate about whether tram tracks should go through the tunnel. Hataitai resident W R Jourdain wrote a letter to the editor of the Evening Post arguing that tramlines were not necessary. "If passengers must be conveyed through the tunnel, it seems clear that a bus service is cheaper, more comfortable and more speedy than a tram service." The tramline didn't go ahead. The tunnel sides and roof were completed on 1 April 1931, and then the floor, lights and approach roads were finished. The total cost was £203,000. The planned diagonal approach on the city side was abandoned due to cost and other difficulties, and instead traffic went along Ellice and Brougham Sts to the tunnel approach. The approach curving around the Basin Reserve wasn't completed until many years after the tunnel opened. Ruahine Street was formed on the Hataitai side of the tunnel, and material dug out from the tunnel was used to build up Hataitai Park on the town belt. This area of tunnel spoil was the site of a crime that caught everyone's attention. A young woman named Phyllis Symons was murdered and buried by her boyfriend amongst the piles of dirt. Her story is told at Underground History.

The Mt Victoria Tunnel opened on 12 October 1931. At the official opening ceremony the Mayor Mr Hislop noted that his father had opened the tram tunnel in 1907, and said he therefore felt additional pleasure in declaring this "magnificent" tunnel open for traffic. Other speakers talked about the rapid growth of the eastern suburbs and said the tunnel would increase development, relieve congested roads, lower transport costs and save time. One person present was Mr J L Arcus who had sent the first letter to the Council in favour of a tunnel 20 years previously. The Mayor's car was first through the tunnel, followed by hundreds of other cars and pedestrians during the afternoon.

Tunnel opening ceremony 1931. Photo from Te Ara.

The tunnel is 2045 feet or 623 m long, and was the first in New Zealand to have forced ventilation (since upgraded several times). There is a raised walkway for pedestrians and cyclists down one side of the tunnel. Initially it was estimated that there would be 4000 cars per day and 2000 pedestrians, but in 1980 there were 25,000 cars per day and by 1995 this had risen to 33,000 per week day, though the pedestrian count has dropped. Trolley bus wires were installed in January 1959 but were mostly used in emergencies or bypass routes and were removed again around 1989.

Light-coloured plastic panels were installed in 1995 in response to concerns about the sub-standard level of lighting in the tunnel, and these are periodically cleaned to ensure that they reflect light effectively. In 2011-2012 a false concrete ceiling was removed, and improved ventilation and a powerful sprinkler system were installed.

Second Traffic Tunnel: With increasing traffic the tunnel and Basin Reserve area have become very congested at peak times. In 1974 a pilot tunnel was put through for a proposed second tunnel, but this has not yet eventuated. Read an Evening Post article on the second tunnel for more information.

Sources: Evening Post and The Dominion, various dates.