Makatote Viaduct

Engineering Work (eg road, bridge, sawmill, dam)


The need for this viaduct was foreseen by John Rochfort when he carried out his exploration survey for the route of the North Island Main Trunk (NIMT) Railway in 1883. He realised that the five deeply entrenched rivers flowing westward off Mts Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro were best crossed directly without deviating the line to seek less expensive bridging points.

Makatote Viaduct is the last and highest of a family of structures that began with Mangaweka Viaduct (since bypassed and demolished), the form of which conformed to the classic North American steel trestle pattern. All these had a series of towers supporting Pratt trusses spanning up to 30 metres each. Makatote is 262 metres long and 79 metres high.

Tenders for the construction of Makatote Viaduct were called on 15 May, 1905. That submitted by J & A Anderson Ltd, of Christchurch, was accepted. Andersons built a modern by the standards of the day factory just north of the Makatote site to fabricate all the steel members needed for the viaduct.
Equipment, materials and stores had to be shipped to Auckland, railed to Oio (north of Raurimu), and carted along a purpose made road (now State highway 4) from there. As the railhead crept southward, this road haul distance reduced.

By autumn 1906, Andersons had set up their factory, which was powered by a wood-burning boiler and steam engine. It was lit electrically. A water turbine drove the stone crusher and concrete mixer. A cableway had been erected on the centreline of the viaduct. Operation of this was controlled from the viaduct, again by electrical means.

Steel fabrication began on 25 June, 1906. The last girder was placed on 4 June, 1908, following which the cableway could be dismantled to permit completion of earthworks up to the abutments and subsequent rail track laying. The rail track across it was completed on 3 August, 1908.

During the period 1925-32 all bridges and viaducts along the NIMT Railway were checked and strengthened as necessary to carry locomotives weighing up to 140 tons and having maximum axleloads of 14 tons. Subsequently, in the 1983-89 period, further modifications were carried out to take the greater axleloads of 18 tonnes and higher tractive forces of electric locomotives now used on this route. At the same time, brackets were fitted on one side of the viaduct to carry concrete electrification masts. One foundation was underpinned with deeper foundations in 2008, to protect the structure from scour of the stream bed.

Notes for the Makatote Viaduct photographs

The first photograph attached shows the special Wellington to Auckland train of 6-8 August, 2008, seen on 7 August crossing Makatote Viaduct. This train ran to mark the centenary of the first Wellington-Auckland train that took a group of Parliamentarians north to greet The US Great White Fleet. Included in the train as seen are the leading two locomotives which were used on construction trains prior to completing of the line, and the last carriage, which also ran on that first train.

The second photograph shows Ka 942 storming across Makatote Viaduct with the return working of the special train that ran to mark the centenary of the first Wellington-Auckland train, taken 10 August, 2008. By this time, the central, hardest part of the North Island Main Trunk Railway had been electrified at 25kV AC, in line with current world best practice. The locomotive has been restored to its appearance as built, with an air-smoothed housing over the front. Originally this casing covered the pipework and tanks of a feedwater heater intended to improve the thermal efficiency of the boiler.

The third photograph shows the viaduct being built and illustrates the method of construction. The trestle towers were built, then the 30 metre truss spans were launched using a cableway to support the nose and a trolley to carry the tail of the girder. Two trusses as seen being launched, with cross-bracing and a deck structure, comprise one span between towers. This is an essentially simple and easily built form of structure. The basic design evolved in North America, where many large bridges were needed. Simplicity of design and of construction aided the construction workers and enabled significant cost savings to be achieved over a series of bridges. As with North American examples, Makatote was built in the wilds. Despite the remoteness, a large workshop equipped to best contemporary standards that shows in the background of the photo was used to fabricate steel for this viaduct and for several other large bridges along the line.

Heritage Recognition
IPENZ recognised the engineering heritage value of the Makatote Viaduct with a plaque unveiled February 2009.

This place has been recognised by Heritage New Zealand as a Category 1 historic place (List no.7778):
Makatote Viaduct: New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero information.

This place is also part of a Heritage New Zealand Historic Area  (List no. 7793):
North Island Main Trunk (NIMT) Historic Area: New Zealand Heritage List/Rarangi Korero information (

R S Fletcher, Single Track, The Construction of the North Island Main Trunk Railway, Collins, Auckland, 1978.

Bill Pierre, North Island Main Trunk, An Illustrated History, Reed, Wellington, 1981.

F K Roberts, A Compendium of Railway Construction, Part II, North Island Main Trunk, New Zealand Railway & Locomotive Society, Wellington, 1990.

A L R Merrifield, 'New Zealand’s North Island Main Trunk Railway: 1870-1908,' Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Vol 162, Issue EH4, November 2009.

A L R Merrifield, 'A Centennial Review of the North Island Main trunk Railway: Geology of the West-Central North Island and its Influence on Transport Development,' Proceedings of 3rd Australasian Engineering Heritage Conference, 2009.


No Attachments


The viaduct is 8 kilometres south of National Park village on State Highway 4 (SH4). The highway passes under the viaduct twice.

King Country / Central Volcanic Plateau

Access Info
Travelling on SH 4 the viaduct is highly visible. There is a good place to view the viaduct on the road side on the south side of the valley. This structure is part of an operational railway and therefore direct access is prohibited.

Nature of Engineering
Rail Transportation


Wellington to Auckland 'Special' crossing the Makatote Viaduct, 7 August 2008. Photograph courtesy of D.L.A. Turner

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Ka 942 crossing the Makatote Viaduct, 10 August 2008. Photograph courtesy of R. Merrifield

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Railway viaduct at Makatote under construction, 1908. The Press (Newspaper): Negatives, ID: 1/1-009767-G. Permission of the Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand, must be obtained before any re-use of this image.

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IPENZ Engineering Heritage plaque at Makatote Viaduct, February 2013. Image courtesy of K. Astwood

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Lat: -39.2670 Long: 175.3901