Construction of the tunnel
Construction of the Mt Victoria tunnel began in December 1929 and was completed in 15 months, at a cost of £132,000.
It was built by the Hansford and Mills Construction Company. The chief engineer was Arnold Downer, who later started his own construction company, Downer New Zealand.
The tunnel project provided work for relief workers during the Depression. One of them 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.
Two parallel 2.5 metre tunnels about 3.7 metres apart were dug by two teams of diggers, one from each side. The initial breakthrough occurred at 2.30pm on 31 May 1930, when they reached the middle. 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 the first pick went through and a few minutes later the hole was widened sufficiently to allow a man to wriggle through”. A steady torrent of water was pouring down from the roof.
The tunnel was opened on 12 October 1931, three months ahead of schedule. During the opening ceremony the Mayor of Wellington, Thomas C. A. Hislop, noted that his father, former Mayor Thomas W Hislop, had opened the tram tunnel in 1907. The Mayor’s car was first through the tunnel, followed by hundreds of other cars and pedestrians during the afternoon.
Tragedy at the tunnel
Before the tunnel was completed however, it was linked to a tragic event. Work on the tunnel was halted when a massive search began for Phyllis Symons, a pregnant 17 year old, who had disappeared.
Her 29 year old lover, George Errol Coats, a widower with six children who were being raised in an orphanage, had been arrested after being seen digging at the site in Hataitai where spoil from excavation of the tunnel was dumped and he had been employed as a relief worker until he lost his job. More than 100 police and relief workers shifted tons of rock and soil at the earthworks site before Phyllis’s body was found on Sunday 12 July, face down and with her head wrapped in a scarf. Crowds of spectators who had been watching the digging had swelled to around 600 by the time the pathologist arrived. His view was that Phyllis had been made to kneel, then hit over the head with a spade and tipped into the hole. She had tried to get up and been struck again. There was evidence that Phyllis was still alive when earth was thrown on top of her, and that she had died of asphyxiation.
Coats was tried, found guilty of murder, and hanged at Mt Crawford Prison on 17 December 1931. He had been a model prisoner, discussing many topics with his wardens, but avoiding talk of his crime. On the morning of his death, he was sleeping so soundly he had to be woken, and asked for a glass of brandy with breakfast.
Tooting in the tunnel has long been a popular, if illegal, activity of motorists, and an annoyance for pedestrians and cyclists. Legend has it that it began as a mark of respect for the murdered Phyllis Symons, or to keep her ghost away, and over time became a tradition. The appeal to motorists of gratuitous horn honking was articulated by journalist Jane Bowron when she wrote: Me, I’ve just tooted all these years because it was such an asinine act of sheer joy and how friendly to get a reply back from another Mr Toad in his cart hitting the horn for the sheer hell of it.
The push for a second tunnel
In the 1970s the Wellington City Council spent $250,000 on excavating a pilot tunnel, to investigate the technical feasibility of building a second Mt Victoria tunnel to be financed by the National Roads Board. Shortly after 10:00 a.m. on 7 February 1974 four hot, weary and dust-covered tunnellers emerged at the Hataitai end, climbing out of the hole to shake hands with the Mayor, Sir Francis Kitts, and down bottles of cold beer waiting on the footpath for the occasion. The district civil engineer of the Ministry of Works, Mr A T Proffitt, said that no date had been set to begin construction of a second tunnel and warned that it could be some years away. Sir Francis replied “We’re keeping our fingers crossed”. In 1981 plans for a second tunnel were shelved indefinitely when budget cuts were made by the Muldoon government.
Another setback for proponents of a second Mt Victoria tunnel occurred In July 2014 when the Environmental Protection Authority Board of Inquiry declined a resource consent application from the New Zealand Transport Authority (NZTA) to build a flyover (termed the “Basin Bridge”) located 20 metres north of the Basin Reserve, a decision later upheld by the High Court. The NZTA had planned to construct the flyover as the first stage of its Mt Victoria Tunnel Duplication project, with a second tunnel to be completed by 2022.
In the wake of the Basin Bridge decision, Let’s Get Wellington Moving, a joint initiative of the Wellington City Council, Greater Wellington Regional Council and New Zealand Transport Authority, was established to “take a fresh look” at Wellington’s transport system, with a focus on the corridor from Ngauranga Gorge to the Airport. The 2015 Wellington Regional Land Transport Plan proposed duplication of the Mt Victoria and Terrace tunnels as a key strategic measure. Advocacy for a second Mt Victoria tunnel continued in the 2016 local body elections, with two mayoral candidates campaigning on a second tunnel.
85 year-old has a $30 million makeover
The most extensive upgrade in the history of the 85 year-old Mt Victoria Tunnel was completed on 24 June 2016, 14 months after it began, at a cost of around $30 million. The use of innovative engineering and communication technology has brought the 623 metre State Highway One tunnel up to 21st century safety and operating standards.
The tunnel now has:
• ‘intelligent’ lighting to brighten the gloom. The energy-efficient and electronically-controlled LED (light emitting diode) lighting system dims or brightens to help drivers’ eyes adjust to changing light levels through the tunnel. There are 1000 light-reflecting white panels on the walls on each side of the vehicle carriageway and glowing ‘cat’s eye’ markers along the sides and centreline, electronically programmed to guide people towards the safest exit in an emergency by pulsing and strobing in sequence.
• better ventilation and air quality. The tunnel was the first in New Zealand to be mechanically ventilated, with two large fans pushing in fresh air and two extractor fans sucking out stale air. In 2009 NIWA reported that since 2003 air quality in the tunnel had substantially improved with the increasing number of new technology reduced-emission vehicles, and levels of carbon monoxide in the tunnel all but met recommended guidelines. The existing ventilation system was retained during the upgrade but made to work more effectively by replacing or reconditioning the fans.
• seismic strengthening of the elevated pathway used by cyclists and pedestrians, by means of diagonal bracing with steel straps and anchors, designed to prevent the pathway detaching from the tunnel lining in the event of a major earthquake.
• increased fire safety through the installation of fire-resistant cement panels and fire hydrants.
• a new plant room. Controls for the new technology in the tunnel are contained in the Hataitai control room and a new plant room in Paterson Street fitted with: the back-up power supply; a computer “brain” which receives and acts on information from sensors mounted in the tunnel ceiling; and an information gathering and transmitting system linked with the Wellington Transport Operations Centre in Johnsonville.
• a state-of-the-art emergency communications system, including facilities to broadcast emergency messages via car radios and loudspeakers, a pilot trial of thermal imaging cameras, and new and updated cameras for incident detection purposes. The new rebroadcasting system enables travellers to listen to FM radio while driving through the tunnel.
– researched and written by David McCrone 2016