NZ Rail Maps Web Maps Site Now Live

Good morning and welcome to 2021. The New Zealand Rail Maps Live Webmaps site is now operational. The site as it has been developed to date provides webmaps for just the section of the Main South Line, in Christchurch, that is located between the 10 km and 21 km pegs (Christchurch to Islington). This is a small beginning, but it is expected to be expanded in coming weeks to the 0 to 39 km section (Lyttelton to Burnham), and probably further south depending on completion. The aim therefore will be to complete as much of the Main South Line as possible as a volume but this will be just what has already been mapped previously of the MSL, and will not include any content that is not already in the GIS.

The site is located at this address: New Zealand Rail Maps Live Webmaps

The webmaps for the rest of NZ will then follow on from that point. This schedule is a departure from what had previously been advertised, which included the completion of the Main North Line from Addington to Ashley as a key priority. That section will also be uploaded in coming weeks simultaneously with the MSL section, and probably further north depending on completion. The webmaps for these two main lines originating from Christchurch will therefore be the first complete rail corridors to be uploaded. The Main North Line corridor will be especially interesting as it will include the earthquake damaged section from Hawkswood to Ward, as aerial photos taken of the area in 2016 are available in Linz WMTS and will be generated for the Main North Line section.

It’s appropriate at this moment to talk a little bit about the webmaps and the large leap forward in progress it represents for the project, as well as to look back on other milestones of the project to date. The project is now 12 years old, the first website at , which is still online (it needs a little updating!), listing its start date as 1 February 2008.The project’s first blog site (still online) has a post at this date noting the fact. However (the post was placed there retrospectively, not being written at the time in question. In fact, the first real post in the blog is dated from 2012, and earlier updates on the project were created on the Enzed Transport blog and can be read there as it is still online. The original plan was to create a replacement for the beloved NZ Railway and Tramway Atlas and ideas for doing this go back to around the year 2000, and eventually evolved into what has become known as NZ Rail Maps.

Back then, mapping was done solely with Google Earth and all files were generated in the KML file format. The files that were developed still exist but are not provided for download any more; they are used daily in the map development in Google Earth to quickly locate places around the country but have much less detail than what is provided today and are well out of date as they have not been updated for many years. Google Earth has many limitations for this type of project and considerable frustration was experienced with the software. At the start of 2012, development of the Google Earth format was stopped, and investigations were made into other platforms, among them the Open Street Maps webmaps system. At that time, this was as close as the project got to webmaps. OSM was found to be unsuitable because of its lack of provision for historical data, although it has since spawned a derivative, Open Historical Map, and the use of that site has been considered and NZRM content might be implemented in part there in the future. In July 2012 a blog post was made announcing the decision to develop the maps using Qgis for the first time.

This is the system that the maps are still developed in today, through many updates in the Qgis software and changes and improvements in the maps themselves (there have been more than 50 editions of the map key produced, for example). The first actual printed edition of the maps as a PDF was produced in January 2013 for field-testing by Steve Watts and his group called “Rusty Railers” who travel around NZ investigating old ghost railways. It covered the North Auckland Line rail corridor and its various branches etc. As development continued, various other PDFs were produced of the maps, and some of the content was produced online as static images that could be browsed in web albums, using various providers such as Flickr and Google Photos. July 2015 is the actual date of the above-mentioned NZ Railmaps blog on Blogger being created, as noted in a post on that blog. All earlier posts have been copied from Enzed Transport blog and are not actually ones that were first posted to NZ Railmaps Blog (Blogger).

In January 2013 work was underway on mapping most of the railway system around NZ. In May 2015, it became possible to obtain for a modest cost, historical aerial photos for the closed Clyde-Cromwell section of the Otago Central Branch. This made it possible to attempt to map this route as most of the closed corridor was submerged when Lake Dunstan was raised in 1994 following the completion of the Clyde Dam hydro-electric power project. The source of the aerial photos was Archives New Zealand which retains sets of contact prints obtained via Linz. All historical aerial photography for about two years from this point was using a limited amount of purchased ANZ scans of these contact prints, and apart from the Otago Central, another area covered during this period was the old Johnsonville-Tawa section of the Wellington and Manawatu Railway, resulting in a set of maps being created for to a Tawa Historical Society publication about the line. The use of historical aerial photography in NZ Rail Maps changed dramatically in mid 2017 when Linz launched the Retrolens website. Since then, NZ Rail Maps has downloaded probably thousands of individual aerial photos from the Retrolens site and they are used to create maps for every national rail corridor and hundreds of stations everywhere in the country. Around the same time work was underway on creating an article about the project for the NZ Railway Observer (the magazine of the NZ Railway and Locomotive Society) which became a two part series about the Otago Central Railway. The Canterbury Maps website had been used prior to Retrolens to source some historical coverage around Canterbury but it was not as useful as Retrolens and widespread use of it was not made before Retrolens became available.

In October 2017 the web address was registered for the first time but was simply set up to redirect to the old Trainweb site, which by then had been operating for nine years. There was no intention at that time to host a full website of any sort under the site but a lot of work was done with the Trainweb site, however most of the content consisted of links to free hosted resources such as Flickr and Google Plus. The NZ Rail Maps WordPress blog was set up in November 2018 and Google Plus was then expected to close down so the WordPress site became the main resource for NZ Rail Maps with Google Photos being used to store the map photo albums.

January 2019 saw the development of a proposal to attempt to get all 12 volumes of the maps completed in that year. The expectation then was that the project would be reduced in scope in 2020 and subsequent years. The ambitious schedule was not able to be met in 2019, but was renewed at the beginning of 2020. Volume 5 of the Project was in fact completed in the first month or two of 2020 and attempts were made to complete other volumes within a 12 month 12-volume schedule. For various reasons including the Covid-19 pandemic and a decision that the project would continue past 2020, the second 12-month 12-volume development schedule was again abandoned in mid 2020, and is now officially a historical fact, as the project is expected to carry on in its current form for years to come.  2020 has also seen the first real efforts made to get a full website online for the first time, but the original plan did not include webmaps. The first site was created in May 2020 and used the SmugMug photo album hosting platform, paying on a per month basis, in order to place the completed volumes which were being created as photo albums onto a site for public access.

Changes in the Qgis software with various updates made it possible in September 2020 to look at webmaps for the very first time. A script was made available in the software to directly export the maps from the GIS to the XYZ Tiles format. Once this was evaluated it was determined that it would be very easy to create a website to host webmaps, and a decision was made to discontinue the SmugMug site and purchase a full web hosting plan on an international provider. One of the advantages being it would also be possible to have all of the project content on a single website for the very first time, since SmugMug was unable to host the project blog and other file formats for download. Towards the end of that month the new site was set up using GoDaddy on an introductory hosting plan and previews have been created for Volumes 1 and 6 of the maps and tested extensively on that site. Work then began on developing a preview for Greater Christchurch to look at new ideas for site layout and content

In December 2020, the decision was made to move the web hosting to Dreamhost, because of technical and cost reasons. So 2020 has been a year in which there has been a lot of learning in order to get the best web site set up for the maps, and three different hosting platforms have been used. It cannot conclusively be ruled out that there will not be further changes, but the migration to the current web platform has been pretty seamless and painless. At the time of migrating, the decision was taken that the maps, instead of being developed in 12 separate volumes as had been the case up to now, would be just a single site covering all of NZ. The new live webmaps that are on the site at the address shown at the top of this page are the actual live maps for the whole of New Zealand. There is not a lot of content there at the moment, but the plan is that by the end of 2021 there will be Basic content for the whole country available on the website. The maps to other levels and formats will continue to be developed in coming years.

Hopefully you have enjoyed reading this post summarising the development of the project over the past 12 years and understand some of what makes up this incredible project. Please check back or follow this blog on our Facebook page or the blog feed to keep up with further developments in the project in 2021.