Gisborne is the terminus of the Palmerston North Gisborne Line, a 390 km route from Palmerston North via Woodville, Napier and Wairoa. The route was originally planned as part of a railway from Auckland to Gisborne via Opotiki; the railway was completed from Auckland to Taneatua as the East Coast Main Trunk and from Gisborne to Moutohora as the Moutohora Branch with around 100 km of gap between them that was never built.
Instead, the railway reached Gisborne from the south. The main line from Palmerston North to Napier appears to have started at Napier heading south, with the first section opened in 1874. The last part through the Manawatu Gorge was completed in 1891. The Palmerston North to Napier section of railway is noted for some large viaducts that originally were all constructed of wood. From Napier heading north the route was built in several stages. The first part was actually constructed from Wairoa to a port at Waikokopu and opened in 1923. This was not actually intended to be part of the national network at that time, and the route of the main line was originally intended to go further inland. This resulted in a line west and north from Gisborne to Ngatapa being built and opened in 1915, and also a section of formation being constructed from Wairoa to Frasertown.
Also in the early 1920s the first section of the route from Napier to Wairoa was opened from Napier to Eskdale. This was extended to Putorino in 1930, but was closed the following year because of major damage from the Hawkes Bay earthquake and the effects of the Great Depression. It was eventually re-opened in 1936. By that time it had been decided the inland route via Ngatapa would not be pursued further, the Ngatapa Branch having closed in 1931. From Putorino the line to Wairoa was finally completed in 1939, and with the existing section to Waikokopu incorporated there were now 333 kilometres of track open. The rest of the 57 km to Gisborne was pushed ahead as a matter of priority despite the onset of WW2 and a number of competing railway projects around NZ, and was completed in 1942. It was constructed through rugged and difficult country incorporating several very long tunnels and numerous bridges and large embankments.
Whilst the railway from Palmerston North to Napier has always been an important secondary main line in NZ, the section from Napier to Gisborne has never been of major importance in the volume of traffic carried and there have been struggles to keep it open due to poor economic and geological conditions in the Gisborne region. There have been a number of major landslides and other significant issues especially in the Waikokopu to Gisborne section in the 70 years that it was open for. The Waipaoa River just south of Gisborne has experienced record breaking floods on numerous occasions which has led to the bridge crossing it being extended in length twice and now being more than double its original length making it the longest railway bridge in the North Island. The major Cyclone Bola floods of 1988 washed out a section completely and whilst it was repaired, the original section of the bridge was badly scoured and was not restored to its original piling depths, resulting in operational restrictions.
In the early 2000s the freight volume carried on the line seldom exceeded one or two trains per week. In 2012 there were major washouts in the Whareratas section of the railway (between Waikokopu and Gisborne) which caused the line to be closed back to Wairoa. This was subsequently completely closed north of Napier due to insufficient traffic volume. However the railway from Napier to Wairoa is currently being re-opened to carry logs from forests in the area to Napier port for export.
Gisborne in 1948. Prior to the completion of the main line from Napier there was the Moutohora Branch and earlier the Ngatapa Branch to service, so the Gisborne station and yard were long established by this time.
Gisborne in 1968. This image shows the most houses that there ever were at the station, and the smaller loading shelter is present at the west end of the yard.
Gisborne in 1977. Between the time of the previous aerial photo, Awapuni Road was pushed through the easternmost end of the railway yard. This meant the turntable and part of the engine shed had to be relocated or replaced.
Gisborne in 1986. In the post-deregulation era the yard looks emptier, and a number of houses have gone.
Gisborne in 2012. The goods shed has gone and a larger freight shelter replaces the small one at the west end of the yard. All the houses have gone, most of their site now occupied by the Captain Cook motor lodge. About half of the freight yard has also been removed. Since Kiwirail closed down the through line the only trains have been summertime vintage steam operations by Gisborne City Vintage Railway to Muriwai; GCVR having taken over the engine shed at the eastern end of the station. The line further east to the wharf has been disused for many years, but steam trains occasionally use it to meet cruise ships at Port of Gisborne.