Nickel mining began on the mainland of Nouvelle Calédonie in the late 19th century and has remained an important part of the island economy ever since. At its height, all the working mines had their own rail systems, and a number of relics remain, including several steam locomotives restored to display condition.
In 1884, a declaration of public utility was made for a a railway approximately 160km in length connecting Nouméa, capital of the island group and principal port on the island of Grande Terre, with other ports on the island, terminating at Canala. Only part of this line was ever realised.
In 1904, the first section of this public railway was opened, a 17km metre gauge line between Nouméa and Dumbéa. In 1914 the line was extended by 12km from Dumbéa to Païta, at the instigation of a company planning to operate a coal mine at Nondoué, between Dumbéa to Païta. The line was never a commercial success and closed in its entirety at the beginning of 1940.
From 1942, the infrastructure of the line was converted to 3ft (914mm) gauge by US forces to serve as a supply route for the Air Force base established at la Tontouta. Supplies were landed at the naval base in Nouméa and transported by train to Païta, from where they were transferred to road vehicles for the remaining 23km to the air base, which is now the island’s international airport.
US military operations ceased at the end of World War II. ome remains exist at Païta, including a locomotive in a very deteriorated condition.
To avoid misunderstanding, mention should be made of the Tchou Tchou Train, a widely advertised tourist attraction in Nouméa, which is not, in fact, a railway, but rather a road train.
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