The present Blenheim railway station building was opened in 1906. There had been intense pressure from local interests to replace the much smaller station building that had opened with the line in 1880. Given that the railway south from Picton to Canterbury was not completed until 1945, the presence of a distinguished vintage Troup station in a town of only some 3351 population in the most sparsely populated provincial district in the country could be seen as a coup for Marlborough.
As the railway in Marlborough was an isolated section for seventy years, and the road to Canterbury was not of high quality, there was a tendency to trade with Wellington as much as looking southward. Small coastal ships crossed Cook Strait regularly, not only to Picton but also to a small “port” close to the borough, on the Opawa River. This service, provided in later years by the scow “Echo”, operated for several years after the introduction of the interisland rail ferry in 1962.
Blenheim (population 30,500 in 2012) was, and still is, the commercial and administrative heart of Marlborough (population 45,900.in the 2013 census). Picton, now busy with tourism as well as ferry terminals close to the town, and Kaikoura, 180 km to the south, are the only other centres of significance. Blenheim railway station shared the administrative role with Picton when it was an isolated section, with the operational and maintenance base at Picton.
Today the Spring Creek freight terminal, some 6 km north of Blenheim, is the only base in Marlborough for intermodal freight handling. It was established on a small scale in the 1970s, as the Blenheim freight yard was increasingly inadequate for the growing traffic from both north and south, and to and from Nelson. Spring Creek finally took over all rail freight activities in Marlborough in the early 1990s, leaving Blenheim station as the only railway presence in the town .Until the 1970s there were a score of small stations and their communities between Picton and Kaikoura, 180 km to the south. These looked to Blenheim as their commercial base. Most were there for the needs of farmers on the coastal strip along which the railway and highway ran. Farming was essentially pastoral, and livestock movements to Picton freezing works, now long since closed, were a feature of traffic on the then isolated section. The area was sparsely populated, and a few mixed trains to and from wherever the railway had reached at the time provided a limited passenger service.
But it was a different picture between Blenheim and Picton. There was until 1958 a boat train to and from Blenheim to meet the Union Steamship Company ferry plying between Wellington and Picton. The “School Train” between Picton and Blenheim carried high school students between the two towns until a secondary school was opened in Picton in 1964. The number of passengers on all these services was only a few hundred per week day, with short term increases in holiday periods. The Christchurch-Picton Express, which ran in various forms and schedules (trains and railcars, and for a time not at all), and on varying days per week, also provided a link between the towns. The notorious “Cabbage Train”, an overnight express goods train to and from Christchurch that carried produce south from Blenheim with a carriage attached for hardy souls to experience overnight travel, provided another link.
The advent of the Railways-owned rail ferry in 1962 brought a new level of activity to railway freight in and around Blenheim. From the inception of this efficient service most Wellington- Marlborough goods traffic moved by rail until the 1980s, when it was largely transferred to trucks. The Rail Air service, established in the late 1940s, with its rail-served depot south of Blenheim station, continued to operate between Blenheim and Wellington until the early 1980s, but at steadily diminishing traffic levels. The 1951 office building attached to Blenheim station was the increasingly busy base for wagon supply and local train control operations until in later years signalling functions were centralised at Wellington, and freight customer liaison at Spring Creek. The Blenheim office building was removed in2000 when the station building and main line were relocated some 40 metres eastward to allow realignment of State Highway One.
Blenheim’s railway history has traversed seventy years as an independent section of railway, nearly two decades as what could fairly be called a secondary line after the link to Christchurch was completed, to a further five decades until the present day as a significant freight centre on the Auckland- Christchurch railway corridor. The station remains as a marker from the early period; like the rest of the current railway outside Auckland and Wellington the passenger function is around long distance tourists and travellers, and freight is now more in transit through Marlborough than of local significance.
Blenheim station is rectangular in form, timber-framed and clad with rusticated weatherboards. The roof is Marseilles tiled. There is a verandah with a corrugated iron roof on the platform elevation. There is tile cresting along the roofline while the exterior walls are enlivened by Tudor half-timbering, irregular gables and bay windows. The windows are predominantly double-hung sash. There are eave brackets at intervals to match the half-timbering. The interior has had some internal alterations but retains many of its original features including architraves, skirting and fireplaces.
The Picton-Blenheim railway opened in 1875, although it was five years before the Opawa River in Blenheim was bridged. The original Blenheim station was erected the following year. By the turn of the century Blenheim’s Town Clerk pleaded for a new station. Promises of a new building were made by the Railways Department and the Minister of Railways Joseph Ward, but it was not until 1905, after press criticism of the “derelict” station, that a new one was built. Opened on 19 July 1906 by Colonel Pitt, Acting Minister of Railways, the station cost £2,850 to build. In 1911 the platform was extended 30 metres. By the early 1940s Railways was again being asked to replace the station but could see “no reason for any substantial improvement in station building accommodation for a long period”. Nevertheless by 1950 Railways agreed to the erection of a new office building to the north of the existing structure. Completed in 1951 at a cost of £11,765, the building almost doubled the accommodation available. In 1985 it was refurbished. In August 2000, in connection with realignment of State Highway 1, the railway and station were moved approximately 40 m eastward, and the office building sold for removal. A toilet block of sympathetic design was added to the south of the station.