NZRM Web Maps Update 2021-01-09

Good morning. As noted the NZRM Webmaps launched at 1 January and this website appears to be working successfully as a new step forward in making the maps more widely available and convenient to use. The site works best with recent browsers, so it is probably not going to be all that usable for people running old computers with Windows XP, for example. Other formats will continue to be produced and will be available to suit such requirements so one of the further considerations is bringing the previously completed image-based formats for volumes online as soon as the basic webmaps are completed, plus the other formats supported.

Today the first update to the basic maps adds the Main North Line from 0 to 193 km, which is about half way. The layers which have been produced are all the overlays, the items selected by check boxes in the lower section of the layer list, and the Maps base layer, which is selected by default in the upper section of the layer list (radio buttons). No aerial photography updates have been put into this update.

Next update in a week will include some of the following:

  • Waiau Branch, including historical aerial photography and yard diagrams of every station
  • The rest of the Main North Line to Picton, including 2016 post-earthquake aerial photography.
  • Basemap aerial photography (see below)
  • Rationalisation of aerial photo categories in the layer list

Linz have licensed the site to include their Basemaps aerial photography live layer which offers the most up to date aerial photography of every part of New Zealand. This includes high resolution coverage of a growing number of areas, even part of the Waiau Branch is included.

At the same time it is necessary to rationalise some of the aerial photography included in the webmaps as there are too many layers in the list. Whilst for design purposes it is desirable to have access to a wide range of aerials, for the webmaps it is preferred to have wider date ranges for ease of use. The current layer list in 1970-1990 provides two year date ranges, which will be altered into five year ranges, consistent with other decades. Whilst there are also numerous generations of Linz live aerial photography available, these will generally be removed in favour of Linz Basemaps. Certain parts of the Linz aerials will be included where beneficial, for example their available 2016 aerial layer covering part of the Main North Line after the 2016 Rotherham Earthquake.

It is important to note that the webmaps are not technically perfect and it has been noted that there are various rendering glitches visible. These cannot be easily resolved as they are a core limitation of the practical difficulty of rendering static raster XYZ tiles, the technology that is most practical for the NZ Rail Maps website. Being able to produce these webmaps at only the cost of annual web hosting is a huge leap forward for a free project such as this and there are going to be practical compromises to achieve this. The website itself does not have any facility for feedback, which is best done through the project’s Facebook page. Feedback should be limited to actual errors of the wrong information displayed on the maps. The project is aware of various issues with the maps and that they do need some corrections in places, and these will be addressed in due course.

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 http://www.trainweb.org/nzrailmaps/ , 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 nzrailmaps.nz 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 nzrailmaps.nz 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.

 

 

NZ Rail Maps Project Development Report [2020O]: New Site Under Development

Good evening. The new NZ Rail Maps site is currently taking shape ahead of its planned launch date of 1 January 2021. At this stage the live maps which are available at that point will include a subset of the Greater Christchurch area. The minimum area available will be the Main South Line between Christchurch station (c. 10 km) and Islington station (c. 21 km). Additional areas are being mapped and will be brought online as quickly as possible after 1 January. However, this depends on whether any design changes are needed. For example, a late design change has resulted in the maps being available at that time limited to the 10-21 km section, whereas with the original design the maps had been prepared for 17-39 km at the time the design was altered.

As stated, the Volume 1 and Volume 6 previews previously completed and available on the old web site will be available, and are ready now. They are at these addresses:

These areas will eventually be incorporated into the main webmaps, however this will not actually take place until sometime later in 2021. This is to allow time to fully test and evaluate the design of the main webmaps using the Greater Christchurch area only, before any new areas are added to it. When the design of the main webmaps has been finalised, new areas will radiate out from Christchurch, so the webmaps will expand to include initially the South Island, and the rail ferry route that links the two main islands of New Zealand will be added, then the North Island network from Wellington will be added.

At this stage, areas outside Greater Christchurch are officially going to be added from 1 February 2021 but it may start earlier, however the timeframe is being left flexible to allow for all the Greater Christchurch content to be added first, and any design changes made, tested and finalised, before other content is added. It is also expected that other content outside Greater Christchurch will be only Basic level around much of NZ to begin with, except in areas where it has already been completed to a higher standard. Since even the Basic level of coverage has not been completed in all of NZ, it will need to be developed in those areas where it has not been completed to date. Once Basic level coverage has been completed, the coverage will be expanded to higher levels around NZ. This will follow a volume-based schedule in order to complete the other formats that are planned.

Project management is excited about having a full set of webmaps available for the first time in just one website that covers the whole country seamlessly and seeing all the areas that have previously been developed as webmaps come online in 2021.

The next blog post on 1 January 2021 will officially announce the webmaps going live so stay tuned.

GPX files for GPSs are expected to be created for each separate volume of NZ Rail maps (i.e. volumes 1-12). After due consideration of the formats that can be supported, it is likely that the files will simply be a straight export of the Locations layer of each volume. This is guaranteed to be compatible with the Garmin eTrex 10 GPS. There are no plans to provide any other GPS formats and compatibility with other GPSs is not guaranteed as the project does not have the means to test other brands or models of GPS. It is expected for the time being that the maps and GPS files will be separately developed. Options for making the maps themselves available offline will be tested with any available apps for the Android platform or laptops but there is no timeline for this. GPX files will be produced as each volume is brought into the main maps at Basic level and the links to download these will be added to a GPS page on this site which will be created in the main menu in due course.

NZ Rail Maps Project Development Report [2020N]: New Site Live, Webmaps Available 1 January 2021

The new NZ Rail Maps website is now operational. It looks just like the old one except that there are no webmaps available yet. These however are being created over the next week or two and will be available by 1 January 2021 as mentioned in the last blog post.

The webmaps that are available at that time will cover parts of the Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch suburban and regional rail networks and include full aerial photography coverage of those regions. Due to the ability to update the web maps at any time, instead of waiting for full volume completion as would have been the case with previous development, it is now planned to have weekly updates to the web maps content.

Production of the e-book and printed formats is still subject to full volume completion schedules and the best way to achieve these will be under consideration. This means that development of the web maps is likely to proceed according to a volume schedule over coming years.

However the immediate priority is for a full set of webmaps for the whole of NZ. This means essentially to Basic level as this is the most complete level around NZ. This will be pushed ahead as the most important task for the coming year and the full coverage should be completed at this level within two or three months. Simultaneously with this the completion of the full set of webmaps for Greater Christchurch will be pushed through as this remains a high priority for the project also.

The process of web map creation is still manual but doing a weekly update makes the task of map creation considerably easier than producing a full volume at a time. In addition, it is possible to stage a few km at a time for map generation steps, depending on geographic considerations. There are currently 24 base layers – a “map” layer and 23 eras of aerial photography – and four overlays – current and former rail, non rail and proposed, the latter only used in Christchurch. One base layer can be displayed at a time in the web browser, the default being maps as it is always available. Overlays are transparent and can be displayed in any combination of zero or multiples. This is essentially an extension of the functionality that was trialed in the Volume 6 preview on the old web site.

It is also hoped to field test the web maps around Greater Christchurch early in 2021 but how this will be achieved hasn’t been worked out as significant parts of the MNL and Midland Line corridors are without cellphone coverage and it depends on whether Wifi is available on Great Journeys’ trains or an alternative offline viewer can be made available for the test.