In 1888, a tramway was opened on Mole, one of the Purdy Islands, to facilitate phosphate extraction. Wagons were propelled by hand. This is the earliest railway definitely recorded in what was then the two colonies of British and German New Guinea, but there may have been at least one earlier.
Certainly, by the 1890s, a large number of small tramways had appeared, generally only a few hundred metres in length, and serving to connect a settlement with its wharf. Later in the decade more substantial railways, generally 600mm gauge, were built in connection with plantations, and with mining operations, notably for gold on Woodlark Island. They were man powered or hauled by oxen. They included:
Further short tramways and railways were opened in the 1900s. Worthy of note are:
By 1910, copper mining was being developed in the Port Moresby area, and several light railways, some temporary, opened in connection with this. In 1914, construction began on a 27km, 2ft (610mm) gauge railway between Ela Beach and Rouna, but it was incomplete at the outbreak of World War I.
In 1920, a 12km, 2ft (610mm) gauge railway opened on Misima Island, connecting gold mines at Umuna with the port of Bwagaoia. It used a small steam locomotive, probably the earliest to operate in Papua New Guinea. This had been purchased second handfrom Australia and returned there when the mine and railway closed in 1922.
From 1921, a 10km, 3ft 6in (1067mm) gauge railway connected a copper mine at Dubuna with smelters and a wharf at Tahira, on Bootless Bay near Port Moresby. There were 2 steam locomotives. The line closed in 1926 and the locomotives were later scrapped.
During the 1920s, plantations expanded. A number of extensive tramway systems appeared, the most extensive being at the Soraken cocoa and coconut plantation on Bougainville, a 2ft (610mm) gauge system whose lines eventually totalled some 23km in length.
A “gold rush” in the 1930s brought much activity to the country and numerous railway proposals. However, the only major railway development at this time was a 1.6km standard (1435mm) gauge line opened in 1931 from a wharf at Voco Point to Lae airstrip, transporting materials which were then airlifted to the mine site at Bulolo. The wharf was destroyed the following year by an earthquake and rebuilt closer to the airstrip. The line was operated by a self-propelled steam crane. It remained in operation until destroyed by Japanese bombing in 1942.
During World War II, a number of tramways were built by occupying Japanese forces and subsequently by the Allies. Few traces of these remain.
Further small tramways opened during the 1950s and 1960s, but by the 1980s their use at plantations was declining and systems were closing. However, also in the 1980s several temporary railways were used in connection with major construction and mining projects.
A project to preserve equipment and recreate a typical plantation tramway emerged in the 1980s at Kieta on Bougainville, but was abandoned on the outbreak of civil war in 1989.
By the late 1980s, only three tramways at oil palm plantations were reported to be in operation. These are believed to have closed soon afterwards.
The 700mm gauge tramway at the sawmill of the Catholic Mission at Ulamona operated until the early 1990s, latterly using a diesel locomotive built using the frame, running gear and cab of an old steam locomotive.