Auckland's City Rail Link's tunnel boring machine has been named after Maori land rights campaigner Dame Whina Cooper.

Dame Whina Cooper's name topped a nationwide poll ahead of internationally recognised Antarctic scientist, Dr Margaret Bradshaw, and the world's first elected openly transgender mayor and Member of Parliament, Georgina Beyer.

"The project is both proud and honoured that our tunnel boring machine will carry the name of a woman of such mana – Dame Whina Cooper," said City Rail Link chief executive, Dr Sean Sweeney.

Tradition dictates that a tunnel boring machine must have a woman's name - a sign of good luck and safety for the project ahead and an acknowledgement to St Barbara, the patron saint of those who work underground.

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The tunnel boring machine for the Waterview tunnel was named Alice following a public vote.

Dame Whina Cooper, who died in 1994, played a significant role in improving Māori living conditions across New Zealand. Photo / file
Dame Whina Cooper, who died in 1994, played a significant role in improving Māori living conditions across New Zealand. Photo / file

"We were looking for the name of a New Zealand woman who inspired - brave, compassionate and fearless - and all those outstanding leadership qualities are well and truly represented by the very remarkable Dame Whina Cooper," Sweeney said.

Cooper's family welcomed their mother's new association with a project that will bring huge changes to the Auckland she had called her home for many years.

"Mum was very much a people person," said daughter Hinerangi Puru Cooper. "She had so much energy and was heavily involved in community projects across Auckland. But to us she was just mum."

Cooper was born in 1895 at Panguru, Northland, and died in 1994. She began her first campaigns for Māori as a teenager before moving to Auckland in 1949 where she was identified as one of the 100 Makers of Auckland in a book featuring influential people who helped develop the city.

She was the first president of the Māori Women's Welfare League and played a significant role in improving Māori living conditions across New Zealand.

In 1975 aged 80, she led a land rights march from the Far North to Parliament. She was made a Dame in 1981 and was awarded the country's highest honour, the Order of New Zealand, in 1991.

Cooper, Bradshaw and Beyer were the shortlisted finalists selected from more than 300 women's names nominated by New Zealanders. Around 3500 participated in the competition with Cooper securing just under 50 per cent of the final total vote.

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"I am grateful to all New Zealanders for their support and their nominations and votes, particularly at a time when we were all grappling with a pandemic. I would also like to thank Dr Bradshaw and Ms Beyer for allowing their names to be considered for our TBM." Sweeney said.

The City Rail Link boring machine is due to arrive in kitset sections from China in October. It will be reassembled at the Link Alliance project site at Mt Eden.

It will be blessed before the Link Alliance starts the first of two 1.6km underground excavations from Mt Eden to the Aotea Station in the central city to connect with the twin tunnels already built from Britomart Station and under Albert St.