The type and volume of sediment entering subduction zones affects the style of plate-boundary deformation and thus sedimentary and tectonic cycles. Because submarine channels significantly increase the transport efficiency of turbidity currents, their presence or absence in subduction trenches is a primary control on trench fill. To date, comprehensive architectural characterization of trench-axial channels has not been possible, undermining efforts to identify the factors controlling their initiation and evolution. Here, we describe the evolution of the Hikurangi Channel, which traverses the Hikurangi Trench, offshore New Zealand. Analysis of two- and three-dimensional seismic data reveals that the channel was present only during the last ~3.5 m.y. of the ~27 m.y. of the trench’s existence; its inception and propagation resulted from increased sediment supply to the trench following amplified hinterland exhumation. To test if the controls on the evolution of the Hikurangi Channel are universal, multivariate statistical analysis of the geomorphology of subduction trenches globally is used to investigate the formative conditions of axial channels in modern trenches. Terrigenous sediment supply and thickness of sediment cover in a trench are the dominant controls; subsidiary factors such as trench length and rugosity also contribute to the conditions necessary for trench-axial channel development. Axial channels regulate sediment distribution in trenches, and this varies temporally and spatially as a channel propagates along a trench. The presence of a trench-axial channel affects plate-boundary mechanics and has implications for the style of subduction-margin deformation.