Loss of railwaymens’ lives an enduring memory of World War I

Steam locomotive "Ab" 608, built by the New Zealand Railways Addington Workshops in 1915 (maker's no. 163/15), went into service in October 1915, was named "Passchendaele" in 1925 (name removed in 1943, and restored briefly in 1963 during the period of the Railways Centennial Exhibition), was written off in October 1967, and was preserved. Photograph taken by Albert Percy Godber. New Zealand Railways.

World War I, often described as the “Great War”, had a profound impact on railways in New Zealand, not the least being the loss on military service of 444 railwaymen, almost 10 percent of the number who served.

More than 5,000 railwaymen joined the military between 1914 and 1918, around five percent of the 100,000 men and some women who contributed to the war effort. The extent of railwaymens’ service and the losses they suffered explains the many memorials created in their memory, a considerable number of those memorials surviving today.

One of the more unusual was the 1925 decision of railways Minister Gordon Coates to name a steam locomotive “in memory of those members of the New Zealand Railways who fell in the Great War”.

After considering the locations of famous World War I battles such as Somme, Le Quesnoy and Ypres, Coates chose Passchendaele. The locomotive chosen to carry the name was AB 608, built at Christchurch’s Addington railway workshops in 1915. The outbreak of war in 1914 put a dampener on the plan of newly appointed Railways General Manager, E H Hiley, an Englishmen, appointed to bring some fresh thinking to the railway.

Goods and passenger traffic had expanded rapidly over the preceding ten years, but spending on the railway infrastructure had not kept up.

Hiley proposed spending £3,250,000 over five years, mainly on infrastructure. His plan included new stations and yards at Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch; duplication of Auckland suburban lines and the Lyttelton Tunnel, a new, more easily graded line between Auckland and Westfield; and extensive grade easements elsewhere.

He submitted his plan only days before war was declared. When hostilities started and New Zealand became heavily involved in the war effort, much of it was forced to go on hold.

Very soon he was faced with the realities of war-time operations. Not only did he lose staff to the armed forces but trains became an essential means of moving troops to and from training camps and to ports of embarkation. It was a case of doing more with fewer resources.

Railway workshops around the country diversified into building military equipment such as munitions cars and in the case of Petone, Maxim machine guns. Restrictions on shipping impacted on domestic trade and the importation of equipment and parts for the railway. Coal which was essential for the running of trains, became scarce.

The Railways Department responded by stopping excursion trains to events like race meetings. Dining cars were withdrawn from service to be replaced by the refreshment rooms that were to become defining features of railways in the future. The 1963 New Zealand Yearbook’s feature on railways reported that wartime inflation pushed up the cost of operating even the reduced services from £2,880,323 in 1913 to £3,308,574 in 1918 although post-war inflation was even more serious, annual expenditure rising to £6,237,726 in the 1921–22 financial year.

The war also led to a significant improvement in other forms of transport – motor vehicles and aircraft. These improvements were to create a challenge in the post-war years to rail’s dominance as a means of transport.

Sources: Steam locomotive "Passchendaele", "Ab" 608 (4-6-2 type). Godber, Albert Percy, 1875-1949 :Collection of albums, prints and negatives. Ref: APG-1534-1/2-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.