Railway Road Services a sign of growing importance of road transport

The creation of a road service business in 1926 might seem at odds with New Zealand Railways role as a train operator, but it was a sign of the growing influence of road transport.

World War I had stimulated the development of trucks, buses and cars. By 1926, they were beginning to impact on Railways’ business.

The Minister of Public Works, K S Williams was moved to speculate: “the extraordinary development of motor traffic has changed the whole position to the extent that it is necessary to investigate the question as to whether certain lines of railway should not be closed down altogether for the reason that they cannot, under improved road conditions and resulting in competition by motor traffic, pay their way.”

The Prime Minister Gordon Coates was also Minister of Railways. He took a somewhat broader view of the competition from road. He envisaged road and rail complementing one another rather than competing.

But he did favour Railways becoming involved in road transport on its own account. As a result, Railways bought a bus service between Napier and Hastings in November 1926 and soon after, a country bus service in the Oamaru area.

Over the next two years, the Railways Department bought six bus companies in the Wellington and Hutt Valley areas. The New Zealand Year Book of 1963 records that by March 1930, the Railways Department was running 58 petrol-driven buses operated by a road services staff of 133. In the April to March year of 1929-30, road services buses carried 3.3 million passengers.

The Transport Licensing Act of 1931, which introduced a system of licensing, boosted the development of Railway Road Services. The Act evolved out of a 1930 Royal Commission on Railways and was intended to address the waste of resources on competing routes, not only between road transport operators and Railways, but among road transport operators themselves.

The first Railways long-distance coach service dates back to 1934, a 124-mile Wellington to Wanganui route. The new Labour Government elected in 1935, saw benefits in expanding long distance services.

“In the southern portion of the South Island, and in other areas I have been able to bring about a comprehensive coordination of road and rail and lake services under single ownership through the Government’s decision to purchase the services and licenses of a number of passenger carrying road operators in that areas,” said the Minister of Railways, D G Sullivan.

“This has given the Railways Department complete control of all passenger business along the principal routes south of Timaru; the coordination through eliminating some expensive duplication of services, is enabling considerable saving in costs.” Along with buses came depots. In November 1939, the Minister opened a new road services depot in Dunedin, an impressive art-deco building that survives today opposite the city’s Queen’s Gardens.

“There might be some who thought the structure was somewhat ahead of the times,” said Railways General Manager G H Mackley. “No doubt similar thoughts were in the minds of some when the Dunedin railway station was opened in 1906.

Minister Sullivan used the opportunity to justify Government policy. “The present building may be regarded as one more proof of the fact that, at least in the field of transport, private enterprise is not capable of meeting all public requirements,” he said.

“When the Government decided to extend the co-ordination of railway and road services …the purpose was to ensure to the public, as far as possible, the benefits of any expenditure undertaken in connection with this work, and also to reduce the cost to the people as a whole through the avoidance of uneconomic duplication of transport services.”

After World War II, Road Services moved into providing services that complemented rail operations. The idea was to make better use of rail wagon fleets by using trucks to collect small consignments of goods from country stations.

Mixed trains, a combination of freight wagons and passenger carriages, were replaced by buses carrying passengers and freight on rail.

Many different brands of buses were used in the early years of Railways Road Services, from Ford Model T-based cars to Straker steam trucks, to various Albion, Cadillac, Leyland and Dodge branded buses.

During the 1940s Ford V8 and Bedford truck chassis with New Zealand Motor Bodies became the Road Services bus. A decade later, the Bedford SB chassis fitted with NZMB bodies became standard and the vehicle most closely associated with Railway Road Services.

Almost 1300 ran on New Zealand roads through to the 1980s, considered the largest fleet of Bedford SB buses in the world. In the 1950s, annual passenger numbers reached 24 million, almost as many as carried on rail.

A 1985 restructuring split Road Services into three separate business units: InterCity which provided long-haul passenger services, Cityline which provided suburban services and a Speedlink parcel service.

The deregulation of transport in the 1980s undermined the profitability of the business. The long distance and suburban passenger services were sold in 1991.

Sources: NZ Government Year Book 1963; Trainland – How Railways Made New Zealand, Neill Atkinson, 2007; Te Ara, the New Zealand Encyclopedia; NZ Railways Magazine, Victoria University Electronic Text Centre; Wikipedia.

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