World War II good for the bottom line but not for the customer

New Zealand Railways response to the pressures of World War II prompted Minister Bob Semple to pay a special tribute to the railways contribution and to reinforce the Government’s acceptance of the importance of rail.

“The railways have, ever since their inception, been of paramount importance to New Zealand but never more than during the past six years,” he said. “I want to pay, on behalf of the Government and the people of New Zealand, a sincere tribute to their loyal service to this country.”

The war, like its 1914-18 predecessor, brought with it petrol rationing, forcing people back to trains to get from one place to another.

An upsurge in civilian traffic along with the need to move troops, pushed passenger numbers to new records and put pressure on a railway struggling with the loss of staff to the armed forces.

The 1963 New Zealand Year Book records that passenger numbers peaked at 38.6 million in the year April to March 1943-44. A third of the traffic was troop movements to and from training camps and ports.

Petrol rationing also increased the amount of freight carried. Goods and livestock topped 9 million tons for the first time, prompting Minister Semple to say in 1943: “The present conflict has shown quite clearly that in times of stress the railway is the only reliable agency for bulk inland transport.”

As well as their day-to-day work of supporting the railway, the Workshops’ staff turned their hand to also producing equipment for the war effort like bren gun carriers, marine engines, boilers for navy trawlers and machine tools. Not surprisingly, this was good for business. Railways recorded a record revenue of 15.3 million pounds, a return on investment of almost four percent. According to The 1963 Year Book, returns of this order had not been achieved since 1925-26.

But the results came at a cost. Just as in World War I, coal became scarce. In 1941, coal had to be imported from Newcastle in Australia. By March 1945, Railways were down to one week’s supply.

The Department was forced to import coal not only from Australia but from North America, India, Africa and even Britain. The costs became high enough for some locomotives in the North Island to be converted to burning oil.

The loss of 26 percent of staff to the armed forces prompted the Government to declare Railways an “essential occupation” in July 1942. Women and retired railway staff were recruited to fill gaps.

Operating staff were working up to 15-hour days, often six days a week. The pressure inevitably told on standards of train and infrastructure maintenance. Not only were restrictions on long-distance train travel introduced but those who did travel complained about dirty and crowded conditions.

Track maintenance standards declined to the extent that after a passenger train derailment between Wellington and Upper Hutt, a Board of Enquiry determined that standards had declined to the extent that public safety was threatened.

Work on extending the network slowed during the war, but there were some notable gains. The 1963 Year Book records that the last spike was driven in the 27-mile Westport-Inangahua railway in December 1941 and goods train and railcar services ran between Westport and Greymouth the following year.

In the north, Dargaville was connected to the network. In the south, work on connecting Picton with Blenheim continued, to be finally finished in December 1945 when the last section between Oaro and Kaikoura was completed.

The end of the war released pent-up pressure for change. It was followed by a period of prosperity during the early 1950s that increased vehicle ownership and the growth of road freight traffic.

Some of the railwaymen who had served in the Middle East in the special rail operating companies had their first experience of diesel locomotives when coal was in short supply.

Change was in the air.

Sources: 1963 New Zealand Year Book; New Zealand Railways, the First 125 Years, David Leitch and Bob Stott, 1988; Trainland, How Railways Made New Zealand, Neill Atkinson, 2007.