Office power struggle preceded introduction of diesel electric locomotives


The eclipse of steam powered locomotives in New Zealand was inevitable after World War II. But the decision on what should replace them triggered a power struggle of a different kind – within New Zealand Railways itself.

The contest was waged between two Railways’ general managers with differing philosophies. The first was a lawyer who was an advocate for electrified rail networks; the second an engineer convinced that the gradual introduction of diesel locomotives was the answer.

Frederick Aickin became Railways General Manager in 1948. In his earlier role as Chief Legal Adviser, he had been to Britain with the Chief Mechanical Engineer to talk to the English Electric Company about the supply of electric multiple units for Wellington suburban lines.

Horace Lusty, who was to succeed Aickin in mid-1951, had been Chief Civil Engineer. He too had been to Britain – in his case to work on a proposal to electrify the Auckland network.

The two men had very different ideas on the merits of electrification and diesel electric technology. Aickin had the first opportunity to turn his ideas into action.

He prepared a report on electrification of the North Island Main Trunk Line, at the time, the country’s busiest route. 

The report was backed by two Swedish experts and approved by the incoming National Government. At that point, Aickin retired and Lusty took over.

The new Government decided a Royal Commission consisting of a former Auckland Mayor, the head of a confectionary firm and the head of an insurance company should look at the general problems facing Railways in the aftermath of World War II.

New Zealanders were still smarting at the poor service they suffered from Railways in the latter stages of the war. Continuing problems stemming from staff shortages fuelled their indignation.

In one month in 1949, services were interrupted by 107 locomotive failures. Eighty percent of these service interruptions were directly linked to workshop staffing shortages.

The problem extended to the track network itself. Maintenance work deferred during the war could not be done instantly the war was over, compounding delays and service cancellations.

Year-book figures for passenger numbers show a steady fall from the war-time highs as people swapped trains for cars or Railways Road Service buses.

Higher costs for materials contributed to losses continuing to mount, topping one million pounds in 1950.

Apart from the financial and operational problems facing Railways, the commissioners found themselves with a Government-approved plan for electrifying the Main Trunk and a General Manager diametrically opposed to it.

Lusty tabled figures which directly contradicted Aickin’s claims about the costs of electrification and the projections for traffic growth.

He also hinted darkly about “influences from outside” and told the Commission, “If the usual practice had been followed, I can say quite definitely that a recommendation from these officers to proceed with the Main Trunk line electrification at the present time would not have been made”.

The commissioners were more concerned with the impact of road transport on railway finances but did conclude that short-term general managers chopping and changing policy direction was less than desirable.

Lusty’s view that the existing J and Ja class steam locomotives could cope with the workload, prevailed. The shelving of the Aickin plan has over the years become a cause celebre for advocates on both sides of the electrification argument.

Leaving aside the merits of electrification, events were to suggest however, that Lusty’s confidence in the steam-powered fleet was misplaced. Staff shortages, particularly in the Railway workshops, were badly affecting the reliability of services.

With the advantage of protection from road transport, freight traffic was increasing rapidly as the post-war economy improved. One mixed benefit was a decline in passenger numbers which freed some locomotives for freight haulage.

Railways had already turned to diesels in 1951 in the form of 30 locomotives bought from the English Electric Company. Admiration for the qualities of diesel electric traction had a considerable history. Writing in the New Zealand Railways Magazine in March 1926, NZR Motor Engineer J Bruce wrote: “The steam locomotive is a wonderful piece of mechanism and upon it has been built up our great railway system.

“But, in these days of high operating costs and keen rivalry from road transport, we cannot remain satisfied with a motive power which returns only £5 to £7 worth of train propulsion for every £100 worth of fuel consumed.

“One of the most efficient prime movers to-day is the internal combustion engine, the engine which has made possible nearly all the Railway's rival forms of transport. It is, then, little wonder that so many railway engineers should strive to introduce the internal combustion engine into the field of rail transport.” In 1954 with the electrification proposal shelved, Railways called tenders for 20 more diesel electric locomotives. No sooner had American firm General Motors won the contract than the required number was raised to 30 and the stipulated delivery date for the first unit set at 150 days. New Zealand Railways’ staff who served in the special railway operating companies in the Middle East between 1941 and 1943 had encountered diesel electric locomotives when coal was in short supply.

The technology had been pioneered in the United States where a small number were in service by 1925. After the war, railways around the world began converting to diesel electric locomotives, introducing electrified networks or combining both.

In New Zealand, the diesels quickly demonstrated their advantages over steam. Classed as DA locomotives, they were travelling half the total locomotive train miles recorded by 1959.

The last steam train was the Christchurch–Dunedin overnight express on 25 October 1971, pulled by a JA class locomotive. By the end of March 1965 New Zealand Railways was running 57 oil-fired and 260 coal-fired steam locomotives; 159 diesel-electric main line and 46 diesel-electric shunting locomotives; 148 diesel-mechanical shunting locomotives; and 28 electric locomotives. The steam era that had begun with small steam engines imported by early provincial governments. It ended with mighty K and J class locomotives, mostly designed and built within New Zealand. In the years that followed, memories of dense smoke and blighted washing slowly faded to be replaced by nostalgia for the “golden age of steam”.

Sources: : New Zealand Railways, the First 125 Years, David Leitch and Bob Stott, 1988; North Island Main Trunk, Bill Pierre, 1981; New Zealand Year Books; New Zealand Railways Magazine via NZ Electronic Text Centre.