Workshops’ fortunes ebbed and flowed in tandem with railways’ changing fortunes
New Zealand’s railway workshops flourished during the “golden age” of rail but declined in size and significance as road vehicles became the dominant form of land transport.
The workshops evolved gradually from sheds built to shelter workmen assembling locomotives and rolling stock shipped from overseas to run on the country’s fledgling railway network.
By the turn of the 20th century, they ranked among New Zealand’s largest industrial enterprises, employing more than 1,700 staff. New Zealand History On Line describes them historically as “sites of ongoing struggle between an inherited British ‘shop culture’, new American-style management practices and New Zealand’s own labour traditions”.
The first workshops were established by provincial governments building the country’s earliest railway lines. Canterbury Provincial Railways led the way in 1863, followed in the early 1870s by shops in Port Chalmers and Fort Britomart, Auckland.
Two of the early Dunedin locomotives, Josephine and Rose, were assembled on the pier at Port Chalmers because there were no railway workshops in operation.
The rapid expansion of railways during the Vogel era of the later 1870s created the need for better workshops. In 1875, one of several repair shops planned along the hillside in what is now South Dunedin was completed and named “Hillside”. It measured 193 ft by 80ft and had extra space for three locomotives.
By 1880, there were workshops at Petone in the Hutt Valley, Addington in Christchurch, Newmarket in Auckland and East Town in Wanganui. Smaller shops also operated at New Plymouth, Napier, Nelson, Greymouth, Westport and Invercargill.
The growth of the rail network and development of refrigerated meat in the 1880s created the need for more locomotives and specialised rolling stock.
Christchurch’s Addington workshops began building locomotives in 1889, initially W-class tank engines, followed in 1894 by U-class tender locomotives). Hillside began locomotive production in 1897.
Over the following decades, Railways Department designers incorporated American, British and European features into a family of distinctive New Zealand-made locomotives, including the ‘Pacific’ A (1906), the celebrated AB (1915) and the giant K (1932).
During World War I, railway workshops around the country diversified into building military equipment such as munitions cars and in the case of Petone, Maxim machine guns. The war created a surge in the use of motor vehicles. By the 1920s, Railways was coming to terms with new-found competition. When the energetic Gordon Coates became Railways Minister in 1923, he set about adapting railways to meet the new challenges.
“With due diffidence, but with a strong feeling of determination to give the people of the Dominion a rail service worthy of this country’s advanced position in other lines of endeavour, I set about the work of reformation,” he said. One of his measures was an independent assessment of railways carried out by two British railway executives, Sir Sam Fay and Sir Vincent Raven.
In their 1925 report, they were critical of the workshops, identifying obsolete equipment, bottlenecks and inadequacies at the Newmarket and Petone plants. Modernisation led to Otahuhu workshops replacing Newmarket, Hutt replacing Petone and concentrating on locomotive building and signals construction.
Addington and Hillside did similar work in the South Island. By 1929, the workshops had become the most modern engineering plants in the country.
During World War II, workshops’ staff again turned their hand to equipment for the war effort, producing things like bren gun carriers, marine engines, boilers for navy trawlers and machine tools.
The growth in motor vehicle traffic after World War II steadily eroded rail’s pre-eminent position, particularly in passenger traffic. The de-regulation of transport in the 1970s and ‘80s, which removed restriction on goods moved by truck, prompted further change.
In 1984 a report by American-based consultants Booze Allen & Hamilton found there were too many workshops and duplication of equipment and functions. They also considered Railways produced things that could be bought outside more cheaply.
The report foreshadowed the1986 closure of East Town workshops in Wanganui. As a result, Otahuhu became the North Island’s rolling stock workshop.
Hutt concentrated on locomotives for the whole country, Addington took over South Island rolling stock work and Hillside national rolling stock and component manufacturing.
Four years later, Addington closed and Ōtāhuhu followed in 1992. Dunedin’s Hillside continued to operate as a railway workshop until KiwiRail announced its closure and partial sale in December 2012.
The decision to sell Hillside was the result of reduced workloads not being able to cover operating costs. Contracts to build new rolling stock had been completed and a programme of wagon and locomotive replacement following KiwiRail’s creation in 2008 significantly reduced maintenance work.
The closure of Hillside followed an unsuccessful national and international search for potential purchasers for the entire site. However, KiwiRail was able to reach agreement to sell the foundry to Australian-based Bradken who continue to operate the site, including supplying parts to KiwiRail. KiwiRail’s workshop needs are currently met by the Hutt Railway Workshops at Woburn.
Sources: NZ History Online; Te Ara, the New Zealand Encyclopedia; New Zealand Railways, the First 125 Years, David Leitch and Bob Stott, 1988.