Railways have changed from nation-builder and ‘universal carrier’ to specialist transport provider

When Sir Julius Vogel embarked on his ambitious infrastructure building programme in the 1870s, he saw rail as a means to an end.

“Let the country but make the railroads and the railroads will make the country,” he said, borrowing the words of British railway promoter Henry Pease.

Vogel grew up in Britain and was well aware of the role railways played there during the industrial revolution. Trains enabled goods to be moved in much greater bulk and more rapidly than ever before. They also freed people to move around the country.

In New Zealand, the need was different. In the 1860s, settlements were small, coastal and isolated. People and goods travelled around the coasts, up and down rivers and by bullock wagon.

Vogel saw in railways a means of linking settlements and opening up country that no settlers had previously entered. He chose the cheapest and easiest way to build his railways because he knew that following the English model would have been prohibitively expensive.

He and his political successors along with the railway engineers and administrators, overcame the challenges of rugged terrain, unpredictable weather and a small population, to create an effective network.

For the better part of a century, rail served as the universal carrier, moving both freight and passengers. Towns and cities sprang up along its path.

One hundred years later, the post-World War II boom in motor vehicle ownership and a fledgling airline industry had begun eroding rail’s role as a people mover. At the same time, truck drivers were chaffing at regulations which prevented them carrying goods in competition with Railways.

The New Zealand Year Book of 1963 reflected on the contribution the then Railways Department was making to the New Zealand economy. It noted that trains had provided “low cost transport” for some 26 million passengers and carried 10 million tonnes of goods.

The result was record revenue of 36.6 million pounds but spending of 36.8 million pounds. At that time, more than 20,000 people would have been working for the Railways Department.

By way of comment, the Year Book noted that with the exception of suburban passenger fares, there had been no increase in charges since 1956.

In 1952 there were some 1,060 stations handling general freight on the network as well as many private sidings. As well, there were more than 150 small stations handling passengers, parcels and small consignments.

Dramatic change was to occur in the next 50 years. In the 1970s and ‘80s, road transport was freed from the restrictions that had limited their capacity to compete for long-distance freight.

That along with the continuing rise in private vehicle ownership and rural depopulation changed the role railways played in the country’s economy.

From being the universal carrier and an institution in almost every significant town and city, it slowly adapted to a new role – specialist transport provider.

Along with the new environment came a new corporate model and a reduction in staff numbers to less than 5,000.

A private sector ownership model was tried and abandoned. Today’s railway, in the form of KiwiRail, carries almost double the freight and close to as many passengers – albeit mostly on suburban lines.

Railways are no longer the “universal carrier” or an instrument of social policy. Instead they are an integral part of New Zealand’s transport network.

The fact that KiwiRail moves more than 30 percent of New Zealand’s export goods speaks volumes for the contribution it is making to the New Zealand economy.

Back in 2008 when the Government renationalised the railways, many noted the irony of the Rt Hon Jim Bolger being appointed Chairman of the Board. He had, afterall, been Prime Minister when Railways were sold in 1993.

But Mr Bolger was equal to the task. When he addressed a function at Wellington Railway Station to mark the creation of KiwiRail, he dispersed any implied criticism with the simple words, “the world has changed”.

He pointed to the steep rise in oil prices, the changes in shipping patterns and the advent of news terms like food miles and carbon efficiency. He described a world in which rail had an important role in determining New Zealand’s economic future.

More than $1.3 billion invested in KiwiRail’s freight business and a similar amount in the Auckland and Wellington urban networks over the past seven years, has created a platform for railways to deliver on that future.

Sources: By Kevin Ramshaw