In contrast to the more passenger-oriented rail networks of Europe, New Zealand’s system has always been primarily a freight railway. For almost a century, the state used New Zealand Railways (NZR) as a developmental agency to foster domestic agriculture, mining, forestry and manufacturing. Mining and timber companies were major rail users from the 1870s, and NZR itself was a voracious consumer of coal and timber until well after the Second World War.
Mail by rail
Letters and parcels were carried on trains from the earliest days. In 1878 NZR introduced the first Railway Travelling Post Office (RTPO) between Christchurch and Dunedin. They were soon attached to most express trains, the mail sorters working to the train’s rocking, swaying motion. People could post letters through slots on the side, and guards’ vans also routinely carried mail. Road and air competition undermined rail’s mail business from the 1930s, and the last RTPO was withdrawn in 1971.
Farmers were important rail customers until the 1960s. Canterbury’s extensive network facilitated that region’s grain boom in the late 19th century, and from the 1880s railways played a vital role in the development of the lucrative export trade in refrigerated meat. Livestock transport was the lifeblood of many rural branch lines in the first half of the 20th century. Successive governments bowed to pressure from the farming lobby by cutting rail-freight rates on butter, cheese, wool, fruit and other products, delivering lime for free, and subsidising transport to and from A & P (agricultural and pastoral) shows.
From the 1920s cars and buses eroded rail passenger numbers, but freight tonnages continued to rise, reaching 7.8 million tonnes in 1929–30. There were 30,000 trucks on the roads by 1930 and in the next few years they captured much of rail’s short-haul goods and parcels business.
In 1931 the government introduced strict transport licensing regulations to protect railways. In 1936 the first Labour government went further, imposing a 30-mile (48-kilometre) limit on most trucking operators.
Railways carried every kind of cargo, but perhaps the best-known ‘special trains’ were those that ferried circuses from town to town. From the 1890s to the 1970s famous circuses like Wirth’s, Ridgway’s and Barton Brothers regularly toured New Zealand by train. The unloading of the animals could be as exciting as the show, especially as elephants were often used to shunt wagons.
Restrictions on livestock trucking were eased in 1961, and this business eventually shifted almost entirely onto the roads. The abolition of remaining road transport restrictions in the 1980s, new freight-handling practices, and the massive increase in the size and capability of trucks had an even greater impact.
In the early 1950s more than 1,000 railway stations handled general freight throughout the country. The main line between Christchurch and Dunedin, for example, had 74 stations, as well as nine rural branch lines serving inland districts. By 2004 New Zealand’s entire rail network had 18 freight centres, including four between Christchurch and Dunedin, and all nine branch lines had closed.
Record freight traffic
Despite the closures, in the 2000s New Zealand’s rail system carried more tonnes of freight than at any other time in its history. Many products and freight-handling practices had changed; most rail freight was carried in bulk or in containers, over longer distances and in fewer but far bigger trains, with minimal wagon shunting en route. While coal and timber products remained important, new customers like the major dairy company Fonterra had become increasingly valuable.