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NZ Railways at war

Page 5 – Manpower challenges at home

How did New Zealand Railways (NZR) keep up its massive manpower commitments during the First World War, while still maintaining services to its customers?

During the first two years of the war, when enlistment was voluntary, the Railways Department generally allowed its employees to enlist, with the exception of some specialist skilled staff. The running of scheduled services, plus more than 5000 special military trains, was achieved by redeploying staff, taking on casual hands (mainly younger and older men), restricting leave and having staff work longer hours – a sacrifice the department claimed its workers were happy to make for the war effort. Unlike British rail companies, NZR did not employ women to take the place of enlisted men.

In November 1916, when the first conscription ballot was held, manpower issues came to a head. The department argued it could not release more staff until after the busy summer season of livestock and grain transport; between November and May 1917 it appealed against the call-up of 569 out of 826 railway workers balloted. Adding to NZR's difficulties, the supply of coal had to be carefully managed (it would be formally rationed by the minister of munitions and supply from October 1917), revenue was declining as economic activity slowed, and there were shortages of imported machinery and components.

Service cuts

In May 1917 an agreement was reached to drip-feed a further 1000 railway workers into the army over the following year, with the men selected via a departmental ballot. But this could only be done by cutting services. Troop transport and freight, especially food exports and coal, had priority, so express and suburban passenger services were reduced. NZR also cancelled all excursion and Sunday trains, and trains to and from racecourses, sports meetings and picnics. By March 1918, 1.7 million train-miles had been cut from the timetable and total passenger numbers had fallen by 20%. The sale of excursion tickets fell from almost one million in 1916/17 to zero two years later.

Excursions were a politically acceptable target as there had been criticism of civilians enjoying amusements such as races and sports events during wartime. Many public gatherings and carnivals, however, were organised for wartime fundraising purposes, and such events helped keep up morale on the home front. NZR’s curtailment of excursions may have contributed to the general war-weariness of 1917-18 – alongside the spiralling cost of living, which was a source of much discontent among railwaymen and other workers.

The service cuts would be temporary, but another 1917 change was more enduring. Prior to the war NZR, like most railway companies around the world, operated dining cars on main-line express services. These were ‘temporarily’ removed from service to reduce costs, increase passenger capacity on the now less frequent trains, free up rolling stock for conversion to other uses and release more workers for the war effort.

Dining cars were in effect replaced by station refreshment rooms – from mid-1917 NZR took over most of the existing, privately run refreshment rooms, opened a new one in Christchurch and began building more. While all dining car staff had been men, refreshment rooms were largely staffed by women, the first significant group of female staff employed by NZR (around the same time, about 60 women were engaged as carriage cleaners).

The mad scramble of passengers off the train into crowded refreshment rooms – where uniformed ‘girls’ sold pies, sandwiches and cakes that were washed down by steaming tea drunk from thick railway cups – would become a defining feature of travel in 20th-century New Zealand. This was a teetotal counterpart to the ‘six o’clock swill’ in pubs, also the result of a ‘temporary’ wartime measure introduced in 1917.

Food and alcohol were not again sold on New Zealand trains until 1968, just after six o’clock closing ended in 1967 – these two curious wartime innovations had endured for 50 years.

Post-war problems

NZR played a key role in demobilisation in 1918 and 1919, transporting 57,000 servicemen home from ports and camps. This effort was interrupted in late 1918, however, by the deadly influenza pandemic, which brought much of the country, including the rail system, to a standstill. Disruptions to local coal production, and to imports from Australia, contributed to a severe coal shortage which forced a second wave of service cuts in July 1919.

This in turn had a significant impact on New Zealand’s peace celebrations that month. Traditionally, for large public events such as the 1901 royal tour and the visit of HMS New Zealand in 1913, NZR had offered cheap excursion fares and used special trains to bring people from rural areas into the main centres. The 1919 coal crisis forced a change of approach – rather than holding a small number of big official events in the main centres, as would probably have happened, the peace celebrations were effectively decentralised and became much more community-centred.

Nevertheless, NZR helped support the public events that were held over three days from 19 to 21 July: railway workshops staff built floats for parades in the main centres, and stations nationwide were decorated with flags and bunting or (as in Christchurch and Dunedin) brightly illuminated. At noon on Monday 21 July, all trains in New Zealand were brought to a standstill for one minute, to allow NZR staff and passengers to pay ‘silent bareheaded tribute’ to the ‘brave and honoured dead’.

As well as coal shortages and the challenges of reintegrating men returning from war service, NZR's recovery was hampered by the effects of deferred maintenance and improvements and the uncertain economic climate of the early 1920s. The pent-up frustrations of the war years and rising post-war expectations led to major industrial confrontations – the first in New Zealand's rail history – in 1920 and 1924. The greatest challenge to the railways that decade, however, would be competition from motor cars, buses and trucks, the development of which had accelerated during the war years.

How to cite this page

Manpower challenges at home, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated