NZ Railways at war

Page 3 – NZ Railways in 1914

On the other side of the world from the European battlefields, New Zealand’s rail network was a small link in the vast wartime supply chain.

With the recent completion of the North Island Main Trunk Line (1908) and takeover of its only major private competitor (the Wellington and Manawatu Railway Company), New Zealand Railways (NZR) was unquestionably the country’s pre-eminent land transport provider. Its workforce of 14,000 permanent staff, supplemented by up to 6000 casual workers, operated more than 4600 km of track, 534 locomotives, 21,000 carriages and wagons, five heavy engineering workshops, its own telegraph and telephone networks, sawmills and quarries, and steamers on Lake Wakatipu; in the year to March 1914 NZR had carried 23 million passengers, 6.9 million sheep and 5.6 million tons of freight.

In 1914 NZR's new general manager, Englishman E. Haviland Hiley, submitted an ambitious plan for the expansion of and improvements to the railway system, but this was put on hold when war broke out. In the meantime, NZR would have three vital roles: transport provider, industrial resource and supplier of manpower.

Delivering the goods

As a rail operator, NZR's primary task was to maintain the peacetime services that were essential to the efficient operation of the Dominion’s economy – the transport of coal, timber, agricultural products, livestock, industrial goods and passengers around the rail network. In addition, rail was essential to the mobilisation, training, equipping and dispatch of an expeditionary force, a role for which NZR was well prepared. Even before war broke out, it had regularly deployed its resources to support Territorial training camps, as this report from June 1914 explains:

The demand on the Railway Department for the carriage of troops, horses, baggage, camp equipment, and supplies to the camps was greater than had ever been made before … Apart from the carriage stock utilized in the transport of troops, some 90 bogie wagons and 129 four-wheeled wagons were required in the North Island, and some 28 bogie wagons and 200 four-wheeled wagons in the South Island … The Railway Department also constructed sidings near Hautapu, Takapau, Kowai, and Matarae camp sites, which greatly facilitated the detraining and entraining of troops, and the loading and unloading of horses, guns, equipment and supplies. [1]

In August 1914 this well-oiled machine rolled into action on an even larger scale. By the end of the year NZR had transported almost 16,000 troops into camp and 12,000 to ports for embarkation (by 1918 these figures would total 117,000 and 99,000 respectively). With traffic further boosted by soldiers travelling on leave and families farewelling their loved ones, total passenger journeys exceeded 24 million in both the 1915/16 and 1916/17 financial years – the highest figures yet recorded.

The railway station – whether a grand urban landmark like Dunedin’s station or a humble trackside shed like Sutton’s in Central Otago, where departing soldiers carved their initials – was an essential site of wartime movement. As in peacetime, the station platform was a community gathering place, but the uncertainties of war increased the anxiety of farewells. As well as moving people, trains were a vital part of the communications and information network – they carried letters and parcels that connected those at home with soldiers overseas, and newspapers that brought news of developments at the front.

For many, the station platform was later a place of homecoming and reunion. When the Willochra brought home the first large group of wounded from Gallipoli in July 1915, NZR gave relatives free rail passes to Wellington and fitted out a special ‘Red Cross train’ to carry men to other centres in the North Island. For many families, however, there would be no homecoming, and the railway station would linger in the memory as the last place they ever saw their loved ones.

The railway workshops

NZR was also a key industrial resource. Its main workshops at Newmarket (Auckland), Petone (Wellington), Addington (Christchurch) and Hillside (Dunedin), plus a smaller shop at East Town (Whanganui), were among New Zealand’s largest, most sophisticated industrial facilities, capable of building state-of-the-art steam locomotives, carriages and wagons as well as maintaining all aspects of the rail network.

From August 1914 the workshops contributed to domestic war production by manufacturing ammunition carts, limbers and other military equipment. The Addington workshops experimented with the manufacture of 18-pounder high-explosive shells, and in 1915 the Petone workshops even built a Maxim machine gun. According to a 1927 article:

Every part of the gun was made exactly to sample at Petone Workshops, and when it is remembered that no previous experience of this kind of work was possessed by any of the employees, that the staff was depleted by heavy enlistments, that traffic was particularly heavy owing to the mobilisation of men and materials, and that a large amount of delicate hand-machining was required, the finished product is a tribute to the high standard of Railway Workshops efficiency and patriotic endeavour. There were no drawings available, and the staff had nothing to guide them but a condemned gun! [2]

The machine gun was subsequently used in training at Trentham. It was recognised, however, that it was neither practical nor efficient for New Zealand to undertake large-scale production of munitions, especially given labour and shipping shortages and restrictions on the import of parts and tools from Britain.

The manpower war

NZR’s other major asset was manpower. It was New Zealand’s largest employer and most of its workers were physically fit, military-age males (in 1914 there were only five women in NZR's 14,000-strong permanent workforce). They were used to working in a hierarchical, rules-based organisation and many had done some military training. In 1911, as part of the compulsory military training system introduced under the Defence Act 1909, the Railways Department had established a Railway Engineers Corps. This was organised into a North Island Battalion of eight companies, with an establishment (nominal strength) of 654 officers and other ranks, and a South Island Battalion of seven companies, with 617 men.

Every male NZR employee between 18 and 24, except workshops staff, was required to join the Railway Battalions and attend instructional camps once a year. NZR built rifle ranges in the four main centres for training and launched an annual shooting competition – named the Hiley Cup after NZR's general manager, Colonel E.H. Hiley, who commanded the Railway Corps. By August 1914 the Railway Battalions had been fully uniformed, armed and equipped.

Like the similar Post and Telegraph Corps, also established in 1911, the Railway Corps’ initial role was to protect vital infrastructure that an enemy might attack or sabotage. On the outbreak of war the battalions were mobilised and throughout August 1914 they mounted a 24-hour guard on every rail tunnel and bridge in New Zealand. Among them was 21-year-old Sapper Robert Hislop, now recognised as New Zealand’s first fatal Great War casualty; he was guarding Parnell bridge in Auckland on 13 August 1914 when he accidentally fell, dying six days later.


[1] Defence Forces of NZ annual report, AJHR, 1914, H-19, p. 20.

[2] NZ Railways Magazine, vol. 2, no. 5 (1 September 1927), p. 12.

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'NZ Railways in 1914', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 4-May-2016