Story: Coaches and long-distance buses

Page 4. Early long-distance buses

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Long-distance buses – also known as coaches – arrived in the 1920s. Numbers grew in the 1930s and 1940s when the roads had improved enough to carry larger vehicles.

What’s in a name?

The public may call them buses, but to the industry, long-distance buses are ‘coaches’. A ‘bus’ is a city omnibus. Coaches are usually bigger, heavier and more comfortable than omnibuses. The Bus and Coach Association of New Zealand – as its name suggests – includes owners of both city omnibuses and coaches.

Coach regulation

The Transport Licensing Act 1931 regulated New Zealand transport services. Bus companies had to be licensed, and their vehicles, timetables and fares approved, by the government. Companies liked the system because a licence gave them a protected place in the market. Anyone wanting to set up in competition had to prove that they would not damage an existing operator’s business.

But regulation was tight. If a company wanted to put on a bus to take people to a show, sports event or day at the beach, it had to apply for a special licence. This might not be granted, or might have restrictions – such as not being able to pick up passengers on the way. As ‘specials’ were in demand and were a good source of income, companies complained that they were held back from providing services and making profits.

Big days out

In the unregulated 1920s, Midland Motors’ Louis Laugesen ran ‘specials’. He’d paint ‘Races from Warners’ on the bus in removable whiting, then drive round the middle of Christchurch. By the time he stopped outside Warners Hotel in the Square, customers were waiting. On weekends and public holidays he wrote ‘Waikuku Picnic Bus’ in huge white letters, and collected queueing picnic parties with their lunch hampers and sun hats. After 1931, he had to apply for a licence to run ‘specials’.

Rail and Railways Road Services

Regulations protected the government-owned railways against competition from long-distance buses. The 1933 Transport Amendment Act said no new licences would be given to bus services that ran along railway routes, and goods could be taken no more than 50 kilometres by road along a route serviced by rail.

The government set up its own coach service, New Zealand Railways Road Services (NZRRS), which started on the Wellington–Whanganui route in 1934. It entered the tourism industry the same year, running four-day tours from Dunedin to the Southern Lakes.

NZRRS grew dramatically under the first Labour government, buying out 27 private companies between 1936 and 1939. In 1940 it had 138 coaches; in 1950, twice that. By 1980, it was three times as large as the next-biggest coach company, Newman’s Coachlines.

Private owners resented the government’s presence in the market – especially because it could protect its own transport operations. In some cases a company’s application to renew a licence for a route was turned down – and then it found NZRRS had taken over that route. NZRRS sometimes then bought the company’s buses, or even the company itself.

How to cite this page:

Jane Tolerton, 'Coaches and long-distance buses - Early long-distance buses', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 31 March 2023)

Story by Jane Tolerton, published 11 Mar 2010