Story: Freight and warehousing

Page 5. Regulation and expansion: 1930s–1980s

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Regulating the freight industry

Rail was the most significant mover of land-based freight in mid-20th-century New Zealand. Its position was guaranteed by the government, which regulated freight from the 1930s to the mid-1980s. The booming road transport sector was curtailed, shipping was controlled, and the government-owned rail system was protected from competition.

In 1930 rail carried just under 8 million tonnes of freight. Rail’s freight load fell during the 1930s economic depression, but reached 10.5 million tonnes in 1955, and 12 million tonnes in 1965. The Railways Department also expanded into sea freight with the first roll-on, roll-off ferry between Wellington and Picton in 1962, connecting the main trunk lines of the North and South islands.

Road freight

The government limited the distance trucks could carry goods, initially to 30 miles (50 kilometres) in 1936, extended in 1961 to 40 miles (67 kilometres), and then in 1977 to 94 miles (150 kilometres). Carriers were licensed to carry specific types of freight, within particular areas.

Regulation encouraged an informal road freight industry. Private lorry owners, particularly farmers, were not tightly regulated. When the economy boomed after the Second World War, the share of freight ton-miles (a measure of the distance a ton of freight is carried) carried by privately registered trucks rose from 17% in 1948 to 31% in 1958. Licensed carriers’ share remained at 16%.

Trucks were well established in short-haul work by the 1970s. In 1973–74, for instance, trucks made more than 256,000 journeys through the Lyttelton road tunnel and 339,000 trips over the Auckland Harbour Bridge. There were 70,264 heavy trucks in New Zealand in 1974, running an average distance of 28,000 kilometres each per year, and generating on average 42 cents per kilometre for the owners.

Timber wars

Cut-throat competition among North Island timber carriers in the mid-20th century kept profit margins small – in some cases, the rates were uneconomic. Informal agreements to keep rates up were ignored. To lift their job rate, drivers would sometimes pick up and deliver loads assigned to another carrier.

Trucking culture

With the growth of the heavy trucking industry in the 1960s, trucking developed a subculture of its own, a close community whose members shared interests and socialised largely with each other. Articulated trucks – truck-and-trailer combinations – contrasted sharply with the van-bodied vehicles of a generation earlier.


Shipping was also regulated. Cargo handling was organised by a government-appointed body, and harbour boards’ spending on equipment was monitored by a government authority. For many years an informal accord between Australian and New Zealand maritime unions required crews on coastal and trans-Tasman ships to be from New Zealand, or New Zealand and Australia.

Many coastal ships were requisitioned during the Second World War for the war effort in the Pacific, supplying New Zealand and Allied forces. A post-war period of prosperity, supported by the booming coal trade, ended when demand for coal dropped away and the Railways Department introduced its roll-on, roll-off ferry between the North and South islands in 1962.

From 1962 the goods carried by coastal shipping were increasingly low-value and high-volume, such as salt, coal and logs. Cement and oil were transported by specially designed bulk-carriers. Vessel numbers dropped from 93 in 1965 to 19 in 1976; total tonnage more than halved.

Air freight

Goods began to be air-freighted in the 1930s. Although the amount carried increased rapidly, air freight would remain a very small proportion of total freight. Goods carried were low-volume and high-value, often luxury items or seasonal specialities. Cut flowers and cherries flew, rather than potatoes and rice; racehorses rather than sheep or cattle.


A dramatic increase in warehouse space took place during the mid-20th century. Warehouses began to appear around airports, and port warehousing facilities were expanded. In some cases, new industries drove the expansion.

Existing industries also expanded. Large manufacturers often had a two-tier warehouse system. Wattie’s, a large food manufacturer, had both factory and area warehouses. Bulk orders were filled from the factory warehouses in Gisborne and Hastings, while individual retailers’ orders were filled from area warehouses in Auckland, Hamilton and Palmerston North.

How to cite this page:

Matthew Wright and Megan Cook , 'Freight and warehousing - Regulation and expansion: 1930s–1980s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 June 2024)

Story by Matthew Wright and Megan Cook , published 11 Mar 2010