Story: Railways

Page 10. Workshops

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New Zealand’s early locomotives, carriages and wagons were imported, mostly from Britain. Even so, workshops were needed to carry out maintenance and produce fittings and spare parts. Although they were always called ‘shops’, these facilities developed into heavy industrial complexes, capable of building sophisticated machines like locomotives.

First railway workshops

The Canterbury provincial railway built New Zealand’s first workshop in Christchurch in 1863. In the early 1870s shops opened at Britomart (Auckland) and Port Chalmers, soon followed by Hillside (Dunedin), Newmarket (Auckland), Petone (Wellington), Addington (Christchurch) and East Town (Whanganui). Smaller shops also operated at New Plymouth, Napier, Nelson, Greymouth, Westport and Invercargill.


The workshops started building wagons in the 1870s. With the development of the refrigerated meat industry in the 1880s, more specialised rolling stock was required. Domestic locomotive production began later that decade. Scott Brothers of Christchurch initially led the way, but the government workshops soon dominated production. From the early 20th century, the Thames firm A. & G. Price was the only significant private locomotive manufacturer.

The Addington workshops began building locomotives in 1889 (initially W-class tank engines, followed in 1894 by U-class tender locomotives), and Hillside began in 1897. Over the following decades, Railways Department designers blended the latest American, British and European features to create a family of distinctive New Zealand-made locomotives, including the ‘Pacific’ A (1906), the celebrated AB (1915) and the giant K (1932).

Shop culture

By 1900 the workshops were among New Zealand’s largest industrial enterprises, employing more than 1,700 staff – engineers, foremen, blacksmiths, boilermakers, carpenters, coppersmiths, moulders, fettlers, patternmakers, furnacemen, rivet boys and others. Heavily unionised, they were sites of ongoing struggle between an inherited British ‘shop culture’, new American-style management practices and New Zealand’s own labour traditions.

Overhauling the shops

Following the recommendations of a 1924–25 railways commission, all of the workshops were overhauled or replaced. New facilities were built at Ōtāhuhu in Auckland and Woburn in Lower Hutt. Locomotive manufacturing was concentrated at Hillside and Hutt. In the late 1930s the Hutt workshop produced the Wairarapa-class and Standard express railcars. East Town specialised in points, crossings and tarpaulins.

Further rationalisations followed in the 1980s and 1990s, with East Town closing in 1986, Addington in 1990 and Ōtāhuhu in 1992. In 2008 two workshops survived, both owned by KiwiRail, in Woburn, Lower Hutt, and the Hillside Engineering Group in Dunedin. Hillside closed in 2013, with the exception of its heavy lifting facility.

How to cite this page:

Neill Atkinson, 'Railways - Workshops', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 April 2024)

Story by Neill Atkinson, published 11 Mar 2010, reviewed & revised 11 Mar 2016