Story: Railways

Page 4. Steam locomotives

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The steam age

New Zealand’s railways were predominantly steam-powered until the 1950s. Most 19th-century locomotives were small British-built tank engines (which carried their fuel and water supplies in tanks on the machine, rather than in a trailing tender). Best known was the outstanding F class; 88 were imported between 1872 and 1888. Several remained in service until the 1960s.

The first tender locomotive was the English-built 2-6-0 J class of 1874. American imports began with the dashing 2-4-2 Rogers K (1878), followed by the excellent T, N and O classes built by Baldwin of Philadelphia. While American locomotives were well suited to local conditions, they were not always popular with the pro-British public and politicians. Meanwhile, domestic production began in the 1880s. Locomotives were manufactured in workshops in the Christchurch suburb of Addington from 1889.

New Zealand style

Over the following decades, New Zealand Railways (NZR) designers blended the latest American, British and European features to create a family of distinctive – and in most cases highly successful – New Zealand locomotives.

NZR’s Q class (1901), designed in New Zealand and built by Baldwin in the United States, is widely regarded as the first of the 4-6-2 ‘Pacifics’, which became one of the world’s most popular types of locomotive in the early 20th century.

This was followed by the Pacific A class (1906) and the massive 4-8-2 X class (1908), specially designed for the central section of the North Island main trunk (NIMT) – the world’s first ‘mountain’ type.

The Pacific AB of 1915 was arguably the most successful and versatile locomotive ever to run on New Zealand railways. Over the next decade 141 of these machines were built at Addington, at A. & G. Price in Thames and the North British works in Glasgow. Before the arrival of the Ks and Js, the AB was NZR’s standard mainline passenger and freight locomotive. A tank version, the 4-6-4 WAB, was widely used on Auckland and Wellington suburban routes.

The end of steam

New Zealand’s last scheduled steam service, a JA-hauled Christchurch–Dunedin overnight express, ran on 25 October 1971. In fact, steam only lasted that long in the South Island because of the need to provide steam-heating for carriages during winter.

The final flourish

NZR steam power reached its peak with the giant Hutt-built 4-8-4 K class (1932) and its KA and KB variants (1939), which became the undisputed kings of the NIMT and Midland lines. These were followed by the 4-8-2 J (1939) and JA (1946), produced by North British and NZR’s Hillside (Dunedin) workshops respectively. At the end of the Second World War, a time of coal shortages, a number of Ks and Js were converted to oil-burners.

The transition from steam to diesel took from 1949 to 1971. In 1954 NZR had 647 steam locomotives, compared to 71 diesel and electric machines. In 1965 there were still 317 steam locomotives, but more than 350 diesels (including 159 mainline diesel-electrics), 50 railcars and 28 electrics. Six years later, the steam age was over.

How to cite this page:

Neill Atkinson, 'Railways - Steam locomotives', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 April 2024)

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