The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 2 (June 1, 1928)
Our Railway Gauge
There has been of late some talk regarding the railway gauge that New Zealand adopted in 1870. In the early days of railways in the Dominion we had two gauges. Auckland and Otago, which now includes Southland, had railways with a gauge of 4ft. 8 ½ in., whilst Canterbury made its first line in the 5ft. 3in. gauge. The Public Works policy of 1870, which was to rule all subsequent railway construction in New Zealand, chose 3ft. 6in. as the gauge best suited to our requirements, and that policy in regard to gauge has been carried out throughout our Dominion. (The railway lines made by the provinces have all been changed to the narrow gauge mentioned.)
Before the 3ft. 6in gauge was adopted there was much public discussion on the question. Meetings were held and many supporters of the existing (wider) provincial gauges advocated their retention. The opinion of one of our legislators, the Hon. J. C. Richmond, had a great effect in getting the 3ft. 6in. gauge adopted. He was a railway engineer and he had been in the service of the French Government in Algiers. His services were much thought of by the French Government. In urging the adoption of this narrow gauge it was pointed out that we were a small community. Our population was, according to the census return of February, 1871, only 256,393 people, excluding our Maoris.
Sir Julius Vogel, K.C.M.G.
Sir Julius Vogel was the father of the railway policy in New Zealand. He first took office as a member of the Fox Ministry in 1869, having, before that time, held political office in the Provincial Government of Otago. He was also a member of the Stout-Voge Government from 1884 to 1887. “Restless energy, great selfconfidence, quick perception, dialectical power, persistent tenacity, unbounded fertility of resources, constructiveness, and capability of rapid combination” were the leading characteristics of his mind —says his biographer, Mr. William Gisborne.
Sir Julius Vogel, who was the father of our new railway policy, urged that we must have long lines of railway and at a relatively small expenditure of money. His policy was that we must have cheap railways, and, as population increased and money became more plentiful, we could increase the equipment of our lines. He Has often been blamed for his extravagance, but so far as his railway policy was concerned, he was careful and economical. As one who was not of his political party—Mr. Gisborne—said of him: “The grasp of his mind was comprehensive, and his foresight was great; and, wild as some of his conceptions seemed to many at first, not a few have proved themselves to contain much that is useful and statesman like.” Sir Julius Vogel did not think it necessary to follow the example of England, or of Australia, so far as railway gauges were concerned. (Even in England since 1870, some railway lines have had their gauges lessened, and in Queensland the 3ft. 6in. gauge has been adopted.)
Viewing what has happened during the past 58 years it will be granted that New Zealand was wise in adopting the moderate gauge it chose. We have improved, as our revenue has increased, the equipment of our railways, in carriages, engines, station buildings, workshops, and so forth. It is true that our recent line have been more elaborately and consequently, more expensively constructed. Had, however, the policy of 1870 not been followed, we would not to-day possess the mileage of lines we have.
What has taken place in Australia in connection with railway gauges may be a lesson to us. There are, in that great Continent, several railway systems, Federal, State and private lines, and the gauges vary from 1ft. 8in. to 5ft. 3in. The length of the lines and gauges may be mentioned. page 11 In 1925 there were 5,775 miles of 5ft. 3in. gauge, 7,023 miles of 4ft. 8 ½in, 14,263 miles of 3ft. 6in., 24 miles of 3ft., 164 miles of 2ft. 6in., 3 miles of 2ft. 3in., 1,146 miles of 2ft., and a small line 35 miles long of lft. 8in. gauge. [The small gauge lines are private lines.] The Federal lines are of two gauges, there being 1,056 miles of 4ft. 8 ½in. gauge and 676 miles of. 3ft. 6in. gauge. Victoria has 4,537 miles of 5ft. 3in. gauge, and New South Wales 5,956 miles of 4ft. 8 ½in. gauge. South Australia has three gauges, viz., 1237 miles of 5ft. 3in. gauge, 597 miles of 4ft. 8 ½in., and 1,772 miles of 3ft. 6in. Queensland lines are mostly of 3ft. 6in. gauge, there being 6,578 miles of railway in that State thus laid down. Western Australia, too, has the greater portion of its lines laid down in the 3ft. 6in. gauge, though it has 453 miles of 4ft. 8 ½in gauge railway.
In view of the increasing motor competition which faces our Australian cousins (as it does ourselves and the railroaders of almost every other country), the frequently discussed plan of railway gauge unification in Australia may need considerable modification.
[According to the findings of the Royal Commission which dealt with the matter in 1921, the estimated cost of converting all the lines to the 4ft. 8½in. in the Australian States was given as approximately £57,200,000.]
The competition of motors with our railways is a transport problem for us that must be solved satisfactorily both for rail and motor. Our highways in New Zealand are being improved. We have now many miles of concrete roads and roads formed with smooth surfaces. We have also, unfortunately, on these and on our other highways (because of too quickly running motor cars and carelessly managed machines), very numerous accidents. The sacrifice of human life causes us concern. What will have to be done? Will we have to limit our motors to special roads? We have special footpaths in cities for pedestrians; will it ever be necessary to have certain streets or roads set apart for pedestrians or slow moving vehicles, into which thoroughfares no motor or machine-driven conveyance is admitted? Will conveyance in the air be so increased that even motors will be hard pressed to withstand competition in that direction? Who can predict the changes that will have to come regarding our transport of men and goods? But this we know: We are better off as a people than our pioneers or even the settlers in the seventies. However, we must “walk warily” and economise in expenditure in all our Government departments if we wish to see our Dominion progress.