Report of the railway timetable commission

In late 1919 a royal commission investigated the coal-saving railway timetable that had been introduced in July that year. The commission reported that ‘the curtailment to train services’ was brought about solely by the shortage of coal, and outlined the reasons for that shortage.

The 1919 coal shortage

When the First World War broke out New Zealand was still very much dependent on coal. As well as being widely used for heating and cooking, coal powered the railways and shipping, which were the main means of transporting goods and people throughout the country. It also powered gas and steam plants, which generated electricity for many households and industries. Difficulties maintaining a sufficient supply of coal for these services began almost immediately after the declaration of war. Internal production was disrupted by a shortage of miners and strike action, while supplies could not be imported due to a shortage of shipping and heavy demand in other countries. The problems maintaining supply were compounded by an increase in demand for coal from the military. After the influenza pandemic struck New Zealand in October 1918 the coal shortage worsened. Mining areas were badly affected, leaving the workforce even more depleted, and quarantine regulations further disrupted shipping.

In late June 1919 the government introduced a number of measures to address the worsening coal crisis. The working hours of public servants were reduced in order to save coal used for heating, and restrictions were placed on coal consumption during the peace celebrations planned for July 1919. But the most severe measure was a coal-saving railway timetable that saw train services cut to the bare minimum. The timetable came into force on 2 July and continued to operate until 27 September, by which time coal supplies were improving. But it was December 1919 before a full pre-war timetable was reintroduced.

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