Volume 5 (2021)
In the left hand side photograph above, a class Ab steam locomotive, known as a Pacific Tender Engine, is undergoing repairs at A&G Price. It was completed with the maker’s number 94 on August 2, 1922. This locomotive was then assigned engine number 699 by New Zealand Railways. It has a 4-6-2 wheel configuration with a two-stage compound single-acting steam cylinder on each side with the smaller primary high-pressure piston at the top and the secondary larger low-pressure piston at the bottom. With two pistons on each side, this was an improvement over the earlier A class engine of 1906 which had a single simple acting piston on each side. Prices built 50 of these class Ab locomotives while 141 were built altogether in New Zealand and UK. They were the most common steam engine used in New Zealand but only seven remain in Museums today.
In the right hand side photograph above, this same locomotive has been restored and is now at the Pleasant Point Railway Museum in Timaru. Engine Ab 699 was written off by NZ Railways in 1968 after it had travelled 1,341,762 miles (2,236,270 km). It was restored and taken to Pleasant Point in Timaru in 1970. Then it underwent another reconstruction and was placed in service again at Pleasant Point Museum in September 2018.
In November 1923, A&G Price produced their 100th locomotive. But in 1927 a Royal Commission recommended that the government-owned and operated New Zealand Railways should build their own engines rather than using private enterprise.
Although this marked the end of large steam locomotive production they continued to produce small steam engines and later, between 1956 and 1971, diesel and diesel-electric hybrids and even diesel-hydraulic hybrid engines were built for various industrial applications, bush tramways, saw mills, shunting yards and for New Zealand Railways.
They also received contracts for maintaining and overhauling large locomotives which continued until 1964 with their 155th overhaul. In 1969, the last locomotive was built for a freezing works. It was the 298th locomotive built by A&G Price. Maintenance and overhaul of various types of rolling stock continued, as did new construction of rolling stock including petrol tankers for New Zealand Railways. One international contract for 400 passenger carriages was completed in the 1960s. Similar work continued into the 1980s.
During World War II, railway carriages were built for personnel transport powered by car or truck engines and this led to the development of the railcar after the war.
Railway tracks varied considerably in the distance between the two rails, called the gauge, and manufacturers had to be prepared to accommodate all of these. State coal mines used narrow gauge of 2 feet 0 inches, Auckland City Council Waterworks used 2 feet 0 and 2 feet 6 tracks, Waihi gold mines used 2 feet 9 inches, Ohakune Flax mill at Foxton used 2 feet 11, Ministry of Works used 3 feet 0, but changed to 3 feet 6 for the Kaimai tunnel tunnel and this became the government standard for the main trunk line. The Kauri timber line on Great Barrier Island used 3 feet 6. One of the newer metric standard is one metre which is 3 feet 3 inches. A gauge of 4 feet 8.5 inches has become an international standard and is also used as a metric standard, now used in Britain, the United States and many other countries and 3 feet 6 inches is considered a narrow-gauge standard.
Many examples of steam locomotives made by A&G Price have been preserved by steam enthusiasts around the country and Wikipedia provides a list with links to the organizations who have preserved them.
They applied every innovation in steam engine and boiler design to improve power and efficiency. The best steam engines were only 11% efficient at converting heat energy into mechanical energy. Later they utilized internal combustion engines burning diesel or petrol and they were about 30% efficient but there was still a lot of energy wasted.
During World War II, they built rail tractors for the NZ Royal Air Force. These utilized commercial 87 horsepower petrol-driven Fordson farm tractors modified to run on rails and they used one in their own workshops. Petrol engines were preferred during war because smoke from steam engines could be seen and located by enemy gunners. Similar engines had been built for use in the New Zealand bush on narrow-gauge lines since the 1920s. During World War I, it had been found that these light-weight lines could be constructed and repaired very quickly to transport materials to the front line from the wide-gauge rail systems located well behind the front line.
The association between New Zealand Railways and A&G Price was affected by the many changes of ownership and management philosophy in the railways over the years. It is a complicated story but one worth summarizing:
Originally the railways were built and operated by the Public Works Department from 1873 to 1880. The New Zealand Railways Department came into existence in 1880 and continued to operated the railways for 102 years. It was then restructured as a corporation from 1982 to 1990. In 1990, NZ Railways Limited was created as an independent company to operate the railways but NZ Railways Corporation retained the huge quantity of land that was owned by the railways for their tracks and facilities.
In 1993 NZ Railways Limited was privatized and sold to a multinational company, becoming TRANZ Rail in 1995. This led to financial neglect and deterioration of the infrastructure. Rolling stock was sold to overseas buyers for a quick profit.
In 2004 the central NZ government bought back the rail service component at great expense assigning it to NZ Railways Corporation who still owned the land. But the truck and ferry component of TRANZ Rail was sold to another private company Toll Holdings. Negotiations between Toll Holdings and NZ Railways Corporation failed to come to an agreement that would allow rail freight to use the roll-on roll-off inter-island ferry economically. This impasse was resolved by the government buying the ferry service from Toll and all the components of the railway system were finally merged into a single government run system, as it had been from 1880 to 1982.
But then in 2012 the land component was split off again and they have been selling land. Kiwi Rail set up a 10-year restoration plan and received $2.1 billion from the government (about $525 per person in NZ) to upgrade infrastructure and rolling stock plus $60 million contributed by Mainfreight transport company and $130 million from Fontera Ltd to build new rail hubs at Ruakura, Hamilton and Mosgiel. Unfortunately earthquakes have had a negative impact on their plans and budget.
It is interesting to note that in 2012 New Zealand Railways (now operating as Kiwi Rail) purchased 500 flat-topped rail wagons from Chinese manufacturers, putting their own workshops out of business. They sold part of Hillside Engineering Division in Dunedin and 90 jobs were lost. This division started operating in 1875 and by 1925 they had 365 workers and by 1935 it had grown to 800 but in 1945 it was down to 550 and only a handful of jobs remained when they were taken over by an Australian firm called Bradken.
In 1990, A&G Price re-gauged 24 New Zealand Silver Star passenger carriages to one metre tracks so that they could be sold to Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
A recent contract included mining parts, such as a 3 ton cam shaft used for crushing ore as well as rock crushing jaws used in Papua New Guinea. This type of project requires pattern making, casting, hardening and tempering and machining.
On a lighter note they were making special castings for Weta Studios movie production. These days customers can design an object using 3D computer aided design software and send the digital design to the foundry where computer controlled milling machines automatically cut out the pattern from plastic foam such as polystyrene foam. This can be used in the same way as a conventional pattern which is removed from the sand mould before the metal is poured in. Or it can be left in place and the hot metal melts the foam in a similar fashion to the lost wax method used so many centuries ago.
They have a very wide range of versatile machine tools ranging from an old Poreba lathe with a bed 40 feet (12m) long and a giant chuck about 10 feet (3m) in diameter, to computer controlled machining workstations that can automatically machine almost any shape without human intervention.
In 2018, the A&G Price Website gives an impressive list of machinery, including many Computer Numerically Controlled (CNC) machines. These include a 6.3 metre diameter vertical CNC lathe, 10 metre long CNC milling machine, complete multifunctional CNC work centers, a computer aided design center, and a CNC fluid bed plasma cutter 14m x 13m which can cut metals 30mm thick or with gas cutting up to 200mm thick. They also have machines that can roll and shape steel plates up to 25mm thick and 3 metres wide.
In the early years the foundry had vertical cupola furnaces like blast furnaces but these days they use primarily electric induction furnaces to melt scrap metal. They need to know where the scrap came from so that they can estimate its composition but after melting they use X-ray spectroscopy to determine the exact chemical composition of the metal which allows them to use various additives to make the desired alloy.
The web site gives a nice example of the critical roll that this metallurgy plays in their business: Take an everyday mild steel, add a measure of manganese and molybdenum, a trace of titanium and chromium, balance it with carbon …and something new is born. A high-strength wear-resistant metal with a special characteristic: it gets even harder with use. Making it ideal for crusher jaws and other applications in the demanding quarrying industry. Uniquely formulated by A&G Price, we call it ‘Crushalloy’.
They also have an electric arc furnace purchased from the USA in 1947 that can melt four tons of steel, and other furnaces for melting non-ferrous metals such as brass, bronze, aluminium or special alloys up to 2.1 tonnes. Their current web site refers to capacity to cast 6 tonnes of steel, 2.5 tonnes of stainless steel, and 10 tonnes of iron. Then there are large electric ‘ovens’ used to heat the castings up to 1200 degrees C for hardening and tempering known as heat treatment.
Changes in Management
You would think that Alfred, George and John would be busy enough running this large business, but they found time to participate in many community activities. They were all involved in the founding of the School of Mines which developed to provide excellent education for the many apprentices who worked at the foundry and mines. Generally apprenticeships took five years of work experience with study and examinations at night classes. Both Alfred and George served on the Borough Council and Alfred was on the Harbour Board. George was Superintendent of Thames Fire Brigade for many years while George and John were both members of the Thames Scottish Volunteers.
As the three original managers retired, they were replaced by their sons and a nephew. Alfred died in 1907, George in 1917 and John Watson in 1918. George Price’s son George Jnr and Peter Watson were directors while George Jnr acted as the works manager. William Price was George’s nephew and he was Chairman for over 30 years until 1949 and worked as office manager.
In 1949, A&G Price merged with William Cable heavy engineering company in Petone. They merged with Downer civil engineering company to form Cable Price Downer Group in 1954. Some smaller companies were merged into the group over the years. By 1974, A&G Price employed 520 staff with a head office in Auckland and the Thames facility on Beach Road was considered a branch. The Cable Price Downer Group was bought in 1988 by Brierly Investments who broke it up into its original three parts.
A&G Price was then purchased by Tiri Group in Mount Wellington, controlled by Executive Chairman Tom Sturgess in Nelson. Most of the companies in this group were involved in the printing industry including wallpaper manufacturing but there were other manufacturing and exporting companies such as Masport.
Tom Sturgess was interviewed in 2013 when his group already owned A&G Price. He had been a US Marine in Vietnam and later studied at Harvard before working in the US finance industry. He immigrated to New Zealand in 1996 and says he ‘specialized in picking up terrific legacy companies’ and went on to say they that he did not tend to sell companies, instead they are ‘buy and hold’ companies. Unfortunately A&G Price were unable to compete with the cheap deals offered by Chinese companies and started to run into financial difficulties.
In August 2017, the Tiri Group decided to close down A&G Price and place it in liquidation. Most of the 100 staff were laid off, leaving a skeleton crew of 27 to finish off the remaining contracts worth several million dollars.
Fortunately, on 3rd April 2018, it was announced that an Auckland businessman had decided to save and restructure the company with reduced staff of about 40 to make it more economical. Chris Reeve and Jackie Reeve have owned the land and buildings since 1995, and they decided to buy A&G Price as sole owners. Chris said he wants Peter Yates who has worked there for 24 years to manage the company with Ian Findlay. Chris will take a ‘hands off’ approach and hopes that a small group of enthusiastic and experienced employees will revitalize the company. We hope to see the company thrive under new management and continue for another 150 years.
A Timeline History of A&G Price.