Sunday, 10 July 2016

A very long piece I wrote for the IPENZ Transportation Groups newsletter "Roundabout" in 2006 on the demise of the engineering team


The end of a fine engineering dynasty …….

On Monday 3rd July 2006, with the implementation of the regional office restructuring at Land Transport NZ, came the symbolic end of a very fine traffic engineering dynasty.  This dynasty was born in 1928 when Andrew Forsyth is credited with being the first traffic and safety appointment within the government’s Transport Department.  At that time the Department was largely occupied with matters such as transport licensing and vehicle inspection issues.  

Things were moved slowly through the 30’s and 40’s, with only five appointments that I have been able to track down. One was Barney Campbell who later became the first Director of Land Transport.  Another, Jim Pierce, was appointed after the war in 1947.  Jim was very active in trying to bring some order to that still somewhat controversial subject of speed restrictions.  Shortly after that, in 1948, Florrie Pope started systematically looking after crash data for the entire country.  As part of this process, all the forms were photographed by the traffic engineering cadets.  Duplication enabled the data to be spread to our traffic engineering staff, who by the late 1950s were based in Auckland, Hamilton, New Plymouth, Christchurch and Dunedin.

During the 1950’s there were at least ten appointments, including names that will still be familiar to many of us - for example,  Ross Palmer (1950) , Carne Clissold (1952) , Earl Sanderson (1954) and John Toomath (1957).

Ross Palmer was the individual who really kicked things along in the Traffic Engineering Section, which by then was offering a free safety and design consulting service to the many small local bodies of the time.  Ross was the first qualified traffic engineer to be employed in the Transport Department.  He was instrumental in bringing many safety improvements to our roads, including running the Guinea Pig Highway project between Pukerua Bay and Sanson where many innovations like advisory speed signs and new road markings were tried.  I was recently looking at some 8mm movies that my Dad took in the 1950s and the highways of today are, by comparison, a marvel of delineation and signposting. Ross was also involved in the Palmerton North Safety City project.  It was during this project that, for the first time, Give Way signs were used at intersections, and it was from this project that the installation criteria for them was developed.    Ross also developed the speed limit warrant, which is still fundamentally the same today. Ross died aged 43, not long after I joined in the early 70’s. He may be gone, but his work is not forgotten.

During the 1950s and 60s the Traffic Engineering Section was responsible for a variety of regulatory functions. Managing speed limits was one of these.  Gazetting road weight limit classifications was another; there were many classes of roads up until the 1970s. The Section also looked after vehicle dimensions, weight limits, and who could forget to mention the bane of some of our lives – Service Station Standards.

Back then service stations were licenced and the Transport Department (and later MoT) managed to upgrade the general standard of service station design by objecting to sub-standard designs through the Motor Spirits Licensing Board. These standards were subsequently often embodied into district schemes, along with parking design standards and other traffic and safety elements.

The traffic signal warrant was also developed within the Transport Department during this time, in order to provide some useful guidance on when signals could be justified. However, the warrant was also used to justify the issue of an import licence for the signal equipment.

At least 28 appointments were made in the 1960s to locations around the country.  Many people started as cadets in Head Office and were then transferred to the regions.  Arrivals during that time included Tony Francis, Bob Gibson, Wayne Pettersson, John Edgar, Graham Body, Simon Robson, Nick Hendy (one of the people who got our crash system kicked off), Mike Jackett, Alan Hopkinson and Barry Watson.

In 1966 the Transport Department became the Ministry of Transport.  In the 1970’s the Section continued to expand with around 25 appointments including such familiar names as Don Houghton , Peter Kippenberger, Bill Frith, Chris Bishop , Stanley Chesterfield, Geoff Holland, Chris Hewitt, Richard Bean, Trish Wood, Wayne Osmers, David Croft, John Janssen, James King, Tim Hughes and Stuart Badger (the god of crash systems).

During this period, anybody with a slight bent for research may have found themselves dragged off to the newly formed Research Section under John Toomath. This group, originally part of the Ministry of Transport, was later moved to the LTSA.  Ironically, in the brave new world, it has been moved back to the Ministry of Transport.

During the 1970s, Wellington Region staff also detached themselves physically from Head Office on The Terrace and headed up to the other end of the town.

In 1976, when I was still a prisoner of Head Office, I can remember Barry Watson  (I think he was the Senior Traffic Engineer) getting landed with hundreds of ministerials (letters from the public to Ministers of Parliament) following the introduction of the “new” traffic regulations.  These regulations included the infamous Left Turn Rule. I still have a vision of him sitting behind piles of these ministerials, stroking his moustache, swearing, and then hurling one ‘frisbee style’ across the office, scything down pot plants as it spun in the general direction of the Research Section.

Both the Transport Department and the Ministry of Transport had a very strong commitment to training and staff development.  With the virtual absence of traffic and safety training in New Zealand, most staff took opportunities to study either in Australia, the USA or UK. Both organisations also ran annual (internal) Traffic Engineering Workshops with a very strong training flavour.  Nobody went without having to say something or contribute in some way.  

While the Workshops could be a little intimidating initially, I can still remember at my first one (third day on the job in 1973) being impressed by the many older and wise individuals. Of course in those days you could be an elderly Regional Engineer at thirty five!!

During the 1970s the MoT really started to lift the professional profile of the traffic group, with very strong support for the Transportation Group, the Traffic Management Workshops and Roundabout.  A lot of staff gave their time to the Workshop and also to ‘Roundabout’.  Much of the cost of these to activities was worn by the Ministry.

I found the Section at this time a particularly inclusive and pleasant workplace with many workplace habits that might have been innovative for their time, such as flexible working hours. Certainly the positive management styles of Carne Clissold and Wayne Pettersson in particular were things that has undoubtedly influenced my way of working with my own teams - although, thankfully, I avoided Carnes paper management style. This could be best characterised as ‘un-filed paper mountains’.  Others were not so lucky - note the paper mountain habits of Wayne Osmers, who was in Head Office the same time as I was.


The 1980s saw twenty nine appointments and the creation of technical assistants to look after the crash data. Names from the 1980s that will sound very familiar include Don Hutchinson, Anatole Sergejew, Marina Palalagi, Steve Parry, Pam Mullen, John Garvitch, June Gregg , David Wong-Toi, Alan Dixon , Catherine Southorn , Murray Noone, Ian Appleton and Sofia Dennison  

Local body amalgamation also allowed for some critical traffic and safety mass to develop inside local bodies during the 1980s.  This and the growth of specialist consultants saw less breadth in work for us, with a stronger safety focus and a withdrawal from hands-on design work . But then who would miss the freezing cold of the Huntly parking survey or the abject boredom that is a conflict study!  

One consequence of these changes was an increase in staff turnover, with the organisation no longer able to provide new people with the breadth of training it once could. As in many other formerly large government agencies, overseas study and large scale training was largely abandoned. It could be argued that we are starting to pay the price for this now.

The 1990s saw the Traffic Engineering and Research Sections incorporated into a new Land Transport Safety Authority in 1993, as well as twenty seven further appointments, including Brian McSwigan, Cherie Urlich, Yvonne Warnaar and Lyndon Hammond. It is interesting to note that only five of the twenty seven remain at Land Transport NZ.

Since the beginning of the new millennia it has been getting harder and harder to keep a track of people, with arrivals and departures happening faster than I can get them on my list.  This seems especially the case in our Wellington Regional office.  After long time Regional Engineer Mike Jackett left in 2000 the office has been having more and more difficulty retaining people in the buoyant Wellington job market.

Post 2000 arrivals that are still at Land Transport NZ are Warwick Goold, Colin Goble, Andrew Edgar, Ian Duncan, Eudesa Masters, Joanne Hedge, Justine Oliver , Alec Looney, Margaret Hardy and David Scarlet.
Those that just passed through included Peter Croft, Tim Selby and Mike Russell.

The engineering section has moved through four different organisations and has had a certain amount of “badge engineering”, at one time called Road and Traffic Standards which certainly was not my personal favourite.
By my calculations that makes a model that lasted 78 years, with at least 153 staff in total, and with much the same management model from the 1950s on.

In the words of Vince Martin “beat that”.

Chris Hewitt.

Land Transport NZ Auckland

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