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Baldwin Loco Works official photo, Wb 297, 1898

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Origins of the Wb class.

During the late 1890's the NZR was experiencing rising traffic volumes as the country recovered from depression. The locomotive fleet was far from adequate to meet traffic demands, as an example the average age of the fleet was 15 years.

The largest locomotives were of class "W" and "Wa", built by the NZR in out-dated and ill-equipped workshops. Isolated sections of the railway were in a worse state.

Engineering strike

New Zealand Railways could not obtain locomotives from Britain in this period, owing to an engineering strike which had brought heavy industry to a standstill. Delivery dates were set at eighteen months, at an elevated price, not dissimilar to the rate and price at which NZR could manufacture themselves. An alternative locomotive builder was sought.

Baldwin Locomotive Works of Pensylvania, Philadelphia were contacted in desperation to fill the desperate need for new motive power. Orders could be taken, at a cost half that of Britain and delivery promised within ninety days.

Twelve locomotives were ordered from Baldwin Locomotive Works, Philadelphia U.S.A. in 1898, filling the desperate requirement for additional motive power.

The American "Wa"

The locomotives conformed to the general specification, but differed in detail to previous New Zealand-built "Wa" class locomotives.

Baldwin employed a system of standard patterns for the wide range of components required for a locomotive, rationalising the design process and providing sizable economies per unit. Delivery was prompt and along with ten locomotives to the "U" design fulfilled immediate requirements for locomotive power. The success of the 1898 order heralded a further, more sizable order of locomotives from Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1901.

To avoid confusion, the American "Wa"locomotives were reclassified "Wb"during 1900/1901.