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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 2, Issue 1 (April 21, 1927)


Under the above heading, “H.A.G.” contributes to “The Christchurch Sun” the following interesting story of “Train-running Officers' Duties.”

You complain when the 4.30 train arrives at 4.30½. You wouldn't if you knew the complexity and perplexity which play such a big, yet unavoidable part in the working of the train running and transport department, perhaps the most important in the whole railway system.

Certainly the work is most intricate and delicate. The men in this department have their finger, as it were, on the pulse beat of the train system. With graph, pencil and telegraph, officers juggle with speed, time, grades, curves, breakdowns, slips, floods, tonnage, clearances, tablets, signals, and 30 other details to ensure faith with the public by rigid adherence to schedule. They pull the strings of a wonderful puppet show, and all the strings must be pulled right, as one false move means confusion, inconvenience, and possibly disaster through collision.

There is a staff of 14 in this department at Christchurch, and the office is open from 2 a.m. till midnight—sometimes for 24 hours on end. The West Coast, north line and branches and the south line and branches to Tinwald come under the jurisdiction of Christchurch officers. Each train is numbered, the even numbers north, and the odd ones south. Telegraphic advice is received from the stations along the route as to the running of each individual train. It is the duty of those at the central office to study the position of the trains on a graph and to see whether they will make the crossings provided at the scheduled time. If anything happens to make the train run late, then central office must re-arrange the crossings. At ordinary times, 150 to 200 wires are received each day, from stations, advising the movements of trains. At holiday times 500 or 600 wires are received.

Train Diagram, Christchurch-Timaru.

Train Diagram, Christchurch-Timaru.

The whole complicated system has to be closely watched, particularly on the automatic section, which extends from Christchurch to Stillwater. When tonnage is heavy from the West Coast, as many as nine special up and down trains between Christchurch and Arthur's Pass have to be dove-tailed into the ordinary schedule.

Should a train run late or a guard advise that his train cannot make the crossing place on time the control offices in Christchurch arrange an alteration of the crossing of trains to some other suitable place. If a train is late it may mean the dispatch of wires, the number depending, of course, on the number of trains to be crossed.

The attention required on the automatic system is very exacting, an officer being employed constantly on the telephone watching page 35 for a call from any trains on the road, and the responsibility for fixing the crossing of trains rests entirely with the central control office of this system.

There are five certified train running officers in the Christchurch office and others are in training. It takes 12 months of hard training to equip an officer to the point of efficiency required. He is required to pass a very severe examination in train control work before being permitted to undertake any responsibility in connection with the control and movement of any train. No mistake must be made in the human element of train control. Every Sunday an officer must be within call in case of sudden emergency.

The principal men in Christchurch who see that the 4.30 gets there at 4.30 are: Mr. H. L. Gibson, transport officer; Messrs. A. Clark, A. Pritchard, G. McLean, G. Allison, train control officers; and Mr. W. E. McKay, wagon officer.

In compiling the regular timetable the system is worked by a series of graphs showing each station, numbers of trains, the crossings and the time. All regular trains are shown in black marking; the specials are added in other colours.

The running of a special is determined by the tonnage offering. This tonnage is obtained by the wagon office according to the wagon orders received and the tonnage on hand at each station. Should there be more tonnage offering than can be handled by ordinary trains then specials are run. The train running staff then arranges these trains to fit in with the ordinary schedule. During the stock season the average number of specials daily is 10 in addition to the ordinary service. The work involved in arranging these specials and advising the staff is considerable. It involves the services of two train running officers for four hours a day.

The system of running trains is as near perfections as possible. Trains are plotted on the graphs by one officer and are required to be checked and certified by another officer before being issued to the staff on the track. Each officer must add his signature to show that the certificate is O.K. The pile of correspondence issued to the staff on the track over the recent holiday period would amaze people. The Department takes no chances; everything goes down in black and white.

In addition to the movements of goods traffic special arrangements have to be made for passenger traffic. For periods such as Christmas, New Year, Easter, and Carnival Week, considerable preparation is required before the event and before final instructions reach the outside staff. Two officers are detailed two months in advance to compile the necessary graphs.

There is a marked spirit of comradeship among the men in the Department, which sees to it that trains run to time; they are earnest to do their best for the Department and the public, so when you feel disposed to cavil because the officers have juggled half a minute out of your life time, think it over!