The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 2, Issue 6 (October 1, 1927)
Almost a Criminal. — A Railroad Episode
“Boys! Here's to the good health and happiness of our old veteran, Guard Graham!”
The toast was drunk with musical honours, followed by a round of cheering.
The social hall was crowded that night by members of the staff of the Main Trunk Railroad (No. 9 Section)-men from far and near who had been able to obtain leave of absence from duty.
The occasion was the retirement of First-Class Guard, Fred Graham, who had completed fifty years of active service. The Management had sent him a gold watch, and a letter, which he valued even more, for it bore testimony to the high regard his long and faithful service had gained for him-the esteem of the higher officers of the staff, and the respect of the travelling public.
Rising to acknowledge their good wishes, the old veteran of “the road” found it hard to control his emotion.
He carried his memory back to the time when, as a boy of ten years of age, he had joined the service. He described the few miles of track then existing, the style of locomotives, fed with firewood picked up from stacks along the route -no Westinghouse Brakes-no Semaphores-no Tablet system-just the “right of road” and instructions to “Work in” with ordinary traffic.
Yes! It was true he had never had a serious accident, but then that was more luck than skill. In those days every heavy rain brought down slips in the cuttings, and many a time he had, after picking himself up from the floor of the van, after a bump, gone forward to find the engine half buried in the wet clay of the slip. Perhaps the moderate pace at which they then travelled had saved them time and again, or perhaps Providence had watched over them.
“You men of to-day can hardly realise what it was, years ago, to safely run mixed trains on this hilly section with nothing but individual hand brakes to control them,” said Graham.
“I was, for some time, a ticket clerk on the evening mail from Ngata. This train would average ten coaches and, say, twenty double-decked loaded sheep wagons of the old fashioned type.
“On arrival at the top of Karaka Hill it was the duty of the ‘ticket clerk’ to take up his position on the front platform of the leading coach. Those were the days of wagon-top screw brakes. Waiting till the train had got sufficient way on to enable her to get out of the level station yard, the assistant would then climb up to the top of the first “S” wagon, screw on the brake, clamber on his face over the single plank on the top and along the length of the truck, then down the ladder, across the couplings, up and across the next truck, and so on, to put on as many wagon brakes as were necessary, according to the state of the rails. Try and imagine what an experience this was on a pitch black night when the howling southerly was blowing a living gale-the train racing faster and faster and almost wholly dependent for its safety on that lad carrying out his work swiftly and without fail.
Compare this with the Westinghouse Brake system of to-day, when the simple movement of a lever claps a brake on every wheel.”
Thus he rambled on through his interesting reminiscences till suddenly becoming very earnest and slightly excited in his manner he said, “Now boys, I am going to tell you of an event which happened to me just forty-five years ago, and which I have never told to a living soul before. I tell it to show you that a mere second of thought stood between me and a fate-well, quite different from that of being honoured by you here to-night!
“I was fifteen years of age then, having had but four terms at school, and was taking a course at night classes and studying at every ‘off’ time of the day. In those times we worked twelve hour shifts and my pay was 12s 6d. per week.
“It was Easter 1881, and I was junior porter at Mutoa. No. 4 Passenger north-bound, was standing on the main line at the station platform. A heavy train of volunteers and horses bound for the Easter encampment at J-, was due to cross at our station, and it was my duty to ‘let her into’ the siding. I felt very weary (doubtless due to long hours, hard work, poor food and night school lessons) as I walked up to the north ‘points.’ Mechanically I unlocked the ‘points,’ threw over the lever and sat upon the handle, as was the custom, to ensure that it was hard down, and the ‘points’ well closed.
“I heard the ‘special’ coming; I saw her swing round the curve as she came on down page 15 the stiff grade at a good speed. Out of every window of coaches and horseboxes the soldier boys hung out their heads and shoulders. I was impressed with the number of them and remember reckoning that the ‘special’ carried fully five hundred troops.
“Swiftly into my mind came the responsibility that rested on me, a mere lad. I saw No. 4 at the platform and the crowd watching the approaching train. The ‘special’ came thundering on. I held out my hand, gave the driver ‘line clear’ and saw him wave an acknowledgment. Then like a flash, the doubt, the fearful doubt came to me that, after all I had not turned the points. Great God! Had I, or had I not? My head swam and my sight became cloudy as, with every nerve strained, I tried to convince myself which way the points lay. They were wrong! Great heavens! How was that? I had reckoned that I had just about sufficient time to turn them over. Now rising, I was about to give the lever a desperate heave, when something told me they were already set right. I hesitated, and meanwhile the ‘special’ tore past me; but whether into the siding or on to the main line I could not tell. It was all too much for me. I collapsed, and rolled over into the grass ditch nearby where I must have lain some time unconscious. When I was able to collect my senses, both trains had gone on their respective ways. Someone else had let the special out of the siding and No. 4 had run through the north points.
“I staggered to the station like a drunken lad, for every fibre of my frame was quivering with the strain I had gone through.
“It took weeks to get over the shock, and forty-five years have not dulled the memory of that terrible time. I wonder, boys, if you comprehend the position in which I might have been placed? Had I turned those points over in response to my mistaken impulse, dozens of witnesses would have sworn that they had, from the station platform seen me do it, and thereby deliberately sent those soldier boys down the main line to their death. Doubtless, no explanation on my part would have served me under the awful circumstances that were averted by just one moment's providential presence of mind.
“Why have I kept this a secret all these years and why have I told it to you to-night?
“Well, I have always felt ashamed of my nerve so nearly failing me at so critical a time, and in face of the generous encomiums you have passed on my career to-night, I felt bound to make the confession, to correct any mistaken impression of my merits.
“The older ones of you will remember my fervid advocacy of eight hour shifts. You now know the personal grounds for that attitude. Happily the days of long hours have now gone by.
“The many modern safeguards, which automatically prevent the risks we took in the early days can only be fully appreciated by those who worked without them.”
The perspiration stood in beads on the speaker's forehead, as he concluded his narration and resumed his seat, evidently relieved by the disclosure of the secret which had for so many years inwardly humbled his pride.
(Practical railwaymen will doubtless wonder how the youth at the points could have been in doubt about the way they were set when he only had to look at them to see their setting. The story, however, is stated to be founded on fact, the pointsman being so untrained and new to his job that he failed (temporarily) to understand to what road the points, as set, applied.-Ed., N. Z. R. M.)