The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 6, Issue 1 (May 1, 1931)
The Railways and the Earthquake — National System for a National Need
The Railways and the Earthquake
National System for a National Need.
Department Ready for the Call.
One of the most important lessons taught by the disastrous earthquake of Hawke's Bay is the immeasurable national value of the State Railways for New Zealand's welfare. Immediately after the great shake the stricken area had the help of the Railway Department's far-reaching specialised organisation. The details of this article show the quickness of the Department's response to the need, and further assistance would have been available in accordance with the people's requirements. Indeed, if the effects of the earthquake had been severe enough to demand the complete evacuation of Napier and Hastings, the Railway Department could have mobilised sufficient rolling stock and trained man-power to remove the whole of the population in twelve hours.
The Railway staff living in the earthquake area were probably affected to the same extent as the rest of the community, but the discipline in the service was so good that without exception the staff remained at their posts throughout their terrifying experiences and did everything that could be reasonably expected of them to provide for the safety of their lines of communication and for any demand that might subsequently be made upon transport facilities.
The Big Programme Begins.
The earthquake occurred at approximately 10.50 a.m. on Tuesday, 3rd February, and within eight minutes, or to be exact, at 10.58 a.m., headquarters had been advised by the Stationmaster at Waipukurau that a very severe earthquake had taken place and that communication north of his station had been interrupted. Shortly afterwards advice was received that the viaduct between Ormondville and Kopua had been damaged and that the Napier mail train could not get through and was returning to Takapau. The General Manager (Mr. H. H. Sterling) immediately communicated with the heads of his departments and arrangements were made for a special breakdown train in charge of an Inspector of Permanent Way and a special gang of workmen to leave Woodville at once, picking up men and material in order to effect any repairs to the line that might be required. This train left Woodville at 12.5 p.m., 1 hour 15 minutes after the earthquake had occurred.
Another Quick Move.
At this stage, owing to the lack of telegraph or telephone communication with the stricken area, few details of the extent of the disaster were available, but news and information were slowly trickling in, indicating that the upheaval had been of great magnitude. It was considered wise, therefore, to make further arrangements for the dispatch of men and material to Hawke's Bay, and a second work train was made up and fully equipped to deal with the more urgent engineering requirements. This train left Wellington at 1 p.m., 2 hours 10 minutes after receipt of the first advice.
The Inspecting Engineers and District Engineers meantime had left for Napier, and were speedily on the spot to give whatever expert direction might be required.
A Call for the Electrical Branch.
The Electrical Branch had not been idle, and very luckily a special gang was working in the neighbourhood of Takapau. This gang was split up into small page break page 54 page 55 units, and as some worked back restoring any breaks in the communications between Waipukurau and Woodville, others worked forward from Takapau northwards.
The earthquake had, in many instances, thrown down the poles, and in other cases the lines had been so tangled by the oscillation caused by the rapid shakes that they had to be cleared with long poles as the gang moved along.
Transport of Essentials.
Headquarters at Wellington were by this time receiving more detailed information as to what had happened in the devastated area, and the Defence Department had made a requisition on the Railway for special trains for transporting material and hospital equipment from Trentham. Foodstuffs were also assembled and were in readiness for dispatch. The first of these trains left Trentham at 7.31 p.m. on the Tuesday, and arrived at Waipukurau, the nearest point that could be reached in the then state of the permanent way, at 1.44 a.m. on Wednesday, 4th February.
Lorries were requisitioned to take hospital stores and equipment from Waipukurau, and within an hour of the arrival of the train 41 loaded lorries had been dispatched. Consideration was then turned to the question of providing food, and, if necessary, water, and also of arranging for transportation of refugees and casualty cases from Napier and Hastings.
The Railway Refreshment Branch had assembled large supplies of food, and arrangements were made for cooks and assistants to proceed northward at once. These food supplies and the Refreshment staff in charge left Wellington by special train at 7.30 p.m. and picked up additional supplies en route.
In Napier and Hastings events were happening with such startling rapidity and earthquakes were so frequent that the population as a whole, although accepting conditions with that bravery characteristic of our race, were more or less stunned by the calamity that had come upon them.
A Rescue Feat.
The Napier Technical College, which is situated close to the Railway Workshops, was observed to have collapsed and several of the Railway employees, headed by Mr. A. G. Foster, Railway Locomotive Foreman, rushed over and rescued several boys from amongst the ruins. As it was manifestly impossible to remove sufficient of the debris in time to save those buried beneath it, the method adopted was to listen carefully for cries or groans that would locate the boys, and then work with the utmost haste to uncover them. One lad was held under fallen timbers and brick-work some twelve feet from the edge of the pile, but luckily a narrow tunnel had been formed by the fallen masonry and by using great force the rescuers were able to release him from the jammed timbers.
With the exception of those officers whose attention at the railway station was absolutely indispensable the remainder of the Railway staff assisted in the urgent work of rescue.
Railway Buses for Ambulance Work.
The Railway Bus Office, which was located close to the Masonic Hotel, was utterly demolished, but by extraordinary good luck the staff had saved their lives by sheltering in the strong-room and extricated themselves after the first heavy quakes had passed. The Officer in Charge, Mr. S. Viles, with the help of the available staff, set about turning some of the railway buses into ambulance cars. A skeleton service between Hastings and Napier was maintained up to 10 p.m. and the balance of the fleet of buses did yeoman service in conveying injured and maimed cases to McLean Park and refugees to Central Park and racecourse. Railway buses were also sent down for the sailors who were being landed by H.M.S. “Veronica,” and every transport facility was given that the plant available would permit.
Water for the “Locos.”
The earthquake had destroyed the Loco, water tanks at Napier, but the staff page 56 rose to the occasion and improvised a pump with the injector of a locomotive, and pumped sufficient water for immediate requirements. The locomotives were kept ready awaiting the completion of the strenuous work of putting the track in order, which was being energetically pushed forward by the maintenance men.
Moving the Injured.
The evacuation of the injured was proceeding methodically, and as Waipukurau was at this stage the nearest point of the rail a special hospital train was made up there, and the first patients left for Palmerston North at 11.30 a.m. on 4th February.
A Call for the General Manager.
As the possibility of a general evacuation of the earthquake area, particularly Napier, had arisen, the General Manager of Railways (Mr. H. H. Sterling) proceeded to Napier to assume control of transport operations for such an emergency. Mr. Sterling was in the earthquake zone from 5th to 11th February, and during this time he was in close touch with all aspects of the disaster. In co-operation with Captain Finlayson, who was in charge of the Nelson Park camp, Mr. Sterling formulated a comprehensive scheme dealing with all aspects of the transport problem. He also assisted in the development of a permanent relief organisation, under which he assumed full responsibility for all transport arrangements. As Chairman of the Transport Committee Mr. Sterling remained constantly in touch with the Control Committees at Napier and Hastings. He also conferred with his departmental officers from day to day, and dealt on the spot with questions requiring decision as they arose. Another important activity was his personal inspection of the line in the affected area from Napier southwards.
Arrangements for Evacuation.
Railway headquarters had set the wheels in motion for the possible evacuation, and carriages and other rolling-stock were being hurried to Hawke's Bay district from all parts of the North Island.
The arrangements made covered a possible evacuation of 15,000 to 20,000 people, and within twenty-four hours there were available 150 railway cars and 50 railway bogie wagons each with a capacity (in emergency) of 100 people or 20,000 people in all.
Schedules were prepared to enable trains to leave at short intervals and had the necessity arisen the whole of the population could have been removed from the danger zone in a short space of time.
The Railway Refreshment Branch had accumulated sufficient food and stores of various kinds to supply all possible demands that might be made upon it at Napier or Hastings. A main depot was established at Napier and subsidiary depots in other parts.
A number of the Department's experienced chefs and cooks were assembled at Napier, and cooking arrangements were adequate and satisfactory. Luckily, the weather remained fine.
Restoring the Track.
Repair work to the track which had been carried on without cessation enabled the trains to get through to Hastings by 10 a.m. on Thursday, 5th February, and to Napier by 9 p.m. the same day. The rapidity with which the track had been restored astounded all who saw the lines immediately after the first heavy earthquake had taken place. To all branches of the service praise is due, but in this connection the Maintenance Branch came in for special mention. The restoration of rail communication had a very steadying effect on the people, and when the first refugee train of twenty cars, carrying some 1,200 passengers, steamed out of Napier those remaining felt their courage stimulated by the fact that great numbers of people could now leave if they so desired.