The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 2 (May 1, 1934.)
The Canterbury Broad Gauge Railway
New Zealand railway history began in Canterbury in 1856, and its inception was characterised by one of the most gallant gestures ever flung in the face of Fate. At that time Canterbury was an isolated province peopled by 5,347 persons scattered along the lowlands that stretch from the Hurunui to the distant Waitaki River. This meagre population was engaged in a strenuous struggle to wrest a precarious existence from lands fertile enough, but as yet hardly brought into cultivation, and shut off almost completely from the commerce of the world.
Yet, at exactly that time, these courageous few solemnly decided to embark upon the project of constructing a railway from Lyttelton to Christchurch through a range of mountains that would be considered a formidable barrier between highly populous cities even to-day.
The first step was the appointment of a Commission to consult Robert Stephenson, son of the famous George, as to a feasible route. This problem surmounted, the necessary financial arrangements that precluded the raising of a loan of over #250,000 by such a small community consumed some time, but on December 1st, 1863, the first official train was hauled from Christchurch to Ferrymead (roughly where Heathcote station now stands). Not long after that the railway was opened to Lyttelton, and, by 1875, was extended to Amberley and Rakaia. All this was done under the auspices of the Canterbury Provincial Council.
The decision was made to build these railways to the relatively wide gauge of 5ft. 3in. This decision has been ascribed to the counsels of Robert Stephenson, but this is surely erroneous. As early as 1846 Robert Stephenson had been responsible for the construction of railways in the virgin railway countries of Belgium and Italy to the 4ft. 8 1/2 in. gauge, so that, even if the adoption of that gauge in England by the Stephensons can be attributed to the precedent laid down by the old colliery engineers (who for years had built their mine tracks to that gauge), there is evidence here that Robert Stephenson at least favoured the “narrow” gauge, as it was then called. Further, in 1846, before the Narrow Gauge Commission set up in England to consider the whole question of railway gauges, Robert Stephenson, in his evidence, was clearly in favour of the standard gauge of 4ft. 8 1/2 in., and definitely stated: “I feel that the 4ft. 8 1/2 in. gauge is fully adequate for any purpose to which railways could be applied, believing also that the narrower the gauge the less is the resistance, and conceiving that the 4ft. 8 1/2 in. gauge will prove safe and economical.” Personally, I think that Robert Stephenson was never appealed to on the question of the gauge, and that the decision to build to the 5ft. 3in. gauge in Canterbury was due to the fact that the Victorian railways were already being constructed to that gauge and that consequently a cheap and immediate supply of contractors’ equipment and other rolling stock was thus in sight.
In light of the wisdom of later days it is, of course, clear that it is virtually immaterial to what gauge the actual track of a railway is built, and that the only important proviso is that all the railways of a continent or island be built to the one gauge. (The great Brunel, who, before the Narrow Gauge Commission already referred to, claimed that it was a great advantage to have different gauges in a country, since that made for competition and emulation, proffered even further fuel for our derision by declaring that “curve friction was independent of gauge.” Truly the wisdom of yesterday is the folly of to-day.)
The reason why the actual track gauge is unimportant lies in the facts that it has virtually no bearing on the cost of construction of the railway or on the cost, safety or speed of subsequent operation. The only factors which affect these points are “the loading gauge,” the maximum axle load, and the minimum curve radius to which the line is to be surveyed. These three factors are all clearly independent of the actual distance apart at which the two rails are laid upon the sleepers.
With regard to the “loading gauge,” i.e., the limits which govern the allowable width and height of the locomotives and rolling stock, it is well known that the vehicles working in South Africa on the 3ft. 6in. gauge are much wider than those running on any wider gauge in any other country, except, perhaps, Russia and the United States. The axle load in South Africa is also higher than that allowed anywhere else or on any wider gauge save for the more heavily constructed portions of the lines in the United States and Canada. The minimum curve radius is, of course, only slightly dependent on gauge; and in this case the advantage page 7 lies with the narrower gauges, since we now know that Brunel was entirely wrong and that curve friction decreases almost proportionately with the gauge.
Diagrams drawn to same approximate scale to compare [Fig. 1] locomotive built for Canterbury railways by Slaughter Grunning & Co., 1863, cylinders 15in. × 22in., coupled wheels 5ft. 6in. diameter, with [Fig. 2] express engine built at Crewe, 1863, cylinders 16in. × 24in., and driving wheels 6ft. diameter.
It is interesting to observe that even in 1846 there were those who recognised these facts, and one must bow to Mr. Cubitt who, before the same Commission, pointed out that “as long as you have the same vehicles (and the present narrow gauge ones appear to be big enough for any gauge) there is no difference in tunnels or bridges,” and further made it clear that he realised that the actual gauge had virtually no influence on costs of construction or operation.
There is, in fact, good reason for claiming that the 3ft. 6in. gauge is probably slightly better than any other gauge for any class of railway, and New Zealand can be grateful to the Hon. J. C. Richmond, whose civil engineering experience in Algiers and elsewhere led him to advocate the advantages of the 3ft. 6in. gauge, and to the Hon. James Macandrew, who recognised these advantages, and as Superintendent of the Province of Otago was chiefly instrumental in having this gauge adopted as standard in that province and eventually, as naturally followed, throughout “New Zealand.
In the construction of the locomotives and rolling stock of the new railway there was, in the circumstances, no chance of any design involving originality or the adoption of features particularly suited to the system, being evolved. The rolling stock was imported ready-made from Victoria, and the two classes of locomotives were designed in England and built to standard English lines.
Although the rolling stock was composed of small four-wheeled vehicles unsuitable for any high speed, and certainly, from their general appearance, not safe to run at much more than thirty miles per hour, and although the conditions of the new country and railway would pre-suppose the scheduling of infrequent mixed trains and a leisurely timetable, the locomotives were simply the replica of those that had been found suitable in England for the operation of fast express trains or light congested local traffic in thickly populated suburban areas. The general dimensions of the main line engine closely conformed, as may be gathered from the comparative diagrams, to the “Ramsbottom” engines which were later rebuilt into the famous “Precedent” class of the North Western system, and whose high speed performance with the light trains on the London-Carlisle section of the through Scottish expresses made these trains famous throughout the world.
No doubt the new Canterbury locomotive, shown in the illustration as leaving Christchurch station for Ferrymead, six miles away, could have run at any equally high speed if the construction of the rolling stock and the condition, or still more the length, of the track had permitted it. Although six of these expensive high-speed engines had been provided for the operation of the trains over a short pioneer track in a sparsely populated colonial area, it was further considered necessary to furnish two engines of a special type for shunting purposes. These machines were light engines of the four-wheel coupled type (0-4-0) of no great tractive effort, but quite capable of attaining thirty-five miles per hour with a light load had such necessity ever arisen.
I think it was Sir Isaac Newton who cut two holes in his study door, a big one to let the cat through and a small one for the kitten, but certainly the shunting locomotive of the Canterbury railways could have operated the fastest train on the section, and the main line engine could also as certainly have efficiently performed any shunting required. These two engines, however, bear the historical distinction of representing the first, and therefore, perhaps, the most difficult step in locomotive development in New Zealand.