The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 2 (May 1, 1939)
Thirty Years on the Footplate
Low thunder reverberates in the distance, assuming gigantic proportions as the sudden light far down the grade rapidly develops into a hurtling monster of gleaming metal, driving pistons, lighted windows and swaying coaches. With a confused blur of faces, carriage after carriage flashes by, followed abruptly by red tail-lights, which diminish in brightness, flicker, and are in turn swallowed up by the enfolding darkness.
The “Limited”—No. 229—with its cosmopolitan living freight, has passed, speeding on its long journey south. Vague shadows hover intermittently at steam-darkened windows, and in the long coaches passengers read or doze; experienced travellers are prosaically sleeping as if in their own beds.
What hope, ambition, or sorrow, may be locked in the breast of each of these night voyagers, cleaving the darkness in the wake of a Juggernaut! Borne swiftly over a bridge, they roar, suddenly through a tunnel, or click rhythmically along foothills. A vibrant whistle sounds and faces peer from windows at startled stock in flight.
Now, from some remote dwelling or farmhouse, a lonely light appears, in that fleeting countryside, and the occupant automatically checks his clock. “It's the Limited,” he murmurs to the drowsily stirring form beside him, while on the footplate of that swaying cab, two men control the leaping, roaring monster of power and speed. The safety of the long train lies in their hands; each individual life in those following coaches is their responsibility.
“What's your total?” is the query shouted at one busy station.
“Ten, total,” laconically calls the driver of a long train.
Thirty years on the footplate! Thirty years in which driver and fireman have had the handling of many engines, and known affection for some few. Mr. M. Johnston, well-known Rugby referee and administrator, and popular masseur of the victorious 1934 All Black Rugby representatives, looks back over a full thirty years of Railway service.
High Winds and Hard Grades.
“Firing on the ‘O’ class goods was a breezy job in the heavy winds of the Wairarapa,” smiled “Massa” Johnston. “I soon realised why the driver had advised me to tie down my overalls on that footplate. And I knew the reason for the peculiar shape of the ‘onesided’ young trees along the track.”
“The Palmerston North depot of twenty-five years ago might be described, literally, as a dumping ground,” recalled Mr. Johnston. “From the ‘W's’ to the very early types, almost every known class of engine was represented. It was a relief to train crews when the first superheated type was introduced at this depot, proving far superior to the old saturated steam engine.”
“Massa” Johnston spoke of the impressive scene at Awapuni Racecourse when the “Main Body” was encamped. As a fireman of the troop-trains, he has not forgotten the busy week of the transportation to Wellington.
Four mixed trains conveyed a number of troops and horses to Thorndon Station one fateful Monday, three similar trains running on the Tuesday, and a further four on the Wednesday. After firing on the long strenuous journeys of Monday and Wednesday, “Massa” returned again to Wellington on Thursday's excursion train which brought friends and relations to attend the enthusiastic public farewell at Newtown Park.
On the Main Trunk.
Early in 1916, Mr. Johnston was transferred to Ohakune as fireman and acting-driver. He was attached to this depot of the Main Trunk line for more than ten years, working on engines of the “X” class, the heaviest in New Zealand, up to that time. To Taumarunui or Taihape he journeyed on mixed or goods trains, and for a number of years after the War was firing on the “First Express,” No. 221, now superseded by No. 227.
The heavy pull to Waiouru, New Zealand's highest station, was accomplished over grades that were steep and long. Then down and down on the continued slope to Taihape. It was driver Street and fireman Johnston who ran the first timetable train when the Raetihi branch line was officially opened by the Rt. Hon. W. F. Massey, P.C., then Prime Minister.
The Changing Years.
They knew the tilling of the lowlands and the harvesting of golden grain. They saw the bushland slowly recede, leaving a trail of stumps and discarded logs. They watched rough settlements along the line become thriving townships, marking each new cottage near the embankment, each small farm which sprang up. Here they looked for a cheerily waving apron in a laughing house-wife's hand, or the merry shout of an eager child—and one day perhaps to gaze on lowered blinds which told their own mute tale of tragedy.
They drove their charge together, humouring her in her miles of achievement, in harmony with her working. They coaxed her up the long grades and let her have her head on the plains, checked her around the curves and nursed her along the up and down gradients. With real affection they regarded her, and with regret passed on to other spheres of work.
Following his promotion to driver, Mr. Johnston recalls the installation of the first electric headlights on the “Night Cat,” whose shrill cry was a familiar night sound to settlers of many townships.
Winter brought a fantastic unreality to the departure from Ohakune in the cab of an engine fitted with snow ploughs and brushes. The rails, and all page 28page 29
The dreaded influenza epidemic of 1918 exacted a heavy toll, and at Ohakune a temporary hospital for Railway employees was opened in the District Traffic Manager's residence, then vacant. A large proportion of the staff was on the sick list, and the few remaining men endeavoured to maintain a skeleton service of necessary trains.
The creditable efforts of such train crews as driver Cornish, and fireman Wolff, were responsible for a good deal of the maintained schedule, a crew often taking out one train after another and remaining on duty for 15 or 16 hours per day. As acting-depot foreman, cheery “Old Tom” Barrowman is well remembered.
Perhaps the most heroic figure to the men of Ohakune in that dreadful time was Nurse Drummond, only daughter of the Rangataua Workshops Manager. The young nurse was holidaying at home when the grim epidemic seized its first victims, and she readily volunteered her services.
She was to become a veritable Florence Nightingale to her patients and gain the respect and affection of the many Railway employees whom she nursed back to health. Later, the gallant little nurse herself fatally contracted the disease, and her untimely death was mourned by the whole community. The presence of white-faced semi-convalescents brought to the final graveside scene all the tragic poignancy of the passing of a warm young life.
Mr. Johnston spoke of the famous Raurimu Spiral, whose tortuous ascent of 500 feet in five miles he negotiated with express or goods trains on countless occasions, in times ranging from an average of 30 minutes to delayed periods of 2 ½ hours. On early morning trips the magnificent scenery was sometimes obscured by drizzling rain, and bewildering changes of climate were probable as higher altitudes were reached.
With winter's approach, the scenery took on a wilder, bleaker aspect of bush tones in green, and in the sombre hues of great railway cuttings, gaping dark as wounds in towering walls of rock. The steady ominous crackling of bush fires at night would precede many a proud tree's toppling crash into hungry unflung arms of flame.
New Zealanders and overseas visitors are intensely aware of the arresting charm of New Zealand scenery, its character indigenous, its contrasts both vivid and subtle. In earlier days, before the building of the spacious Chateau, when National Park had not yet become the glorious winter playground of New Zealand, “Massa” Johnston and his mates had realised the wonder and the beauty of this mountain scenery.
On a clear day they had, from Waimarino, a magnificient view of the three snow-capped giants, Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe, and Tongariro. Nearby, the page 30 grandeur of Ruapehu, darkly tree-clad to the snow-line, with Ngauruhoe high and haughty in the distance, and Tongariro brooding in the background.
The run to Waimarino has held one breath-taking glorious moment for many an appreciative train crew. On Makatote Viaduct where the twin rails passed above the bush-covered gorge, 260 feet below, the train hovered in the shadow of grand old Ruapehu—a minute and creeping caterpillar suspended ‘twixt earth and sky. Then in one fleeting moment came a far clear glimpse of the remote majesty of Egmont, one of Nature's sudden flashes of incomparable beauty.
Mr. Johnston's transfer to Auckland in 1926 enabled his growing family to attend secondary schools of the city. In the 12 years of his Auckland service, he watched the rapid expansion of the city's outskirts and their growth to exclusive suburbs. From Auckland depot he had driven many trains and handled various classes of engine until his retirement in June, 1938.
With the strain of night-work at continued speed, a strain increased by the number of trains and crossings on the “road,” drivers of the “Limited” and the Expresses have attained a high standard of efficiency.
Of the thirty powerful “K” class locomotives in the North Island, ten are attached to the Auckland depot. These modern engines average 136 tons, as compared with the 84 tons of the older “AB's,” and increased power is certainly needed to handle the greater weight of the air-conditioned cars of to-day.
As New Zealanders, we have many reasons to be proud of our National Service, whose thin brown lines are the pulsating transport and commerce arteries of the Dominion's economic life. The pictured “K” locomotive inspires a parting thought of the efficient designers and builders in Railway Workshops throughout the country, who are the unseen creators of each modern engineering masterpiece that to-day worthily upholds the Service tradition: Safety First.”