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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 14, Issue 7 (October 2, 1939)

“The Line is Now Open for Traffic“ — An Epic Performance

page 15

The Line is Now Open for Traffic
An Epic Performance

During the recent severe snow storms in the South Island the efficiency of the Railways Department in overcoming extraordinary operating difficulties was seen at its very best.

In an interesting article in the “Otago Daily Times,” Major P. Mackenzie, of Walter Peak Station, Queenstown, states that, with his wife, he went to the Dunedin station on 25th July, to join the train for Kingston.

“On arrival at the station,” he said, “I found the station officials busy endeavouring to get our train alongside of the platform. The drifting snow and ice had blocked the points and as fast as it was being dug away, the gale was drifting it in again. After an hour's work the train finally made the platform, and commenced its journey through the snow as far as Milton.

“It was too miserable to leave the carriage even for a tempting cup of coffee. After some delay the stationmaster at Milton informed the passengers that the train would make an endeavour to reach Lumsden, but he could not guarantee this. Passengers to Queenstown were given the option of returning to Dunedin, staying at Gore, or risk getting as far as Lumsden. Knowing that the only hope of reaching Queenstown was to remain on the train, my wife and I decided to put our money on the “Iron Horse,” as the only form of transport likely to reach Kingston under such abnormal conditions.

“It was snowing heavily as we pulled out of the station, and one expanse of snow met our eyes right on to Gore, where, after a seven minutes’ wait we boarded the train for Kingston. Conditions were very cold, and the snow became deeper as we proceeded on our way.

“On reaching Lumsden (which was a mantle of white) the stationmaster announced that the train could go no farther. There was considerable snow in the streets, and it was necessary to wade through this, knee-deep, in order to reach the hotel.

“… At noon next day word was received that a train departing from Lumsden at 2.15 p.m., would endeavour to reach Kingston that night. We decided to go. Little did we know what was in store for us! The Inspector of Permanent Way (Mr. Woodcock) accompanied us and picked up five surfacemen and one volunteer at Lumsden and at Five Rivers. All went well until we passed the latter place, where the train very soon became stuck in the heavy drifts. The little gang was out like a shot and dug away the snow from the rear wheels and axle boxes of the engine and carriages. The train was then reversed and backed some 100 yards, then charged the drifts and so gained a 100 yards or so. This operation was repeated, each time making a little progress. After continuing this procedure for a couple of hours, the engine was detached and sent forward alone to break a track through. Proceeding a few miles it stuck fast in an eight foot drift near Eyre Creek, and could move neither backward nor forward. By this time it was getting dark, and the wind still howled and moaned as it swept the drifting snow on to the track which the engine had made. After clearing the snow away from the train, the little gang set off in the blizzard to dig the engine out. The guard, meanwhile, up to his waist in the snow, went to the nearest telegraph lines with his portable telephone, to advise Lumsden of our plight. He appealed for another engine to be sent, to push our train on to the rear of the engine which was stuck, and so assist in withdrawing it from the drift. No engine being available, there was nothing to do but carry on because it was impossible to back the train to Lumsden. The track was filling in fast with drifting snow behind the train, and the scene outside our carriage was a very bleak one indeed. I cannot find words to describe the wretched conditions under which the whole of the train crew was obliged to work.

(Photo., D. Matheson).A relief train proceeding through deep snow in Central Otago.

(Photo., D. Matheson).
A relief train proceeding through deep snow in Central Otago.

“After an hour's work the engine was freed and returned to the train. Off we went again and after many delays the train reached the big drift where the engine had stuck. It was now 11 p.m. The train had travelled only eleven miles and had used up a considerable quantity of the available coal. A further appeal was made to Lumsden for another engine. As this could not be granted there was nothing which could be done but spend the night in the train. There was just enough coal left to heat the carriages until mid-day next day, but insufficient water to last till daylight. Eyre Creek was 150 yards away, and the engine slowly went forward until this was reached. Then in the cold and page 16 darkness, the engine crew bucketed hundreds of gallons of water from the creek into the engine. At midnight this job was completed and the engine was again attached to the train, and the welcome steam turned on to the carriages. The men, coated with snow and ice, returned to the carriages and gallantly offered to make a track to a farmhouse some distance away, so that my wife might have a comfortable bed. This most generous offer was firmly refused. At this stage the engine driver came into the shelter for the first time. All settled down for the night to thaw out and snatch what sleep might come their way.

“The small train party comprising eleven persons performed a task that, for sheer determination against the greatest odds and under the very worst and most miserable conditions imaginable, will rank as one of the greatest achievements of the New Zealand Railways. Generous to a degree these men were more solicitous for the comfort of their two passengers than for their own discomforts. They shared with us their only light and scanty rations of cakes and black tea. I think it is only right and bare justice that the names of these men should be recorded. They are: Inspector of Permanent Way, J. Woodcock; guard, J. McArthur; engine-driver, T. Bulman; fireman, A. D. C. McMurtrie; ganger, A. G. Small; porter, R. Stuck; surfaceman, J. Stewart; surfaceman, S. Burdon; surfaceman, H. Thomas; surfaceman, G. Dorricot; surfaceman, R. Cox; volunteer, J. McKay.

“I mention these officers and men specially because owing to their small number they had to fight continuously against the most cruel odds. They came unprepared for such severe conditions and actually were willing to continue all night in order to assist the relief train when it arrived.

“The relief train with two engines and a van, with a store of provisions, arrived at 11 a.m. and immediately attached itself to our marooned train. A large gang of men from the relief train meanwhile cleared the snow from the siding, and with three engines at work our train was hauled back to the little station. Our engine with some carriages was shunted to the side and later went back to Lumsden with the crew of the night before, less the Inspector who appeared to require neither rest nor sleep.

“By noon we were away on the relief train with a powerful engine in front and another in the rear, so that it could withdraw itself from the drifts when the forward engine became stuck fast. We ploughed our way along in great style to Athol with a great wave of snow curling out from the engine on both sides. It was a sight worth going far to see. A stop was made at Athol to take aboard a dozen surfacemen. There the snow was very deep and continued in one mass up the sides of the houses and right over the tops.

“When the train moved off from the station it proceeded thirty yards or so and came to a sudden stop. The large gang of men went out with their shovels, and in half an hour another start was attempted, but all to no purpose. The snow was in hard blocks everywhere under the train, and the rails were gripped with solid ice. Out went the gang again and after chipping the ice from the rails, the train slowly moved off to come to another dead stop at Nokomai siding where the drifts were exceedingly deep. It was feared that further progress would be impossible, but after the gang had toiled and struggled with the deep frozen snow, a track was made through the deepest parts. The train then drew back and charged. She staggered and slowed down and then, when all seemed lost, she gradually gathered speed and ploughed a magnificent trench to Garston, where further trouble was expected in the deep cuttings just beyond the siding.

“The forward engine was detached and raced forward at full speed, only to go clean out of sight in a ten foot drift. The gang was sent forward again, and after an hour's work the engine was freed and withdrawn with the aid of the rear engine. It was now getting dark and a formidable task lay ahead. There was nothing for it but to return to Lumsden to give the men a hot meal and some sleep, replenish the coal supplies, and secure extra men.

(Photo., D. Matheson). Clearing away a drift in front of the locomotive in one of the cuttings on the Central Otago line.

(Photo., D. Matheson).
Clearing away a drift in front of the locomotive in one of the cuttings on the Central Otago line.

“Next day the train was back at Garston with sixty men, including our comrades of the marooned train. By 1 o'clock the men had cleared the line beyond Fairlight Station where the snow was ten feet deep in the cuttings. The rear engine was obliged to return to Athol, for water, and we were able to join this part of the train on its return journey and proceed to the field of operations. The large relief gang must have worked exceedingly hard to have cleared with the shovel such a huge quantity of snow. The method adopted from Fairlight onward was to dig away the deeper drifts with longhandled shovels and then for the forward engine to break through the lighter drifts, and the rear engine to bring the train along. This method of leap-frogging continued the whole of the afternoon. At 5.30 p.m. word was passed down the train that a gang had cleared the line from the Kingston end to the top of the hill overlooking the Lake. Alas, this was not so! Drift after drift was encountered and cleared away. Even half a mile from Kingston Station the engine became stuck in a drift. The gang had again to turn out in the darkness, in a cold drizzling rain, for half an hour's shovelling. Then away went the forward engine once more, and fifteen minutes later, three hearty whistles were heard at the Kingston Railway Station. These were answered by two sets of three cheers of whistles from the rear engine. The train drew into the Kingston Railway Station at 6.15 p.m., after one of the most sensational railway journeys in the history of New Zealand.”

page 17
(Rly. Publicity photos.) The two railway carriages (6) were recently fitted out for the use of the Governor-General on the New Zealand Railways. Illustration No. 1 shows the drawing-room, (2) the bath-room, (3) the kitchen with gas stove, frigidaire and other fittings, (4) the dining-room, and (5) one of the Vice-Regal staterooms.

(Rly. Publicity photos.)
The two railway carriages (6) were recently fitted out for the use of the Governor-General on the New Zealand Railways. Illustration No. 1 shows the drawing-room, (2) the bath-room, (3) the kitchen with gas stove, frigidaire and other fittings, (4) the dining-room, and (5) one of the Vice-Regal staterooms.