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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 2, Issue 11 (March 1, 1928)

Safety on the Railways

page 6

Safety on the Railways.

It has always seemed to me that one of the most interesting phases of railway operating is the safety system which the experience of years has evolved for the benefit of the public travelling by rail. For that reason I have chosen—as President Coolidge might have said had he been in a different humour—to speak upon the subject of “Safety on the Railways.”

In these high-speed days, when more can be done in a given time than ever before, it is natural that human life should be more highly prized than in the past. So thought is concentrated, and vast sums expended in making life safe for humanity.

The progress of the medical profession in the arts of saving and prolonging existence ranks among the chief wonders of our modern times. But with all this love of life has come also a recklessness of danger that is both difficult to understand and hard to circumvent. We save life in the hospital, to smash it in the street! In fact, the attitude of a good many towards self-preservation is that of a boy with a toy baloon. He wouldn't—not for anything—stick a pin in it, but he blows and blows till it bursts.

With added joys in life have come greater risks—many of them inevitable; but it is little use asking the wonder-working monkey-gland chief, Voronoff, to make your life longer one day, if you try to beat a train at a railway crossing the next.

On the Wellington-Hutt line—under 3-position signal protection.

On the Wellington-Hutt line—under 3-position signal protection.

Safety Training Brings Results.

When a youth enters the Railway service of this Dominion, raw, and in his most receptive mood, the first thing he receives is a Kule Book, and the first line in that book states that “The First and Most Important Duty of Every Member is to provide for the Safety of the Public.”

That slogan is repeated at the head of the second page, and of the third page, and of every other one of the 154 pages in the book. It is the battle-cry of the railways. It is impressed upon the staff upon every possible occasion, and creates the “public safety” atmosphere within which the whole of their work must be done.

The result is indicated in the record of last year's operating, when not one single fatal accident occurred to any of the 26 million passengers carried. Does the result surprise you! Well, immunity of this kind does not come by luck! Sound management and safe practice lie at the back of it. While the human factor in the realm of accidents cannot be altogether eliminated, it can be—and has been—minimised, by constant improvements in safety appliances of the fool-proof variety, and by the perfecting of various transport checks.

A Proud Record.

An idea of what has been accomplished on our system in comparatively recent years may be gathered from the following table of safety progress compiled from the Department's annual Statements to Parliament:—

Year 1905, number of passengers carried, 8½ million (exclusive of season ticket holders); number injured, 19 (10 fatally); 1915, 23½ millions, 13 (3 fatally); 1927, 26 million, 3 (none fatally).

Now what accounts for this general tendency towards a decrease in the number of accidents to passengers in spite of an increasing passenger traffic! The men on the railways, twenty years ago, were probably—like the “All Blacks”—as good in their time, as are those of to-day. The trains were slower and fewer. The engines, and their loads, were lighter. The tracks were less congested and time was not so much of the essence of the contract.

For in 1905 the “tablet” system had not come into general operation. There was no “biscuit” held by a driver as tangible evidence of his right of road, and taken from a machine so constructed page 7 structed that no other similar authority could be obtained until the one already received had fulfilled its purpose and been withdrawn from circulation. The safety which passengers have secured from the Tyer's Tablet System cannot be over-estimated. It has been to safety, what soap is to cleanliness, or blacking is to boots. It has stood their friend against the possibility of mixed crossing orders, against errors at junctions regarding track precedence, against written or printed mistakes, and against the chance of collision between one train and another arising from hold-ups to services through flood, or storm, or rush traffic.

“Tablet” Protection.

The confidence which the electric tablet system lends to train operators is, in itself, a further aid to safe transit, for all who work the tablets know that the system does effectually accomplish its purpose, that of preventing more than one train being between any two tablet stations at the same time, and, when no train is in the section between the tablet stations, permitting of a train being started from either end. Short of double-tracking and one-way traffic, no system could provide greater security against the possibility of head-on train collisions between stations.

Another safety mechanical contrivance which is now applied to all the railway rolling-stock in this country, is the Westinghouse brake. In its adoption of this help towards life preservation, New Zealand was (and still is) ahead of many Continental countries.

The Westinghouse brake is an emanation of pure genius, and the art of it lies in the fact that power is required from the engine to lift the brakes on the vehicles composing the train, so that with any failure of this power, the brakes are automatically applied. Thus, should a train part through the couplings breaking, the resultant break in the Westinghouse pipe-connection releases the compressed air in the train pipe, and the air in the reservoirs of the braking-gear of all vehicles presses the brakes hard on. Consider the effect of applying the Westinghouse brake of a ten coach train, weighing altogether something like 500 tons. The brakes bite onto every one of the train's hundred wheels, under the powerful impetus of compressed air, and the hurtling mass of metal, travelling at a speed of 40 or 50 miles an hour, is brought up standing, in little more than its own length.

What New Zealand owes to the Westinghouse brake it would be difficult to estimate, but the general effect has been to add enormously to the safety of train travel.

Then, just in case of accident, every guard's van has its own fire-extinguisher, its ambulance box, its case of tools, and its supply of detonators. If a train fails on an unprotected section, the detonators are used on the rails some distance before and behind the breakdown, to warn any approaching train that the line ahead is blocked.

The system of interlocking railway yards has been extended to all the busy centres. Under it the signals, and the various points at the station interlocked, are so arranged that a “clear” signal cannot be given for a train to come into the yard unless all the points are properly set and interlocked for its approach. The responsibility still rests upon a signalman to see that the track for the approaching train is clear, but having done that, the fact that the signal can be pulled to “clear” is a definite assurance that all the relative points are properly “set.”

Then, at stations where standard mechanical or electrical interlocking has not yet been found necessary, a species of simplified interlocking has been achieved under the “Woods locks” system. Prior to its introduction, the question which every stationmaster at a wayside station had to keep in mind, before signalling in a train, was “are the main line points locked”? There was no absolute check on this, and the only safe course was to go and see; a task which meant, in some cases, wearing out boot leather over the rough ballast in a walk of several hundred yards, the possible waste of time just before a train was due, and also waste of energy if the points were found to be—as they should be,—properly locked. The key of the Woods lock, however, cannot be removed from the main line points unless they are locked, and, as the same key is required to manipulate the semaphore to signal the train in, it is obvious that if the key is available for the signal, the points must be locked.

The latest phase of signalling development is the automatic, under which automatic signals are track-circuited in such a way that the position of the signal is regulated by the trains passing over the section of track to which it relates. By the position (or colour) of the signal, the driver knows whether he may go full speed ahead (that's the green), slow down to keep his page 8 distance from another train (that's the orange), or stop on account of the track being blocked (that's the red).

Distant control of main line points is now being introduced at various way-stations, the points being motor-worked, the control operating, if required—and with perfect safety—up to a distance of over half-a-mile from the signal cabin.

The condition of the track and the speed of trains are two other facts upon which safety in transit depends. That the tracks in New Zealand are kept in excellent order is recognised; but it is not so well known that the Fay-Raven Commission expressed the opinion that the permanent way was kept even at a higher standard than the requirements demanded. There has, however, been some publicity given to the opinions of one or two non-professional visitors from overseas, that some of the train speeds, over certain portions of the track, are too high. In reply to this I would say that train schedule speeds everywhere are limited by certain maxima applicable to each portion of the line, the grades and curves being allowed for with meticulous exactness and in strict accordance with what engineering practice the world over has proved to be within such limits as are necessary to provide an ample margin of safety. Predictions of disaster are as unfounded as those old-time ones that said a ship would sink because it was made of iron; or the sayings of later critics who have held, without the slightest pretence to engineering knowledge, and in all the valour of ignorance, that London Bridge was too weak, or the Wool-worth building too high, for safety.

There are some things that no safety system can provide against—earthquakes and cloud-bursts, and the acts of King's enemies. The possibility of human carelessness or mental aberration cannot be entirely eliminated. But, these things aside, you can see there is no danger in travel by train under the conditions provided by the Railway Department in this country.

It is natural, in a talk on safety by train that the road crossing problem should be taken into account.

Photo. W. W. Stewart. Holiday Crowds Waiting On Auckland Station.

Photo. W. W. Stewart.
Holiday Crowds Waiting On Auckland Station.

Now, according to the legal theory of road use, the foot passenger has “the right of road.” But if you are walking you don't stop to enforce this right. When the motorist toots, you skip. If you are driving a car, you expect the pedestrian page 8 to skip. It is he who will be hurt if he doesn't. But when the motorist comes to a railway crossing, he must change his attitude; and it well may be that an all-pervading belief in the efficacy of a motor horn, and the inability to see that a toot won't scare a train, accounts for most of the level crossing accidents.

One should note here that it is the increased use made of the rail for travelling that has encouraged the introduction of its modern safety methods. The more the railways are used, the greater the safety by train becomes, for increased rail traffic invariably means further improvements in the safety system of our Railways.

When you make a train trip, it is like an oasis of safety in a desert of danger. I must confess, after seeing something of the inner workings of the Railway safety system, that the romance attaching to the safety it provides makes me feel almost lyrical.

Once aboard the train, the electric spark of the railway signal-towers tells that your train is on the wing. The surfaceman, the ganger, the workshops staff; the civil, the electrical and the mechanical engineer; the signalman, the station-master, the driver and the guard, have all conspired to make your journey safe.

The guardians of the metal track cry “right-of-way” for the queen of the road. Then switches click, the roads are set, and “two two nine”—the “Limited” crack—goes speeding through the night. Signals dip and swing to “clear” as the care-free passengers are borne along on the track of steel, smoothly, swiftly, safely to their journey's end.

View Of Opunake Beach, Taranaki. [Photo N.Z. Publicity Department.] A record excursion was run recently from Wanganui to Opunake, over 700 people travelling by excursion train.

View Of Opunake Beach, Taranaki.
[Photo N.Z. Publicity Department.]
A record excursion was run recently from Wanganui to Opunake, over 700 people travelling by excursion train.