The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 2, Issue 12 (April 1, 1928.)
The important development in shunting practice introduced into New Zealand as the result of the building by the Railway Department of a modern “hump” gravitation yard at Middleton to relieve goods traffic congestion at Christchurch and the adjacent stations has created much interest, and—in common with most new methods—has also been the subject of much discussion and of occasional misunderstanding.
General attention has been particularly focussed upon Middleton recently through an unfortunate fatality which occurred there, and the opinions regarding the yard expressed by the Coroner, Mr. E. D. Mosley, who presided at the succeeding inquiry.
In the first place it is necessary to point out that the accident in question was one that might have happened in any shunting yard. It could in no way be attributed to the lay-out of the yards at Middleton or to the particular methods of shunting employed there. It occurred, in fact, over six hundred feet from the “hump” (the special term applied to the bank from which the wagons at Middleton gravitate), and at a point where the wagon from which the shunter slipped could not have been travelling at much more than a walking pace. Amongst the many side-issues introduced at the Coroner's inquiry, this essential point appears to have been somewhat overlooked.
The Coroner's finding drew attention to the danger that could arise through loaders obstructing the hand-rail provided for the assistance of those working the wagons. A general instruction has been issued that these handrails must be left clear when wagons are being sheeted. Rigid enforcement of this rule presents some difficulty because so many wagons are loaded in private sidings or at stations where there is no railwayman available to do the work or exercise supervision over the loading. The matter has already received attention; but in connection therewith an opportunity is presented for drawing attention to the general safety advice given to employees, namely, that they should secure hand-hold before foot-hold when boarding moving vehicles. Certainly no shunter should attempt to ride on a brake-lever unless he can first obtain a suitable and sufficient hand-grip. The Department asks no employee to take any undue risk; rather does it constantly urge increased regard for safety precautions.
When the Coroner came to a general expression of opinion regarding the danger of shunting work at Middleton, it must be submitted that he was giving merely a layman's opinion upon expert work. He had seen the work at Middleton, but had no knowledge of general shunting work in flat yards with which to compare it. Into almost every trade or other manual employment an element of danger enters. Shunting work carries its share of danger, but it is, for example, probably less hazardous than that of the sailor, or of those engaged on bridge-work or in building operations on modern steel-framed structures.
The method of shunting at Middleton is actually better regulated and safer than that possible in ordinary shunting yards. There is a larger shunting gang to handle the wagons, and the operation has the great advantage of being all “one-way” shunting. The speed at which wagons are permitted to travel is in the hands of the shunters themselves and, given good judgment page 3 and team-work, there is no reason why shunting at Middleton under existing conditions should not be quite free from accident to either staff or rolling-stock.
Wagons are pushed up the “hump” from the west at a speed of two miles per hour. When they gravitate down the eastern side their speed at the fastest point does not exceed about ten miles per hour. Not more than six wagons are released in any one rake, and there is a period of 13 to 17 seconds between each release. In most cases wagons are dealt with singly, but there need be no increase of speed when more are released at once, for the shunter at the top of the “hump” has ample opportunity to adjust brakes accordingly. The wagons, on their way to the destined siding, pass under the care of four or five brakesmen, each brakesman piloting the wagon through his own limited territory and setting points as indicated by clear chalk markings on the ends of wagons, supplemented by verbal advice passed on from the top of the “hump.” In the last fortnight there has been no mishap of any kind to rolling-stock, a result that must be regarded as a remarkable indication of efficiency, for the number of wagons passed over the “hump” hourly at busy times averages 130, and sometimes as many as 900 wagons are dealt with between 4 p.m. and midnight.
From the business point of view it is worthy of note that the shunting methods at Middleton reduce the risk of damage to goods and livestock, assist in the expeditious despatch of trains, and reduce congestion at Christchurch where previously vexatious delays from this cause arose. In addition to this, the Department expects a considerable reduction in its rolling-stock repair bill as the result of Middleton's improved methods. Minor improvements are being introduced to the yard as local requirements develop, but right from its inception Middleton has proved a boon to Canterbury goods traffic and, in the words of an experienced, practical railwayman, with almost a railway lifetime spent in the district, it is “the best thing the Railway Department has ever done for Canterbury.”