The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 3, Issue 8 (December 1, 1928)
Superstition Among Railwaymen — The Winning Essay
Superstition Among Railwaymen
The Winning Essay
“Are New Zealand Railwaymen superstitions?” was a question asked in our September issue, a prize of two guineas being offered for the best essay bearing upon this point. We have pleasure in awarding the prize to Mr. J. C. Batt, engine-driver, Wanganui, the writer of the essay printed below.
The general root of superstition is that men observe when things hit, and not when they miss; and commit to memory the one, and forget and pass over the other.—Bacon.
It has been said that supersition is as old as the world and the sense of reason has only been developed in the human race in comparatively recent times. Argument has raged round this subject right down through the ages and those who take the side of reason contend that, if people would reason more, superstition would soon die out.
Fear of the unknown would cause no end of inconvenience in railway work, and it can be said of New Zealand railwayman that very few, if any, are superstitious.
Locomotive men on our railways will smile at the superstitions of the hard-headed footplate staffs of Doncaster, Crewe, Swindon and other Homeland engine centres. The performances of engines and men in England prove that they are the finest in the world and just how a hare crossing the track in front of a train in that country could upset the engine crew, is hard to understand out here. Evidently superstition dies hard in the older lands. It would be bad for the peace of mind of New Zealand enginemen if they had such queer notions.
Hares are plentiful in this country and the railway line is a favourite speedway for them. Frequently during a single trip a hare will be noticed on the line ahead, with its ears pricked up, watching the approaching train. It will start off at an easy gait, but begins to stretch out and crack on the pace as the engine reduces the distance. It will then run from side to side, and, if a wise old hare, will plunge into the fern by the line or climb the steep face of a cutting. But the centre of the track has a fascination for hares, and very often one is overtaken. Hawks keep a sharp watch on the line as they soar overhead, and, for these keen-eyed and destructive birds, hare makes a good meal!
I noticed, a short time ago, a black cat lying dead on the line, and it must have been seen by every engineman in the district. But I did not hear any remark about it. Just why a black cat that probably set out on a mission of good cheer for someone should be run over is hard to explain. Perhaps it was out on a Friday evening or the thirteenth day of the month! In any case all the engines are still running and nothing of any consequence has happened to any of the depot men.
It has been said of a certain engineman that he had a premonition that serious trouble would come his way and, sure enough, he was fatally injured in a runaway train smash. There is every reason to believe that, had he taken the usual precautions, and fully charged the train pipe and auxiliary reservoirs on the train before starting down the grade, he would not have met an untimely end on that particular trip. There is just a chance that a man who is conscious of a weakness in his workmanship or is absent minded, will be superstitious. He might page 23 have had some narrow escapes at times and would fear that something similar might happen again, with disastrous results. Obviously the cure for superstition of this kind is concentration on details and close attention to signals when approaching stations, and the same close attention to signals, tablet, brakes, etc., before starting out from stations. Of course, accidents happen from causes over which the victims have no control and it would be interesting to have the opinions of enginemen who have had the misfortune to be derailed by slips on the line or other causes where the consequences have been serious. It is fairly safe to state that the first warning they had was when the cow-catcher encountered the obstruction.
There is belief among some locomotive men that, if one has trouble of any kind at his work, it will be followed by two or more minor accidents. It is quite noticeable how often this works out correctly, but it is due, probably, to nothing more than coincidence. A driver may go for months and not have to write a report, and then he may have occasion to write a number of reports in quick succession, for such things as draw-gear failures, breakdowns, train delays from one cause or another, or perhaps something more serious. In most cases it will not be due to carelessness or indifferent handling of the engine or train, just what is commonly known as a run of bad luck. This belief is not peculiar to railwaymen, but is general among most people.
Any enginedriver who has been on the road at night during the bad weather of recent months would appreciate what such unfavourable conditions would mean to nervous or superstitious people. Wind, rain and hail, accompanied by blinding lightning and deafening thunder, has frequently been the experience of those operating on the night trains, and it is at such times that the men who control the throttle and brake valve realise that the reputation of the railways for safe travel is, to a large extent, in their hands. It is under these conditions that a good knowledge of the road is essential to enable the driver to run at schedule speed, or more cautiously, as circumstances determine.
A well-known ex-footplate man in England made the statement recently that there are more people killed on the roads in that country in one week than on the railways in a year. The record of the New Zealand railways is something near as good. There is, therefore, no need for those who work the railways, or those who have the good sense to avail themselves of the services provided, to be either superstitious on the one hand, or, on the other, in the slightest degree nervous.