Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 6, Issue 7 (February 1, 1932.)

Modern Magic of Train Control — Electric Touch with the Traffic

page 44

Modern Magic of Train Control
Electric Touch with the Traffic

Oh, the wild engine!” was the fervent phrase of Harold Munro, in a stirring song of the “loco.” At the moment of writing, the engine was to him a monster more spirited and terrible than the war-horse of the Scriptures, Yet the railway engine is really tamer than a child's pet rabbit, for within the walls of the hutch the rabbit is free to dance and prance, to ramp and romp. No such liberty for the engine. A fettered slave on its narrow way, it is forced to obey a masterful driver, and cannot even snort without his permission. But the driver himself has his own master, the timetable; he is in the clutch of the clock; the pitiless hands hold him to a schedule.

Think of the trains running by day and night between Wellington and Wanganui and their links with the country's life— man and his animals, his goods and chattels; the hustle and bustle at stations; the roaring rush over the flats, and the puffing up the grades. From a high aeroplane the trains would look like big centipedes, wandering without noticeable purpose, to and fro. Actually they may be better compared with the processionary caterpillar, which always trails from its home a silken line of safety.

Night lights at Auckland Station—a photographic study by W. W. Stewart.

Night lights at Auckland Station—a photographic study by W. W. Stewart.

A Magician and His Selector-telephone.

Think of a little room, off Bunny Street, Wellington. A magician, known as a train controller is at a desk, with a pencil poised over a chart, facing the switches of a selector-telephone; it is a very exclusive instrument, which does not lend itself to social chatter or idle gossip. One thin wire ties all the stations of the Wellington-Wanganui line to that “selector,” a very ingenious contrivance. At the touch of the controller it chooses the station required, and restricts the contact to that station so that any information passing over the wire cannot be received by other stations. This is one of the Department's many safeguards against mistakes and confusion. At any time of the day or night the train-controller can speak page 45 to any station, and any station can speak to him. Speech! Short speeches, yes, but plenty of them. The calling is constant; to and fro the voices go across the miles of country.

Anyone who walks into the train-control room at any hour of the day or night will see a man at the table, very
Train-Control Operations on the N.Z.R. Mr. A. C. Thomson, train-control officer, at his desk in Wellington.

Train-Control Operations on the N.Z.R.
Mr. A. C. Thomson, train-control officer, at his desk in Wellington.

alert, very quick, very accurate. There are four six-hour shifts, but it is more than a six-hour day for each of the officers, as the changing of shifts requires each man to arrive ahead of his scheduled time and to stay a while at the end. The shifts are rotated, so that each man has his turns of day and night duty.

A Man's Job.

A casual onlooker's impression of train-control is that it is not the ideal job for a livery, nervy man; not a task for a dreamy poet or an absent minded professor. This insistent duty, with its ceaseless telephoning and charting, calls for a sturdy worker, proof against irritation, vexation, annoyance, and other troubles which would cause explosiveness in the average person.

Consider the chart, how it grows! At the beginning it is a diagram of the timetable from midnight to midnight, showing two-minute spaces between each pair of the 720 vertical lines. A horizontal line runs to each station, and the lines of the scheduled trains traverse the sheet diagonally. Well, if everything happened perfectly in accordance with time-table anticipation, the controller's coloured pencil would move unswervingly along the black lines of the trains but, even when man has taken the utmost precautions to ensure running on time, Nature may intervene with a drizzling rain to grease the rails, or some other unavoidable incident will push the controller's time line away from, the charted one. Whatever may be the cause of the deviation from the time-table, it is shown on the chart, and the cause is noted. Thus each day's chart becomes a kind of biography of the day's trains—very graphic page 46 tabloid history for the expert eyes of railway men.

Train Control and the Safety Factor.

Lounging cosily in your carriage reading, musing, dozing, or glancing at the moving pictures of pleasant farms, rivers, forests and mountains, you have taken for granted that the railway folk will stick to their principle of “Safety, Comfort, Economy.” You believe their statement
Wellington-Wanganui. Train-Control Diagram. Explanatory particulars of the above diagram are given in the accompanying letterpress.

Wellington-Wanganui. Train-Control Diagram.
Explanatory particulars of the above diagram are given in the accompanying letterpress.

that they have not killed one of their 150 million passengers during the past six years, and you feel sure they will not be cruel enough to make a start on you. The song of the “tame tattoon” in the axle-boxes is very soothing, and you have cheerfully forgotten the slump. It's a good world after all—very nice to have some experts working for you while the miles fly by.

Yes, they are working. They gave much thought to your train before it started, and also to the line and all else. That little room off Bunny Street has a tab on your train all the time. The controller has followed you on his chart; he has gone several stations ahead, for he is working hard to give your train the quickest possible crossing at a loop on the single track.

Perhaps, when your train has unexpectedly halted ten minutes or more on a siding you have thought—well, you have thought * * ? ? ! !; and you have gone on to exchange explosions with a fellow-passenger. One has alleged that the enginedriver and the fireman have gone off fishing, and the other has asserted that the guard is playing two-up with a porter in a quiet corner. You would quickly apologise for such thoughts and remarks if you could hear the voices passing to and fro on the wire that joins the train-control office with the stations. You would know that the delay was for your safety, and that your train moved at the earliest possible moment after the stop.

Railwaymen, indeed, hate a hitch; they keenly dislike a delay, for the time-sense is in their brain and brawn. You know the tradition about His Majesty's mails. There is even more concern for His Majesty's subjects when they travel by rail.

Goods trains in the Wellington-Wanganui district are mainly pilgrims of the night. Between midnight and 7 a.m. they look for a right-of-way when passenger trains are least likely to hinder them. One thinks of them creeping furtively from cover in the stilly night, and page 47 making the best of their nocturnal opportunity while the going is good. Recently, in those first seven hours of the working day—midnight to 7 a.m.—eight trains came into Wellington on the Main Trunk line, carrying a total of 2,500 tons of goods, chiefly live stock and perishable produce.

Watching a train-controller at work reminds you of a game of chess. The trains are his pieces, which he moves or checks in accordance with the flow of information through the ether. His little room is the clearing-house; he is the dictator of the day, and his decisions are necessarily quick. He works on the rule of the quickest passage for the most important trains.

A Train-controller's Activities.

In various ways the train-control system works to advantage with passenger and goods traffic, as the following extract from the instructions to officers dictates:

“The Control Officers will undertake the following duties:—

Direct the movement of all trains, rearranging crossings when necessary.

Direct the movement of all tonnage offering, attending specially to the prompt transit of live stock, perishables, or other urgent goods.

Check engine arrangements to ensure that power ordered is sufficient to meet requirements.

Cancel unnecessary trains when anticipated tonnage does not eventuate, and make provision for additional trains when necessity arises.

Early Attempts at Train-Control. A humourist's impression.

Early Attempts at Train-Control.
A humourist's impression.

Advise adjacent districts how connecting services are running, and supply particulars of the outward tonnage being landed. Obtain similar information in respect of inward trains and tonnage affecting their own district.

Keep in touch with stations and terminals with a view to obtaining full information regarding tonnage offering.

Advise stations in good time particulars of tonnage to be detached.

Obtain particulars of any important arrangements being made by Wagon Supply Office, and see that such arrangements are duly carried out.

Keep a check on trainmen's hours, with a view to seeing that they are kept within the prescribed limits, and advise Locomotive Depots concerned promptly of any variations made to drivers' runs or to engine runs.

Make suitable arrangements in connection with all train failures, train mishaps, or other emergency situations that may arise.”

So much for instructions, which show wide swathes of work for the Train Controllers, but in practice the scope of service is still greater, for in the managing of many trains an old proverb asserts itself: “Circumstances alter cases.” A glance at a file of a month's charts satisfies a peruser that boredom and sluggishness cannot enter that little room off Bunny Street.

page break